There is an epidemic that affects most of us without even realising it. It causes doubt in self value, devalues health and can lead to serious mental health problems if left unchecked. I’m talking about following diet culture or having a “diet mentality”.
The funny thing is, you don’t even have to be on a diet or following a specific type of diet to be a victim of the diet culture, because everything in society is geared to leading us in that way.
This diet culture teaches us to think in terms of clean or dirty food, healthy or unhealthy, with no space in between. Perceptions are formed around certain types of food (think low fat or sugar free) suggesting that they are cleaner or healthier than other foods, thus increasing their perceived value in our minds without us ever questioning their true health benefits. The diet culture also demonises certain foods based on the same perception – telling you it is bad or unhealthy without ever being scrutinised to see if it is in fact the truth.
The simple act of eating can be turned into a guilt or shame spiral. We often hear phrases like: “I shouldn’t, but I will spoil myself” or “I’m going to be naughty and have a piece” when talking about food. This type of thinking leads to people constantly focussing on what they think they should rather be eating, which leads to the restriction of food groups, and in some cases even the total avoidance of food.
We are taught by the diet culture that exercise should be used as a way of making up for what we ate. In some instances, it is seen as punishment for eating.
In other instances, exercise is seen as something you need to do in order to earn a certain food reward. The slender and visibly fit European look is to be desired according to this culture. It leaves no room for a variety of body types. We then sacrifice health in pursuit of this rare body type, which is reinforced by statements like “I see you lost weight, you look good”. Basically, diet culture places a moral value on behaviours, products and goals that are designed to achieve one specific body type – which is almost impossible for many people.
We should try to avoid passively following this trend, and rather consciously shift our focus to what is truly healthy and good for our own bodies. There is nothing wrong with following a dietician-approved meal plan in order to improve your health; but ask yourself what your core motivation is for doing so. Health over beauty is a golden rule! If you are motivated to lose weight simply to look better, you need to stop and rather consider your health. Do you really need to lose 5 kg to be healthy?
In order to reduce this perception and to advance a “free-eating” society, we should start to be aware of the way we think about exercise and food and try to banish the notion of a sin-redemption or work-reward relationship between exercise and food. This means we should also actively clean up our language. Continually saying that you’re naughty or you shouldn’t eat something and then feeling guilty afterwards is not a psychologically healthy pattern.
Rather eat intuitively and learn to look at food and exercise as a part of self-care. Self-care encompasses all facets of your being: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. If we nurture our food relationship in this way, there will be no room for chastening ourselves or striving for the unattainable. In a space of self-care, we act selfishly in the sense of asking “what course of action is going to be best for my entire wellbeing?”.
Unfortunately, diet culture has become a social norm, and it is difficult to escape. But if getting true results are important to you, you will remember to reach for well-being and maybe even educate the unenlightened to join our circle of “free-eaters” who want to be healthy and live long, and not just look a certain way.