Diet Culture Is Damaging Our Health: Problems and Solutions

Bulking, Cutting, Clean Eating, Cheat Days…
This post is dishes up the dirt on Diet Culture and the destructive subtexts hidden in the language used around food and exercise, that makes disordered eating seem socially acceptable, encourages yo-yo dieting and ultimately leads to an unhealthy relationship with food and body image.

No labels or diets should ever make you feel inferior or bad about being in your own skin, nor should any diet mean you are not allowed to enjoy the foods and drinks you love.

No labels or associations should ever make you feel inferior or bad about being in your own skin, nor should any diet mean you are not allowed to enjoy the foods and drinks you love…if diet culture hasn’t lead you to forget what these truly are

Whilst this post may seem like a bit of a rant, it comes from a place of genuine worry and concern about the obsessive diet-culture, and aesthetically driven, society we are creating, not just for ourselves, but for the younger generations growing up.

Only recently I was having a chat with a friend about the baking I had done on one of my days off. His response made my blood boil;
“You on the winter bulk then?” 😡
To which I replied.. 

“No. I’m just on this thing called life”

Diet-culture terminology seems to be never ending, and ever growing, and it is SO WRONG. It is certainly not helped of course by the increased access to images, articles and youtube videos (if I see another “what I eat in a day” post I swear I’ll loose my mind….!!) and more. All of this fuels the myths, rules and associations regarding the “right” types and quantities of food we should (or rather, should not..) eat, not to mention the excessive exercise we should be doing…constantly.

The labels and associations we attach to what we think we believe to be “good” or “bad” foods is destructive to our physical and mental states, and together influences the disordered relationship with food and body image by reinforcing some very damaging messages in its sub-text.

  • Clean-eating
    Cue the undeserved feelings of guilt because you’ve eaten another slice of birthday cake, or a pizza that wasn’t made out of cauliflower
    Foods that aren’t seen as “clean” are then “bad” or “off limits” this has lead to an increase in orthorexia: The obsession with eating “pure foods”…whatever that means?! Problem being, there is no agreeable definition on what determines a food being “clean”, most foods you buy are to some extent processed and manufactured somewhere, somehow, so does that mean these are all “unclean” or “bad” for you? Those words in themselves should never be used in association with your food,  they cause so much judgement and guilt when you then project them onto a reflection of yourself and your body

  • “Cheat Days”
    ...where to begin. There is so much wrong with this. Not only does it reinforce the binge-restrict, yo-yo dieting, that has time and time again been proven to end in more weight gain in the long term, but in reality these “cheat” days you probably eat normally, but because diet culture has become so normalised we have created a day dedicated to normalising our diet. Or, alternatively for many, a day you choose to eat all the foods you’ve limited from your diet to remain sane and curb cravings, so you binge/overeat, and then justify it with the weekly restriction and over exercising. Does this sound healthy to you…?

  • Winter Bulk/Summer Cut
    …A winter bulk, or sometimes referred to as”off season”,  when you allow yourself to eat more foods that have been off limit during the summer period, because you care less about looking lean. These foods are categorised then as foods that will make you gain weight, and are off limits or “bad” for cutting, when you restrict the diet and over exercise to get lean for summer.Again, constant yo-yo dieting, and justifying what you eat and when you eat based on aesthetic goals. Bulking foods are seen as high calorie and to be avoided otherwise, and so associated with weight gain, however many of these include foods that are also very nutritious, such as nut butters, avocados, rye breads.Many may programme these foods around workouts as pre/post workout meals, which I do understand if you are an athlete, training for an event or following a particular programme that may have a performance, or medically advised weight loss/gain, outcome. But for the majority who are not performance based athletes, this can be damaging and stressful, creating the association with exercise equating to being able to eat certain foods or not.If you want porridge in the morning but don’t want to work out that is fine! If you want to eat a meal with less protein in it after you workout, or have a pizza in the evening (not made with cauliflower..) this does not have to be a post-workout meal, you can just eat for the sake of enjoying food, socialising, and keep fit for the same reasons too! No rights or wrongs, no good or bad.

  • Elimination diets, and classing everything high protein and low carb as “healthier”
     no medical justification to cut out gluten and/or dairy are the common ones that spring to mind. Are you sure you understand the function of gluten in food?
    Protein does not magically make it a healthier option, and carbs don’t make you fat. Consistently eating in a calorie surplus, carbs or no carbs, will lead to excess weight being stored.
    Like most things, it’s individual preference, but if you are eliminating foods based on false education and rumour then maybe you should begin asking questions and properly educating yourself by reading research and literature that is not just one-sided, or scare mongering, but factual and relevant.
    Listen to your body and begin to get real about why you feel the need to restrict or eliminate food groups.
    It is worth pointing out that saying “oh but I bloat after eating x,y,z…” bloating is normal. Everyone bloats and gets gassy from time to time, another normal (ok, pretty disgusting) human function, it may not be coeliac disease or IBS so always go to the Dr instead of self-diagnosing.  

These are just a few, there are many other labels, rules and restriction-based diets you’ve probably come across (cleanes/detoxes…all that crap) that create beliefs about what is right and wrong to eat.

Let’s get one thing straight, there is no right or wrong, no good or bad, no guilt, shame, or weakness, for feeding your body the food it wants and needs; this includes cake and pizza as well as kale and quinoa.

Following strict rules and restrictions as a way to control food intake, weight or shape is becoming the social norm. Not only this, but for those with a clinically diagnosed eating disorder it makes it a socially justifiable way to hide their disorder behind these labels.
You do not have to work for the food you eat; your body deserves food regardless of the exercise you have or have not done.  


Pseudo-Dieting: The Diet-Mentality Trap

Overtime the more you adhere to these rules the more reinforced and habitual they become, to the point that even when you think you’re not following these beliefs they are still their dictating your choices; this is known as pseudo-dieting

What is “Pseudo-Dieting”? Written about in Elyse Reich book “Intuitive Eating” , pseudo-dieting refers to the diet beliefs that we still hold on too, and that dictate your food choices, even when you don’t actively realise you’re dieting.
It’s when what you say doesn’t add up to what you do. So you may believe you are not actively engrained in diet culture, but you actually are still allowing it to control you.

So this could be stuff like:

  • You only eat carbs on days you gym/are active
  • Still using calorie apps to count macros … can’t eat when hungry because an app that estimated your daily needs tells you so?! 
  • Compensating for food eaten (e.g restricting, over exercising, laxatives)
  • Restricting food groups
  • Eating only “safe” foods
  • Following certain beliefs such as “carbs make you fat after 6pm” …news flash, your body doesn’t have some magic switch. It doesn’t know. It only knows that it’s hungry and needs nourishing. 

Problems with this are: 

❌  You to forget how to respond to normal physiological hunger, and cravings become a challenge you need to resist This prevents you listening to your body, what it needs, and what it wants. 
Not honouring your hunger increases your chances of overeating later on in the evening, or at the weekends when your restriction and denial of food you want catches up with you; known as the “what the hell effect” – yes, those weekend binges are actually a well researched psychological phenomena, a normal physiological reaction to any diet that is restrictive or avoidant of certain foods or food groups.

❌  This then creates the experience of guilt when certain foods are eaten outside of these boundaries and beliefs.
Stress and anxiety around food, or from eating certain foods, can cause bloating. Many people suddenly suffering from IBS and other gut related problems may just be a result of your body readjusting to your inconsistent feeding and stress about food messing with your usual digestion.regret

❌  Feeling bad and guilty about foods leads to body dissatisfaction, self blame and yo-yo dieting. Emotional eating as a result of this, or using food to increase your self-worth is disordered. There is an increase in disordered eating such as orthorexia, exercise-bulimia, or binge-purge anorexia as a result of many trying to control their emotions using food. 

❌  It creates a viscous cycle;  avoid/restrict, intense cravings and then over-eating causing you to further go back to restriction and avoidance. This reinforces your initial belief that you can’t control yourself around these foods. In hindsight if you just learnt to nourish your body properly you’d find you don’t always want to eat chocolate and when you do you don’t eat the whole bar because your body knows it will have it again sometime, that it’s not off limits. 

So What’s The Solution?

Avoidance and restriction are commonly ways to gain control, avoid negative feelings associated with eating certain foods (promoted by diet culture) negative beliefs about your body. The fear of weight gain? Feeling out of control? Fear of over-eating?

What really needs to be addressed is the real reason behind the diet beliefs and behaviour.

It’s not simple.
These messages are everywhere. We are bombarded by diet culture wherever we look, sucked in by every penny the £2billion diet industry throws at us

Becoming more aware of the labels and associations we use around diet and body image is a step in the right direction to disconnecting from diet culture, and re-learning how to nourish your body,  be healthy and embrace the skin you’re in!  

It takes you practicing self-awareness and reflection: 

  • Where these beliefs come from?
  • What function are they holding (control? self-esteem)?
  • What associations/beliefs are you still holding onto?
  • What foods don’t you allow yourself, that if you’re honest with yourself, you avoid?
  • Are there foods that you instantly feel guilty for when you eat?
  • Do you compensate for eating certain foods? (exercise more, use laxatives, restrict the next day…)
  • Are there foods you can only eat if you’ve exercised or tracked your calories/macros?

Ultimately, controlling food and weight is not the key to happiness.

You should never feel restricted by your diet, or need to use labels to justify your preferences.

Food should not be given the power to control how you feel toward yourself and your body, which is what diet terminology creates through its labels and subsequent associations.

You can be healthy, fit and happy at every size, and eating anything you want.

If this post resonates with you in any way, or you are interested in reading more about how to break free from diet culture, rebuilding your relationship with food and your body I recommend following up some of these links below: 

Pixie Turner

aka Plant Based Pixie. Nutritionist and food blogger. Informative, and says it like it is posts. 
Laura Thomas PhD 
Registered nutritionist with a fantastic podcast
Evelyn Tribole: Intuitive Eating
Link to her book on Amazon, outlining the principles of intuitive eating: building healthy body image and making peace with food

Louise Jones
Nutrition student and writer, recommend her post on Intuitive Eating and Why Flexible Dieting is a Fad 
Megan Jayne Crabbe 
aka BodyPosiPanda  all centred around body positivity and non-diet approach

Dirty Secrets Behind Clean Eating

Having just watched Grace Victory’s “Dirty Secrets Behind Clean Eating” I felt compelled to write a post about this topic. The programme raised some important points about the dangers of who we trust within the health and fitness industry, and she did so in a lighthearted, informative way.

It’s an industry saturated with bloggers, Vloggers and Instagram snappers, all happy to promote their lifestyle plans promised to ‘transform’ your health, and bring you body confidence, even cure disease.

If you find yourself captivated by pretty pictures and persuasive captions, you’ll be disheartened to know many of these are not scientifically supported health claims, or being delivered by qualified nutritionist, dieticians or fitness professionals.

In fact, if you google nutritionist qualification you can come across many online courses for around £50 giving you that “title” and the persona of importance.

But our diets are important. Health is important. Food has the ability to manipulate mood, cure and cause diseases.

The NHS has a whole list of popular “fashionable” diets (sorry … “lifestyle choices”) people are embarking on. From Paleo, 5:2, Dukan, to the controversial Alkaline diet
The list is endless.
Each with their own arguments for why they are the best thing since sliced bread… along with their reasons for not eating sliced bread.

The concept of living a healthy, balanced lifestyle, has never been made more difficult for us to grasp. We have become the generation of dieters. 

But before we splash our cash on something so serious as our health, are we really questioning what advice we’re taking? and who it’s coming from?
Or are we throwing our pennies down a dirty drain to detrimental mental health?


Clean Eating and the Diet Industry Explored


The weight loss market alone is estimated to reach £220billion by 2017.

The pockets of those industries bursting whilst the only thing getting thinner is your wallet. Have you seen the price of chia seeds?!

The concept behind clean eating sounds logical and healthy:

“Rather than revolving around the idea of ingesting more or less of specific things (for instance, fewer calories or more protein), the idea is more about being mindful of the food’s pathway between its origin and your plate. At its simplest, clean eating is about eating whole foods, or “real” foods — those that are un- or minimally processed, refined, and handled, making them as close to their natural form as possible.”

Eating a diet which is rich and varied in whole foods; fruit, vegetables, grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, meat and fish. Is of course, good. These foods will undoubtedly be packed with more vitamins and nutrients than processed foods, however, processed foods have their place and if you believe you eat 100% unprocessed, well I’m afraid you probably don’t. Hidden processing is everywhere, so does that mean you are now “unclean”. And if so, why is that so bad? What is going to happen to you?

Labelling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’ actually is dangerous to us psychologically as well as physically. It is the reason why many are creating unhealthy obsessions with food and weight, and using diet to avoid feelings of guilt or fear around eating and weight gain.

This now has a clinically recognised eating disorder known as  orthorexia.


The Power of Social Influence


Increase in social media usage positively correlates with eating and body dysmorphic disorders and low-self esteem.

“You are 3 times more likely to suffer a severe mental health problem if you are a frequent user of social media” – University of Pittsburg 

We need a reality check

So, is your super green, low carb, high protein, no gluten, dairy free, sugar free, macro monitoring, carb crunching, vegan, diet, really, really, you being honest with yourself?

My front line experience has left me like a sniffer dog able to smell an eating disorder (ED) from a mile away.

As soon as I click onto Instagram my radar is constantly pinging from post-to-post in the sea of seemingly “confident” and “grounded” fitness inspirations, displaying textbook typical ED behaviours:

  • Avoiding foods because they labeled/associate them as bad, or cause guilty feelings after being eaten.
  • Controls and rules, surrounding a diet which they don’t have any medical purpose for applying.
  • Dependence on keeping weight or body fat % low
  • Counting macros, with no medical or occupational reason for needing to.

That’s not to say all social media accounts are negative, but we do have to be wise about the information we’re exposing ourselves too and what we’re believing to be reliable advice over what will feed a disordered relationship with your food and body.

Top-tips to filter your news feeds:


So, when you’re next faced with making the decision about what to spend your time and energy reading and believing, ask yourself these questions:

1. What’s there message?

Is it one of positivity and balance, or does it create faulty associations (good/bad foods) alongside other disordered and unhealthy habits.

2. Are they qualified?

What makes them worth listening to? Are they qualified to give this advice? Make sure the sources you are trusting are credible, and do not be afraid to be critical and do your own research. Note. Having a large social media following does not qualify you to give lifestyle advice. 

3. Are they all talk no walk?

Ever heard of the saying “Do what I say, not what I do”

It’s easy writing a motivational quote alongside a well shot snap, but remember it is a business, and they may be more concerned about their growing pay cheques and sponsors than the implications they’re having on your health.

Approximately  1/3 of wellbeing bloggers seek help for disordered eating themselves, so bare in mind, you may be accepting advice from those still in need of help themselves.

Alongside this, Robert O’Young, who promoted the Alkaline diet as a cure for cancer, was arrested for his false claims and practicing medicine without a license to do so. But yet thousands of people buy into this.
Be willing to research about who it is you’re following.

4. Are they realistic?

Being a student living off a whole-foods, organic, no preservatives…all that jazz, diet, is not realistic (or necessary). Neither is exercising every day when you work a 9-5 job or have a family to provide for.  Do the accounts you’re aspiring to realistically  fit the lifestyle you can achieve and afford, to meet your health and wellbeing goals.

5. Is it positively challenging you?

Is it challenging your approach to yourself, your body and helping you to grow?

Or are you left feeling inadequate, bombarded by rules and demotivated by comparisons?

If it’s the latter, this is not good for your mental health.
Click Unfollow.

Final Thoughts

For me, and many of you other social media savvies, we need to be self-aware.

If you have a social media platform you post to regularly, ask yourself;

  • What is my message?
  • What image am I creating, is this a positive one or could it be damaging? 
  • How does this reflect my goals and values?

Remember, ultimately our worth is not based on our bodies, and not labelled by our diets. So look out for the haters, and spend time following the accounts that inspire and challenge you to be your best, live your best and love to your best.

“Trust. It’s what friends do.” – Dory [2003]