Diet Culture Is Bad For Our Health

It’s that time again: a new season of The Biggest Loser is on the air in Australia. That means that even for those of us who would never willingly watch an episode of this heinous circus of self-loathing, the adverts are everywhere. I saw one at the train station yesterday. It is awful.

I don’t want to talk about the ways in which the show is dangerous for its participants, some of whom end up urinating blood. I don’t need to tell you it peddles damaging misinformation about health and weight, in a manner so disingenuous that even other anti-fat fitness professionals condemn it. I don’t even need to tell you how suspicious it is that the show doesn’t rigorously follow up with the participants afterwards, yet their trainers feel completely comfortable declaring “mission accomplished” – which they do so prematurely it would make George W. Bush do a double-take. You know all that. I want to talk about the social impact of a show like The Biggest Loser.

The Biggest Loser contributes to the primacy of diet culture. Diet culture is a system of thought in which food is an issue of public morality, where eating whatever you want is a grave sin and abstaining from “bad” food – which could be fatty food, sweet food, or carby food, depending on the month – is seen as virtuous. In this culture, bodies are rated as healthy or unhealthy based on their degree of “fatness”, and health becomes a saintly attribute while ill health becomes a serious personal failing. This is a culture in which thinner is better until the person is literally hospitalised (then of course we’re going to wring our hands about anorexia, but like, not too much in case the fat people get confused and think starvation is bad for them too!). This is a culture in which guilt is the primary emotion associated with food. A culture that has declared war on fat bodies.

The Biggest Loser is mired so deep in this ideology that it might as well be the official propaganda arm of the anti-fat movement. Indeed, since the show blatantly disregards the long-term health of its participants, it would seem that its true purpose is to spread an aggressive, rigid, guilt-centic mode of relating to ourselves and our bodies.

Diet culture is awful for everyone. It can take the average, mentally healthy adult human and totally fuck up how that human decides how to feed themself. I have seen otherwise-mentally-healthy adults exhibit genuine fear when confronted with potatoes or full-fat milk. And that’s just people who start off mentally healthy and who are considered mentally healthy. Diet culture is even more toxic for people who struggle with mental illnesses, in particular eating disorders, depression, anxiety and OCD, and/or are generally predisposed to disordered behaviour around food.

I’m not sure how to describe what it’s like to live in diet culture as a person in recovery for an eating disorder. Every day, we all see images and messages telling us that we should be thin, should not eat anything except magic food X and super food Y, and that frankly the only way for you to love yourself is to go hungry until you are thin. The Biggest Loser, in fact, endorses this last message explicitly. But in many cases a person with an eating disorder has a voice in their head that tells them that in much harsher terms, constantly, relentlessly, without pity and without mercy. That voice does not need any encouragement. But in our culture, encouragement is exactly what it finds in abundance.

A room in which The Biggest Loser is playing on the television is a room that is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A train station or a bus stop with advertisements for Diet Shakes, Diet Cereals, The Biggest Loser, Jenny Craig, and other weight loss paraphernalia on it is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A highway with a billboard for a weight loss show is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A menu with large, obtrusive calorie counts is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A magazine with a column by Michelle Bridges that laments the existence of fat people who don’t diet is not safe for many people with eating disorders.

If you feel safe in the presence of these images, that is your privilege. Virtually no public spaces, and a large proportion of private spaces, in the western world are even remotely safe for people with eating disorders.

The other thing that diet culture does is make eating disorders completely effortless to hide. I had an eating disorder for years and the first person who realised there was something wrong was me – because the excuses for not eating very much, or not eating certain things, are everywhere. “I just feel better when I am thinner”, “I’m losing weight for me”, “I want to feel good about myself”, “I’m happier at this weight”…these are things sick people say to hide their sickness. Other people swallow it because their default reaction to weight loss is “good” and it takes work for them to be convinced otherwise. Now, I’m sure these things have been said by mentally healthy people too and I’m not suggesting everyone who ever diets has an ED. But I’m also sure the average listener doesn’t know the difference. The hold of diet culture can be so strong that sometimes even the speaker doesn’t know the difference.

This all adds up to one simple message: our culture couldn’t give a fuck about your mental health. Clearly when people “just worry about your health” – even if they do genuinely mean health and not just thinness – they only mean the health of your body without any consideration for the brain. On a biological level this is completely ludicrous because you simply can’t separate the brain and the rest of the body. They’re one whole and can’t be considered in isolation. Here’s a rudimentary example: a chronically anxious brain will pump the body full of cortisol and adrenalin, which both contribute to all sorts of adverse physical outcomes including a weakened immune system and reduced mortality. Oh noes, did your mental health just affect your physical health – you know, the one we pretend we care about? Say it ain’t so! But in all seriousness, the truth is, they can’t really be separated. It’s all health. Mental health is health.

A culture that is willing to throw people with serious mental health problems under the bus in an endless quest for everyone on earth to be thin is not a culture that cares about health. It is a culture that is using a narrow, twisted definition of health – which coincidentally reinforces social norms around attractiveness – to beat up on everyone, including some of its most vulnerable members. That is the culture being explicitly promoted by the Biggest Loser and other shows like it. It’s making us sick. It’s making our media dangerous to consume. For a society supposedly obsessed with health, we’ve got a damn funny way of showing it.


7 Comments on Diet Culture Is Bad For Our Health

  1. Amanda says:

    I am so glad someone wrote this article. Not only is it well-written, but it brings up many excellent points about the problems of living in a diet culture.

    Honestly, I could write pages and pages about this topic, but I won’t take up your comment space. I’ll just say that I completely agree that diet culture is bad for everyone and I’m glad you’re blogging about it.

  2. M32 says:

    In a similar vein to Amanda, above, I have much appreciation of this post. I was going to write a long post about how it is pretty relevant to me at the moment… largely due to having only recently seen an episode of this thing… but anyway, details aren’t important here. It’s a tricky culture to show for what it is, because nobody is going to think ill of it easily as it defines itself as “good for you”…

  3. B says:

    I think another pervasive problem is the idea that, contrary to diet culture, we should be able to eat what we want and remain thin. As much as I love 30 Rock, Liz Lemon is a perfect example of this, but she is only one of many. Just watch a McDonald’s commercial if you need another.

    In my opinion, the best way to move forward for mental and physical health is to promote eating habits that recognize the benefits of eating well while maintaining that an ideal weight is an individual number. Because the fact is that many people not only affect themselves due to a poor diet, whatever that means for them, but also others. I think there is something to be said for a social consciousness of this issue so long as it is supportive and not judgmental.

    • Rachael Rachael says:

      When you say that we might benefit from a social conciousness of eating well, do you mean that we should be aware of what eating well entails, or that we should be aware that eating well is important?

      The problem with the first idea is that we don’t really know much about what constitutes a “good diet”. Individual needs, as well as the ability to absorb nutrients from different foods, can vary widely. In addition, we actually know very little about the facts of nutrition and health. Sure, it’s evident that humans need to eat and drink or they will die, and that most humans probably do better when they eat some vegetables – but beyond that, we don’t really know much. For example, there’s a huge wealth of conflicting evidence on the effects of a high-fat diet, and “fat” itself is not just one substance – for example, medium chain fatty acids are processed differently in the body than long chain fatty acids (try finding that nuance on the heart foundation website – you won’t!). Another example: a spoonful of nutella is lower GI than a slice of watermelon, but is higher in transfat. So now what should we choose? It’s a tradeoff each individual would have to make based on their own knowledge of their body and their preferences.

      The problem with the second idea is that it’s not our job to tell other people how to prioritise different areas of their lives. Even if we knew eating XYZ had certain impacts on your health, it’s still not a moral imperative for people to eat those things. Adult humans have the right to prioritise other things over their physical health if they want to. For some, it means going off-piste skiing or even heli-skiing (a very dangerous thing to do but by all reports a heck of a lot of fun). For others, it means eating cheap takeout for every meal while they labour over the computer code for their start-up. Isaac Newton stuck a darning needle in his eye in the name of science. I support anyone’s right to choose these paths some of the time or all of the time.

      Any kind of social conciousness around eating and food has to be mindful of these two problems. I am all for HAES and I believe that eating to make your body and mind feel good is a wonderful thing to do. But I don’t like the idea of talking about “good diets” or “poor diets”, or “eating well” and “eating poorly”. These things mean different things for different people. And all those phrases can still trigger someone with an ED. They bothered me while I tried to write a reply to your comment. Any mention of certain foods or ways of eating being “good” or “poor” is not safe for a mind afflicted with any kind of eating disorder.

      If we want to build a culture around food that is safe for people with EDs, we have to get rid of the idea that there are good and bad diets. We have to embrace instead the idea that people can eat whatever they want to eat, to accomplish whatever they want to accomplish, be that maximum energy ingestion in minimum time, or maximum pleasure and wellbeing – mentally and physically.

      • B says:

        I don’t agree that there is little information about what constitutes a healthy diet, although I will admit there is a lot of conflicting information out there. Yes, it can be confusing and difficult to figure that out, but I truly believe that if we can get rid of biased information, such as that put forward by restaurant ads or The Biggest Loser, we can promote an ethic of well-being. You are right that that means something different for every person, and I mentioned that in my original post. I guess what I would like to see, ideally, would be a reduction of food ads in general and clear information put forth by trustworthy advocates. I don’t think unbiased informers would try to say that there was only one way for everyone to eat but instead put forth guidelines and a variety of suggestions. I believe that would create a feeling of support and non-judgment.

        I have to disagree with your comparison of promoting a certain diet to extreme sports. For one thing, hardly anybody out of the world population engages in dangerous sports and yet everyone eats. One is voluntary and the other is not. It is very easy to feel that any kind of public recommendation would be damaging to people suffering from EDs, but I don’t think that has to be the case so long as we stay away from the Diet Culture.

        The reason I feel that concern about eating should be a social issue is that having an ED or an eating addiction never solely affects the sufferer. The impact is felt by everyone in their lives and sometimes the larger public and it isn’t really fair to say that only sufferers have any say in the issue. (I am not trying to say you are arguing that, but I just want to be thorough.) Now, of course it isn’t ok for a person without an ED to tell a person with an ED what to do, but I really think that we can prevent EDs through a more socially mindful scheme.

        Another reason I support this may be more culturally based. I come from America where morbid obesity has become an epidemic, and the impact of it is widely felt. I don’t want to write an essay here or derail the subject, but suffice to say that the obesity epidemic affects many areas of public life and health, connecting personal health issues to larger, national social problems.

        That is why I think we need to take this issue seriously as a social one, not just a personal one. I guess I can’t tell you exactly how that should happen, but I just feel strongly that not allowing commentary about eating is not the right direction to take.

        • Rachael Rachael says:

          Okay, I’m going to publish this comment even though it contains anti-fat language so that I can state this blog’s stance on this issue. No further comments worrying about the “obesity epidemic” will ever be published on this blog.

          1. This blog accepts all bodies, from “morbidly obese” (DEATHFATS!), “supermorbidly obese” (SUPERHERO DEATH FATS!) to super skinny (TINY BUT MIGHTY!). We’re pro fat here.

          2. The words “obesity epidemic” are not to be used on this blog except satirically or sarcastically. “Epidemic” refers to the widespread outbreak of a disease. Obesity is not a disease. Just because it is associated with certain health outcomes (the link is small, but it is there) does not make it the cause of those outcomes (body shame could equally cause reduced mortality, remember my little speech about cortisol?). For example, people who are cisgendered males have a much higher risk of dying of a heart attack than cisfemales – is being cismale a disease?

          Also, the word “epidemic” is used to instill panic and fear in people, and as a result, the term “obesity epidemic” is a big part of diet culture. We will not have that language used unquestioningly on our blog.

          3. This blog advocates a society in which there is no public commentary on eating and food. In a society already ravaged by diet culture, there may be a need for public commentary that corrects the damages done here by propagating mentally healthy messages around eating and food, that explicitly remove morality from the issue. But that’s all.

          4. This blog feels that hand-wringing over how the obese people are hurting “everyone” with their wicked ways is as ridiculous as hand-wringing over skiiers who hurt “everyone” by heli-skiing off-piste in avalanche season (I know people who have done this, they’re cool dudes). It seems to me that the only concern there could possibly be here is if you live in a country with socialised medicine, and even then, if dangerous living (all-twinkie diet, heli-skiing etc) makes you die young then you’re probably a net BENEFIT for the health system because the vast majority of the average individual’s lifetime healthcare costs are incurred once they’re 60+.

          5. Discussion on this blog will be carried out under the assumption that you are familiar with the basic ideas of Fat Acceptance 101. A great list is here complied by Frances at Corpulent http://corpulent.wordpress.com/2010/08/31/new-to-fat-acceptance/

          • bob says:

            really interesting post and conversation. two things i guess a comment and a question.

            the first would just be, in terms of comparing eating and sports, i totally agree that people should be free to prioritize things as they see fit and to make choices that might be seen as “dangerous,” but i wonder about the sort of more structural element. in the sense that most people who get to choose to go heliskiing really are getting to make a choice, but the fact of the matter is that the ways food is currently embedded into all sorts of other structures, including economic ones, not everyone has the privileged to decide to prioritize it or not.

            and the maybe question, i think it’s so important to decouple conversations about food and eating from conversations about bodies, and more so to stop the ridiculous moral crisis model of talking about either of these topics, which just works to shame and confuse rather than the supposed aims of making people “more healthy” how ever that’s being defined this week, but i was wondering about what you mean by “a society in which there is no public commentary about food and eating” literally that we don’t talk about it, or maybe instead that individual choices are not subject to constant public judgement? just wondering.


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