Everywhere we look, we are surrounded by evidence of diet culture. From a mental health perspective, we wanted to examine how this impacts on our self-esteem and our behaviours around food and exercise. 


What is a diet culture? 


A diet culture is in essence a system of beliefs about food, nutrition and weight; the promotion of weight loss as a positive thing that will elevate your status and how you feel and look. You may feel that you need to be a certain weight or have a certain body image. You may think you need this to be worthy, beautiful, sexy, fit or happy. And many people spend years on diets or fitness regimes trying to attain a level of perfection that does not exist. 

The specifics of the diet changes over time based on science, media and publicity. The current diet culture focuses on overall wellness. This can include eating less meat, less sugars and refined carbs and more fruit and veg. There is a focus on sustainability and looking after the planet. Alongside this we have more awareness of allergens and all foods now contain information about gluten, dairy, nuts etc. 

Diet culture is very hard to avoid, especially in the western world. We are constantly shown images of thin people as an ultimate goal to achieve. This subliminal messaging is always there. Your brain is receiving constant messages that being thin is needed to achieve your goals. Additionally, you have messages being received that certain foods are good and bad. A diet culture demonises certain foods and ways of eating. It forces you to be ashamed of food choices and your own body and weight.


The evolution of humans and food


Human beings have evolved over millions of years. Evolution is a natural phenomenon that occurs for survival of a species. It is the environment that determines the changes that occur within evolution. The invention of agriculture made the biggest changes to our diet. Agriculture provided us with a reliable source of food that can be stored long term. This allowed humans more time and opportunities to develop other skills which evolved our social skills and intelligence. 

Famine has hit localised populations throughout history. Those who survived were those whose bodies adapted to the environment. The body developed a way to store food so the benefits could last longer. As a result, we still see evidence of the body storing food after a significant period of weight loss. So, if you have ever completed a diet only to put the weight straight back on, then this is why. 


Diets go against our natural survival instincts


In Traci Mann’s book ‘Secrets from the eating lab’ there were three biological changes that occurred in response to dieting. The first were neurological changes, where dieters were more likely to notice food around them. When dieters were distracted, they ate more than those who were not dieting. The second were hormonal changes, where dieters felt increasingly hungry and needed more food to fill them. Finally, there were metabolic changes, where our bodies slow down to use our calories more efficiently. This is useful when we are starving but prevents us from physically losing too much weight.

Our bodies have naturally evolved to survive. Both food and water are a necessity for survival. Our bodies will instinctively store the right amount of nutrients and calories needed to perform. This natural survival mechanism does not care what you think your ideal weight should be. It will take what it needs for your body. If you restrict certain foods or reduce calorie intake significantly, your body will start to store them in reserve. Messages will then be sent to your mind to inform you that you are hungry. As a result, food will become more attractive to you. 


Do Diets work?


You are likely to find it very difficult to avoid any information about diets. Everyone seems to have the answer to losing weight. However, very few people successfully lose weight by following a specific diet and retain this loss long term. The diet industry is selling you a dream. Buy their product and follow their advice and you will gain everything you desire. If it doesn’t work then it is your fault. You didn’t follow the rules sufficiently, you ate the wrong foods, you didn’t exercise enough. As you naturally start to blame yourself, this in turn knocks your self-confidence. This makes you feel bad about yourself thereby inciting you to lose more weight to feel better. 

Research shows that for most people diets simply do not work. Even those people who diligently follow the diet generally do not retain the weight loss. Short-term weight loss may be relatively easy but in the long-term the body will seek to regain this weight. 


Disordered Eating & Eating Disorders


Eating Disorders are diagnosed based on certain criteria. The diagnosis will usually be provided by a GP or a medical expert. Disordered Eating may in itself be an eating disorder. However, unless there are certain criteria present you may not be diagnosed as having an eating disorder. Eating disorders include anorexia nervosa (AN), Bulimia Nervosa (BN), Binge-eating disorder (BED) and other not specified eating disorders (OSFED or EDNOS). 

A diet in itself is not disordered eating or an eating disorder. A diet is a personal choice to eat and restrict certain foods with the intention of losing weight.  However, disordered eating can develop as a result of constant dieting. It may take the form of ignoring hunger, over exercising, purging, diet pills, overloading with fluid or emotional eating. Symptoms of disordered eating may include weight fluctuations, rituals or compulsions around food or exercise and feeling guilt or shame. Long-term issues associated with disordered eating can include obesity and eating disorders, bone deterioration, gastrointestinal problems and mental health issues. 

Sometimes, a healthy eating or clean food regime can lead to orthorexia, an obsession with ‘healthy’ food. So what starts out with the best of intentions can unintentionally lead to an eating disorder.  


Intuitive Eating vs diet culture


Intuitive eating is a philosophy that allows you to listen to your body and react accordingly. There are no guidelines on what you can eat. You learn to listen to what your body needs and make choices based on those needs. The main premise is that you eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. 

Although this sounds very simple, in reality it is not. You need to become attuned to your bodies needs. You need to be able to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger. Physical hunger is the survival mechanism. The signals could be a rumbling stomach, irritability, tiredness etc. Emotional hunger is driven by an emotional need. You may be lacking something and use food to compensate. For example, you may be lonely and craving comfort food to make you feel better. 

The basics of intuitive eating 

In the book ‘Intuitive Eating’ by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch the main principles behind the approach are: 

To reject the diet mentality and respond to your bodies needs. If you ignore your hunger pangs you will become excessively hungry and will be more likely to overeat. 

You also need to understand when you are full and stop eating accordingly. 

Stop demonising foods; there are no good or bad foods and challenge any thoughts that tell you otherwise. 

Become more mindful and appreciate your food more. Consider the sensory experiences of eating and make it more of a pleasurable experience. 

Learn to accept your feelings and understand why you are feeling them. Try and become more aware of times when you are using food as an emotional blanket. 

Learn to love your body and recognise how useful and beautiful it is. 


Intuitive Eating is not a Diet


Intuitive eating is an anti-diet philosophy. You may not lose weight using this approach. If you are using this approach to lose weight then you are focusing on the wrong aspects. Intuitive eating is about giving your body what it needs when it needs it. You may gain weight, especially to begin with as you embrace the “I can eat what  like” phase. It’s possible that you will lose weight or stay the same. Your body size will generally settle into the range it is naturally meant to be in. This may not be in the range that you have previously been conditioned as being ideal. That is ok.

What is good about this way of thinking is that it is in tune with what your body naturally wants and this helps to bypass the many emotional loops that we have regarding food, that get in the way of what it needs 

Research into intuitive eating has identified that participants generally have better psychological health. They have more self-esteem, increased body image awareness and generally suffer less with depression or anxiety. Their weight is generally maintained and does not yo-yo. 


Need some help? 


Food is much more than nutrition. The process of eating is a complex experience that covers joy, creativity, satisfaction and socialising.  If you feel anxious or obsessive when you think about food or your weight then you are not supporting your overall wellbeing. If you are looking for support on healing your relationship with food, fostering trust and building confidence please contact us.

I hope that this article has been of interest to you. As always, if you know of someone who would benefit from reading it, then please share it with them. Or why not head over to our website for more information, downloads and resources. 

With warmest wishes, 


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