It’s been over a millennium since the first traces of dieting began. We’ve witnessed the emergence of SO many diets, discovered what is scientifically sound and what isn’t, and experienced what life is like without thinking about dieting versus it being a crucial part of our routine. With everything we know, understand, and recall, as a society, we should be at our healthiest statistics in terms of physical biomarkers and mental and emotional satisfaction, correct?
Sadly, no…we still have all kinds of pseudoscientific diets as well as extremely random fads, many of which are very unsustainable. There have been more than plenty of programs and brands currently under fire for marketing dangerously restrictive meal plans as well as rigid forms of thinking and attitudes around food, body image, and exercise. TikTok is riddled with even more problematic advice. So alas, in spite of what we already recollect and recognize, WHY are there still too many unrealistically rigid diet programs?
This can all account for the overall obsession with making a strong first impression when it comes to physical appearance. There are more than plenty of sinister root causes that have established the foundation of diet culture, a few that the health and diet industries profit off of here (but not limited to):
- Insufficient education in nutrition and cooking
- Because many people are not informed of proper nutrition science or culinary science, those without this information cannot cook healthy foods like vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, fruits, and lean proteins. This makes it easier for many to turn to takeout or packaged/ready-to-eat products.
- AHAHAHA yes diet culture is a racial issue. The normative of the ideal type in diet culture–INCLUDING INTUITIVE EATING and HEALTH AT EVERY SIZE–is a white cis-gender woman with a thin or relatively thin body. A dark-skinned Black woman with a curvier body is simply not as marketable to the public, which is really, really sad. There are other resources that can explain it better than I could, but some examples include touting more Black people than White people as overweight using BMI, providing less than adequate healthcare to more BIPOC populations than non-BIPOC populations, and disproportional access to healthy groceries in predominantly BIPOC communities than non-BIPOC.
- High stress environment and way of thinking
- With Western culture here centralizing around a “work hard, hustle harder” mode of living, it’s easy to forget that there’s a bigger enemy in our environment rather than just lack of willpower and laziness: stress. Both long-term and short-term types of stress are okay in moderation, but there’s just too high of an ongoing dose we experience all the time. The stress festering in our daily lives leads us to wear ourselves out, deprive ourselves of sleep and grounding physical and mental work, overlook what makes us truly happy, and perhaps make worse food choices for our individual needs.
- Reliance on outdated science in education
- You know how you read about macronutrient and food science in biology textbooks in school, but then also would read about nutrition science on the Internet? More often than not, what we view online is somewhat different from that in our textbooks, which (at least back in my elementary and high school days) still publicized the food pyramid. This is a toughie to solve because it naturally will take a lot of time for these manufacturers to change their textbook editions and educational institutions to shift their curriculums.
- Social class discrepancies
- Plain and simple: if you have a good amount of money, you have access to more resources. If not, then it’s significantly more challenging to find optimal healthcare services, nutritional education, fitness resources, as well as dietary counseling and healthy grocery items.
- Desire for conformity
- Yep, it’s really sad that many diet/weight loss/nutrition/wellness companies will prey on vulnerable females, perhaps LGBTQIA+ individuals as well with the emergence of this community and their focus on body positivity and body image. This is due to the notion that, specifically for females, the validity and beauty in their physical appearance contributes a large amount to their sense of self-worth. The exchange and relationship between female/some queer consumers and these diet/health brands are just not the same as those of cisgender male consumers. While
- Lack of access to healthcare
- Countless people cannot afford many or adequate essential healthcare services, leaving them to resort to finding what they can afford to aid in their health or they try to garner more information on wellness that is often misinformed. Of course, this can lead to fad dieting and going on countless crash diet programs.
- Tying self-worth to physical appearance
- It makes sense that one’s image and physique contributes to their self-worth because it is their vessel for life and how the rest of the world views them. There are certain connotations that come with outward appearance versus internal traits, such as visible physical fitness as drive, a strong work-ethic, perhaps even outgoing and motivated. Unfortunately, being seen as overweight, obese, or out of shape translates poorly to others, consciously or not. While this connection has biological and psychological roots that cannot be fixed easily, societal and media conditioning does little to help.
- Piggybacking on physical appearance determining some of your self-worth, there is this DEEP emphasis on viewing fatness as plentifully less than optimal. Nobody wants to talk about being fat, but many can easily recognize its existence. Even though the magnitude of fatness varies on individual perception, it’s often the opposite of the endeavor to becoming leaner or more toned and fit. There are deeper rooted explanations for fatphobia centered around systemic racism, weight bias, and feminism that I highly recommend reading.
- Limited research in feminine vs. masculine health
- Historically, our medical system and institutions have been inherently biased towards studying and affirming male desires and needs, leaving females in the way-side. Consequently, girls and women have been harmed in the process. As a result, there is very little female autonomy in how feminine health is researched and expanded, so much of the information we receive is dictated by (cisgender) men who cannot experience (cisgender) female physiological activities, including hormonal imbalances that often serve as an outcome of crash dieting, overexercising, underexercising, or not eating healthy food.
Moral of the story: do not expect very much from the diet industry. Yes, it has evolved quite a bit with the science and current consumer desires, but regardless, it still profits and leeches off the subconscious psyche of gaining self-worth from physical image. In fact, some would argue that the issues of diet culture are only now exacerbated thanks to social media because many of us expose ourselves publicly so often OR we are exposed to public figures so frequently that we assume their highlight reel is their raw footage reel.
The good news: more anti-diet and intuitive eating dietitians have prompted discussion about ways to combat fatphobia, stay in touch with your body, accept yourself unconditionally and respect your body, find other ways to improve your health that do not have aesthetic motives, give up fear around food, and elevate diversity. This has directly combatted the wave of influencers and brands that have pushed the narrative that physical fitness is an external shell that can easily be tainted if you have junk food or a few more rest days than usual. BEWARE THOUGH: the discussion can become problematic when there is neglect of discussing systemic racism in the dieting world and the body positivity movement. All of these issues must be acknowledged.
What can we do? Honestly, heart to heart, this is going to sound corny, but use fitness and diet as a means of finding meaning that extends beyond your physical temple. Yes, the endorphins and the energetic kick after eating a good meal or finishing a killer workout is sublime, but appreciate the benefits BEYOND that. Working out improves your longevity, mental clarity, and productivity so you can walk into a room a little bit happier than without it, whereas nutritious and tasty food does the exact same and provides you longer lasting energy to achieve your dreams. Still, while how you nourish yourself can serve as a foundational layer of how you function, nevertheless, it is just one layer. Think of it as your wedding day: it’s a very notable day of your life, but it is still one day. Lastly, recall that hardly anybody will care how much you weigh so as long as you radiate confidence, positive energy, and kindness.
- Set intentions for your food.
- Prioritize what will make you feel healthy and guide you to perceive yourself as the healthiest.
- Move as much as you can, but just enough.
- Sleep well and adequately.
- Recall that anything is possible.
Do you think 2020 has seen improvements in the dieting industry? Perhaps, are we seeing a deviation from where we should ideally be heading? Or lastly, are we still stuck in a place where the dieting industry hasn’t changed much?