What is Diet Culture and Anti-dieting?

 Our dietitian’s book club just finished reading a new book about diet culture and anti-dieting. We spent the last 11 weeks reading and discussing this groundbreaking book in an effort to understand more about the reasons why diets and weight loss are so deeply entrenched in our culture.

If you are like most people, you have probably tried a diet at some point during your life. And, like most people, you probably found dieting to be frustrating and ineffective, blaming yourself for your “lack of willpower.” What you may not have realized is that you weren’t alone, and that it wasn’t your fault. Studies have shown that over 90% of people who lose weight with dieting will regain the weight within 5 years– overwhelming evidence that diets and weight loss interventions fail people, not the other way around. This then begs the important question: If diets are so tragically ineffective, why do we continue to follow them?

Kaitlin Eckstein reading diet culture book

The Roots of Diet Culture

Harrison explores this question and more, starting with a detailed history of the roots of diet culture and the multibillion-dollar industries that profit from it.

Harrison explains that for most of human existence, no one thought about restricting their diet to lose weight, nor did they regard fatness as a physical or moral shortcoming. Weight gain over one’s lifetime was considered a normal and natural part of aging. While it is common practice today to own a scale and monitor your weight from the comfort of your own home, it wasn’t until the early 1900’s that doctors even had scales in their offices. With the advent of BMI and the life insurance industry, doctors began to feel pressure to document their patients’ weights or use BMI as a means to quantify health.

From the first ever “diet book” to the women’s liberation movement and the evolution of increasingly unattainable beauty standards, Harrison elucidates how diet culture is rooted in both classism, racism, and sexism. In just over 150 years since its birth, diet culture has become deeply embedded in our daily lives, often without our knowledge or consent.

How do we define diet culture today? Harrison refers to it as a system of beliefs that equates thinness with health and moral value, and demonizes certain ways of eating while praising others. Defining diet culture is often much easier than identifying it. Whereas name-brand diets are relatively easy to spot (think Slim Fast, Weight Watchers, or Jenny Craig) the more insidious offenders of diet culture can masquerade as health, wellness, or fitness. Today, diet culture has created the rhetoric “It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle!” A statement that serves to promote the idea that dieting behaviors and weight loss are the only acceptable ways to achieve a happy, healthy, balanced life.

Kristin Jenkins reading Anti-diet

How Diet Culture Steals from You

Harrison goes on to explain how diet culture can steal your time, well-being and happiness. Without giving too much away (I hope after reading this you will purchase a copy of your own to read!), I wanted to share some of what I, and the women of our book club, think are Harrison’s most interesting and surprising revelations.

1. The dieter’s risk of developing an eating disorder can be 8x higher than that of non-dieters.

This fact serves as an example of how obsessing over food rules can do more harm than good for your physical and mental health. This is contrary to what diet culture would have you believe. The privileges associated with being in a smaller body in our culture are a driving force behind disordered eating patterns– eating patterns that are misleadingly glorified as being morally superior. This reiterates the importance of eliminating weight stigma in our culture.

2. Weight stigma is an independent risk factor for diabetes and heart disease, regardless of body size.

Weight stigma is a confounding variable in many studies that associate being in a larger body with certain health conditions. This suggests that the systemic discrimination that individuals in larger bodies experience is more damaging to health outcomes than simply being “overweight.” One reason weight stigma is so harmful is its effect on chronic stress, which takes a significant and well-documented physical toll on the body.

3. Weight cycling is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular problems and higher mortality.

Weight cycling, more commonly known as yo-yo dieting or the loss and regain of weight repeatedly over time, can seriously damage your health. Weight cycling leads to fluctuations in blood pressure, heart rate, kidney filtration rate, blood sugar and blood lipids, which are all known risk factors of cardiovascular issues.


Liz Kerr reading diet culture book

4. Emotional eating is a response to the deprivation caused by dieting.

Binge eating or emotional eating in response to a diet is a normal biological process. When you are restricted or deprived of food, your body turns up the hunger signals because it wants you to survive! It’s important to know that there is nothing wrong with you if you eat in response to an emotion or restriction; it’s a normal response to dieting.

5. Intuitive eaters have better health outcomes including lower cardiovascular disease risk, decreased triglyceride levels, lower rates of disordered eating, and are less likely to feel out of control with food, among other things.

Making peace with what we eat can actually help improve our physical and emotional health. Intuitive eaters don’t have any food rules and are in tune with their body’s needs. This allows them not to feel guilty for eating their favorite foods because there are no food rules

Lessons Learned

So what can we all learn from Christy Harrison’s Anti-Diet book? Diet culture is deeply embedded in our society and affects all of our daily lives in ways that we may not even be acutely aware of. Whether you struggle personally with your weight and food choices or not, it’s important to acknowledge the existence of diet culture and the ways in which it shapes our collective perception of body diversity, nutrition, and health. In doing so, we can all play a role in dismantling a system of oppression built on classism, racism, and fatphobia.

For the millions that do struggle with their weight and food choices, acknowledging diet culture can be the first step to food freedom and body peace. Obsessing over what we eat is wasting our time, stealing our money, harming our health, and limiting our happiness. There is a better way.

Within the Health at Every Size paradigm, we can use the principles of intuitive eating to develop a healthy relationship with food and our bodies. This process starts with rejecting all things diets and diet culture, and accepting the idea that there never was, and never will be, a next great diet. I think that Harrison’s book serves as an excellent accompaniment to one’s journey into ditching diet culture for good and embracing intuitive eating for life-long success.

You can learn more about intuitive eating by reading our blog. If you want to learn more about this book or how to develop a healthy relationship with food, please reach out to us!

Rebecca Bitzer reading diet culture book

-Blog contributions by Kristin Jenkins, our nutrition intern who participated in our 11-week book club discussing  the Anti-diet book.

Dietitian Liz works with a variety of clients including those with diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, hypothyroidism, kidney disease and those interested in learning about balanced eating and cooking.