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Diet culture’s rebrand: what is toxic health discourse?

TW: disordered eating, diet culture, anorexia.

When making New Year’s resolutions, many people will resolve to be more ‘healthy’ – a vague term that most people tend to associate with eating ‘better’ or working out more. A recent survey found that health is the most common theme in New Year’s resolutions, with a quarter of the UK making a health-focused resolution for 2022 – this coming ahead of money, family, love, travel, and career. 

This trend can also be seen in the media, as we (especially women) are encouraged by magazines, social media, and celebrities to embrace fitness and wellness. At first glance, this may seem like a positive thing, as physical exercise has many benefits – such as lowering the risk of many chronic health conditions – and eating a well-balanced diet provides your body with the necessary energy and nutrients. However, a closer look reveals that many ‘healthy lifestyle choices’ are actually rebranded diets, and can do more harm than good. 

In recent years, diet culture has been rightfully criticised in the media for teaching body negativity, as well as imposing restrictions on people’s eating habits and lifestyles. While diet culture can often be difficult to identify, dietician Christy Harrison defines it in simple terms: it’s a system of beliefs that worships thinness and equates it to health” and “demonises certain ways of eating while elevating others.”

Diet culture… [is] almost unavoidable in our modern lives

It isn’t necessarily always calorie counting and obsessive exercise, although these are certainly ways of participating in diet culture. It could be cutting down on carbohydrates or fat in favour of eating fruits and vegetables, or engaging in fad diets such as avoiding gluten despite not having an intolerance of it. More than likely, you’ve partaken in some form of diet culture without even realising it – as it’s almost unavoidable in our modern lives. 

Without looking too closely, it may seem that diet culture has been struck from many forms of media or at least reduced in severity – for example, it’s rare to see celebrities openly advocating for fasting nowadays, although it does happen now and again. Many of us are also aware that we mustn’t be ‘too extreme’ when it comes to diets, as there’s been far more education around eating disorders and their dangers in the last thirty years.  

But looking closely at the growing ‘wellness’ trend shows that many ‘healthy lifestyle’ choices are just diets in disguise. One example is the ketogenic diet, which forces the body into a fat-burning metabolic in order to lose weight or gain muscle. This is often promoted as being one of the healthiest modes of eating and claims to optimise the body based on evolutionary needs, but one writer counters that “our understanding of human evolution… can shift according to which restrictive diet is on-trend that day.” 

These disorders can often present themselves as being “healthy”, due to not going to the extremes of typical diet culture

Our obsession with diets hasn’t changed at all in recent years, with 75% of women reporting symptoms of disordered eating and 3% of gym-goers reporting their exercise addiction. As transparency increases around male eating disorders, body and muscle dysmorphia have become more common diagnoses. But these disorders can often present themselves as being “healthy”, due to not going to the extremes of the ‘typical’ diet culture that surrounds us. 

According to the National Eating Disorder Collaboration, dieting is one of the most common forms of disordered eating. Veganism is one diet that has been on the rise in recent years, but it has proven itself to be more than just a fad. A record number of people are estimated to be partaking in ‘Veganuary’ in 2022, with 4% of the adult population of the UK planning to participate. This is largely due to environmental concerns, as plant-based diets have been described as one of the best lifestyle changes that you can make to combat the climate crisis. However, there are strong ties between veganism and diet culture. 

Firstly, veganism can be a very restrictive diet and has been adopted by people who are trying to lose weight, as it necessitates cutting out large numbers of foods. It can also be used to mask symptoms of an eating disorder, by disguising it as a lifestyle choice, and can be used as a form of food control for those in recovery. A 2013 study found a relationship between vegetarianism and eating disorders among women, with many saying it helped them lose weight, maintain their eating disorder, and provided another way to cut calories. 

Additionally, veganism “demonises certain ways of eating while elevating others”, as 36% of UK adults surveyed described going vegan as an “admirable thing to do”. This isn’t unlike how people, especially celebrities, used to be admired for their diets. Many attribute the physical benefits, such as health and beauty, to veganism, making it seem like a superior or even superhuman form of eating. For example, actress Natalie Portman has claimed that her skin “got great” as soon as she went vegan. Yet, this demonstrates an unhealthy mindset, in which particular ways of eating are admired or considered better than others, causing many to similarly restrict their diets as a result.  

While many diets may now be disguised as wellness, the “diet cycle” and its resulting problems remain the same

That isn’t to say that every vegan or vegetarian has an eating disorder or that plant-based diets should be compared to fasting or juice cleanses. It’s possible to remove animal products from your diet without being too restrictive: I’ve been vegan for over two years now and eat a wide range of things, probably more so than I did as a meat-eater. However, it’s important to be cautious when making a lifestyle change like this, especially if you have a history of disordered eating. It can be easy to develop disorders like orthorexia by trying to embrace ‘clean eating.’

It shouldn’t be surprising to us that diet culture has rebranded itself as a source of wellness.  Throughout history, food and diet have always been central to society, but this has taken several different forms. For example, anorexia mirabilis (or ‘holy anorexia’) was common in Europe during the Middle Ages and is characterised as a form of starvation that makes the sufferer feel closer to God. Many girls and women who displayed anorexic behaviours were rewarded for their behaviour, with several becoming saints or martyrs, not unlike those praised for unhealthy weight loss today. Similarly, ‘fasting girls’ achieved notoriety during the Victorian era and were often exhibited publicly for commercial gain. These examples show that the extremes of diet culture aren’t a modern phenomenon but instead that the culture shifts and changes over time.  

While many diets may now be disguised as wellness, the “diet cycle” and its resulting problems remain the same. Fad diets often result in feeling hungry, experiencing low moods, lacking energy levels, and developing poor mental and physical health. It creates a cycle, where diet restriction causes physical and psychological deprivation, resulting in a diet break. Not being able to follow an unattainable diet creates a sense of guilt, leading people to become even unhappier with their bodies. It can also be difficult to exit the diet cycle once you’ve entered it, at which point you should probably seek help from a professional.

As a time of ‘self-improvement’ for most people, the temptation to embrace healthy habits in the New Year isn’t always a bad thing. Adding more vegetables to your diet or exercising a little more in regulation isn’t necessarily going to lead to developing unhealthy habits. However, it’s important to question your motivations and expectations before starting out on these endeavours. It’s also worth remembering that there are other methods of self-improvement, other than forcing your body to goes against its natural functions. 

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