The idea of dieting has become a prevalent part of everyday life. Indeed, diet-related terminology, such as having a “cheat day,” has become part of many people’s regular lexicon. In some ways, our ability to make nutritional choices that improve our well-being is empowering. However, it’s not always so positive.
The rise of social media has brought with it greater exposure to unattainable and unhealthy beauty standards. There is a very real sense that people must adjust their lives to meet these unrealistic ideals. The result has been a diet culture that is not just physically detrimental but can have significant psychological and emotional effects.
Diet culture is the way our society tends to prioritize thinness as the medical, ethical, and aesthetic ideal. As such, diets have been considered the key to achieving the favored appearance. While there is certainly truth in the idea that what you eat is linked to your health, the way in which diets are presented is not always positive.
Indeed, part of the cultural element of the term “diet culture” is that our society treats diets with almost religious veneration. Whenever a new fad plan emerges, there are often news articles, television spots, websites, and influencers proclaiming its efficacy. An entire diet industry has arisen from the money to be made from selling products, plans, and guidance to people who have been led to believe their thinness should be a priority.
It’s important to recognize diets in themselves are not the enemy here. There are approaches designed to enhance aspects of your health, such as boosting eye health or lessening the effects of diabetes. These helpful diets don’t have a singular goal of simply losing weight as quickly as possible. It is our society’s untempered reverence of the diet as a means to achieve unrealistic standards that tends to make it a negative and sometimes dangerous cultural element.
One of the common links between diet culture and mental health is body dysmorphia. Body dysmorphic disorder is a condition in which a person fixates on perceived flaws in their appearance. In many cases, these apparent flaws are either not noticeable by others or greatly magnified by the individual’s perspective. Often, these people live with an intense sense of self-loathing and may compulsively check their appearance or take drastic steps to change.
Diet culture feeds into this with its constant promotion of physical “perfection” on social media, movie screens, advertisements, and red carpets. The public is constantly informed that their bodies aren’t in an optimum state of beauty and they need to eat less. When a person lives with body dysmorphia, diet culture only serves to validate their feelings of low self-worth.
Part of the issue with diet culture is it can be detrimental to one’s health. It influences the choices people make with respect to their nutritional intake. Unfortunately, diet recommendations aren’t always balanced with advice on how to mitigate the problems arising from cutting out certain foods.
There are various ways that reducing nutritional value can impact mental wellness. There are direct links between the food you put in your body and your psychological, emotional, and cognitive functioning. The drastic nutrition change can cause mood swings.
Popular diets, such as keto, are infamous for resulting in low mood and depression. There are a range of reasons this may be the case, from a nutritional imbalance to the impact on hormones and even disrupted sleep. Often, the best way of navigating such issues is to be patient, research alternative high-nutritional value foods, and be mindful of the impact the diet is having on your well-being.
The problem is that diet culture puts an emphasis on using these plans to achieve weight loss quickly. This ignores the idea that gradual and well-informed changes could reduce the potential negative mental impacts, leading to longer-lasting, sustainable results.
It’s important to work on understanding your own perception of beauty and establish methods to navigate your feelings when you see unrealistic images in your social media feed. This is one of the reasons cognitive behavioral therapy tends to be a feature of body dysmorphia treatment. Such techniques help you to recognize your thought processes when confronted with difficult stimuli and respond in a healthier way.
If you feel you still need to make changes, it’s wise to think carefully about what you want and why. You may find it helpful to approach this in a visual way. Mapping out your thoughts and feelings and how these relate to the goals you have can help you feel more informed and in control. Venn diagrams can be particularly useful in identifying overlapping elements among your ideas, feelings, and even your relationships with the media. This tool can empower you to make choices that reduce unhealthy influences and focus on what genuinely matters to you. You’ll usually find this is a more empowering and mentally healthy route to take.
It may be the case that you still choose to pursue a diet. If so, you’ll find it more physically and mentally healthy to temper any reductions you make with nutritionally valuable alternatives. You have to remember that food is fuel for your body. Poor dieting choices can leave you feeling fatigued and struggling to focus. Incorporating higher energy foods, such as complex carbohydrates, and eating small yet frequent meals can mitigate potential issues here. However, it’s important to prioritize your nutritional needs above the speed at which you want to lose weight.
Diet culture is the culmination of our society’s veneration of thinness and the often toxic approaches people are encouraged to take to achieve it. The result is often detrimental to mental health. When you’re constantly bombarded by the negative influence of this diet culture, it’s important to take healthy steps to mitigate the impact. With some focus on your sense of self-worth and a more nutritionally responsible approach to your diet, you can see more holistically healthy outcomes.
Iskra Banović is our seasoned Editor-in-Chief at BlueFashion. She has been steering the website's content and editorial direction since 2013. With a rich background in fashion design, Iskra's expertise spans across fashion, interior design, beauty, lifestyle, travel, and culture.