How Sneaky Diet Culture Shows Up

Diet culture is all around us and – due to years of cultural conditioning – is often internalized within us. While certain diets can be easy to spot (looking at you Atkins and South Beach), the dieting has learned that people aren’t looking for ‘diets’ anymore so they’ve changed the marketing game in the name of “wellness”. This is what I call sneaky diet culture and it can disconnect you from your body and challenge your intuitive eating journey. Read on to find out how to spot the less obvious ways diet culture shows up

how to spot sneaky diet culture - text next to image of a woman with dark hair wearing an orange sweater and looking frustrated

Often when people are introduced to the idea of diet culture, and begin to start the unlearning process, they usually will right away notice some of the obvious ways that diet culture and the dieting mentality show up in their lives.

For example, a doctor telling someone to lose weight because their BMI falls into the “overweight” category (which is total BS and not backed by science).

Other more-recognizable ways of diet culture are “fad” diets like WW (formerly Weight Watchers), keto, Paleo, Jenny Craig, etc., all of which openly promise weight loss.

But what about the less obvious ways that diet culture shows up?

How to Spot Sneaky Diet Culture

Over the years as I’ve worked with my clients, I’ve come to realize that there is the “overt” diet culture or diet mentality, and the more “sneaky” diet culture.

Many of my clients are tired of dieting, so they stop physically restricting food or counting calories. They allow themselves to eat a bigger variety of food and work on making peace with food.

And while they do the work to unlearn the rules of diet culture, there are still many ‘sneaky’, more covert ways in which it shows up.

These more sneaky, insidious forms of diet culture may not overtly promise weight loss. Often they market “eating healthier” under the guise of well-being, which can make them tougher to sniff out.

Yet if you look closer, the message is still the same: follow this plan, do these things, and you’ll be “healthier” (subtext: thinner). It’s still making money by feeding into the fear of being fat and all the moral implications that our culture assigns to food choices and body size.

Examples of Sneaky Diet Culture

One of my clients had been working on intuitive eating for several years when she came to me. At that point she felt like she was in a great place of listening to her body and eating what she wanted. She decided to work with me to implement some more gentle nutrition and continue working on her body image healing.

As we began working together, it was clear to me that while yes – she had gotten rid of the more overt diet-y food rules – there were still a lot of “sneaky” diet culture rules showing up in her day-to-day life.

For example, she had the realization one day that she was still mostly shopping the perimeter of the grocery store and only buying fresh fruits and vegetables. This was not a conscious decision – it was in her subconscious, left over from her dieting days.

As we unpacked it more, she realized that she still held the belief that “fresh is best” and so only “counted” fruits and vegetables if they were made fresh.

Yet this (subconscious) rule was getting in the way of her goal of incorporating gentle nutrition, because if she didn’t feel like cooking veggies from scratch she just wouldn’t have any. So we worked together to help her find some quick and easy frozen and canned food options that tasted good and added some nutrition to her meals.

Some other examples:

  • Not buying processed foods
  • Avoid frozen/canned fruits and veggies
  • “Watching” what you eat
  • Fasting, detoxing, cleansing
  • “Everything in moderation”
  • “Clean” eating
  • Feeling guilty after eating certain foods
  • Expressing fear of weight gain or being fat
  • Complimenting someone’s weight loss

Sneaky diet culture is really sneaky — so you may think you’ve let go of restriction, but still have some subconscious restricting going on. And we know that restriction disconnects us from our bodies and can cause rebound disconnected eating/binging – keeping us in the diet cycle, even if we have let go of physically restricting foods.

The Wellness Diet

Then there’s The Wellness Diet which, as Christy Harrison, MPH, RD and author of Anti-Diet explains, shifts the focus from weight to wellness. Don’t be fooled by the marketing though. This is diet culture using the same system of body oppression under the name of “health and wellness”.

Some examples of this:

  • “clean” eating
  • intermittent fasting
  • detoxes and cleanses
  • gluten-free or dairy-free (when there’s not an allergy)
  • elimination diets
  • Whole30
  • Noom
  • WW (the rebranded “Weight Watchers…which still asks you to weigh in)

This is why sneaky diet culture is so tricky! So many of these diets don’t explicitly state they are promoting weight loss.

No matter what you call it, wellness, lifestyle, or something else, if it’s telling you what to eat, when to eat, and/or how to eat – it’s a diet.

There is an entire market of new diet plans, companies, and apps created with the promise of the ability to “stop dieting” and “still get results.” Even if weight isn’t mentioned upfront, the subtext is still that this will be the plan that helps you lose weight “for good” (which as we know, is not true).

How to Reject and Call It Out

As you start to notice how much diet culture is normalized into our society, you’ll realize how often people bring it up. The more aware you become of diet culture, the more likely you are to call it out. This may make you feel super angry and frustrated. This is a very common and normal feeling that comes up for a lot of my clients. It’s completely understandable and justified.

By naming an offense as diet culture, we can already start working towards rejecting diet mentality.

  • Step 1: Reflect and acknowledge the har diet culture and diet mentality has caused
  • Step 2: Bring awareness to the ways diet culture and diet mentality show up
  • Step 3: Call it out for what it is
  • Step 4: Challenge your thoughts and beliefs to shift your behaviors

Calling out sneaky diet culture is also part of step 3. Actively saying, “This is diet culture” can be super helpful as you examine thoughts and beliefs around food and your body. The more you call it out, the easier it becomes to start moving away from it.

This blog contains edited excerpts of my new book, Unapologetic Eating: Make Peace with Food and Transform Your Life.

Looking for more support?

My team and I offer virtual one-on-one coaching and can help you get out of the all-or-nothing mindset, find the gray area, and make peace with food and your body – check out our nutrition coaching packages to learn more.

You can also check out my Unapologetic Eating 101 Course, an online, self-paced intuitive eating and body image program to liberate yourself from dieting and make peace with food and your body.

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