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Rethinking resolutions: Ditch diet culture in 2023

Last Modified: January 06, 2023

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This post was written by Jennifer Barney, psychology resident, Park Center outpatient/eating disorder program therapist, Parkview Behavioral Health Institute.

Well, 2023 has officially arrived. For many, the turn of the year represents a time for self-reflection and a commitment to change, in the form of New Year’s resolutions. Unfortunately, the diet and weight loss industries capitalize on this period – using it to perpetuate diet culture messaging and encourage many to make rigid promises to “control themselves better,” largely under the guise of “improved health.” In fact, the United States diet industry is projected to make over $70 billion in profits during the 2022 calendar year, and a survey of the top 3 New Year’s resolutions made by Americans this year (and almost every year prior for more than a decade) related to dieting and weight loss efforts.

What is diet culture?

The term ‘diet culture’ describes a set of social beliefs and cultural norms that value thinness and weight loss above health and well-being and encourages restriction and rigid control over one’s diet and exercise routines. This belief system is dominant throughout the U.S. and promotes the belief that one’s health can be easily determined by their weight and shape.

Diet culture also normalizes the practice of assigning moral value or “goodness” to the foods one consumes or the amount of exercise they engage in. This can be seen in the common use of ‘fat talk’ – negative self-talk about one’s own body or the bodies of others – or judgements made about oneself or others based on their food choices, behaviors or physical appearance.

Common phrases someone immersed in diet culture might use include:

  • “I’m so bad for eating this. I’m definitely going to need to go to the gym tomorrow.”
  • “I can’t have that. I’m trying to be good.”
  • “I wish I had your self-control. I’ve really let myself go.”
Why is diet culture/dieting unhealthy?

Research clearly indicates that restrictive/rigid dieting for weight loss doesn’t work. While many individuals may see short-term weight loss results by following a restrictive diet, studies consistently find that more than 90% of individuals gain back most if not all (and often more) of the weight they’ve lost within the first 1 to 5 years.

Diet culture’s belief system often leads people to think that if they or someone they know falls within that 90%, it’s because they’ve failed. Perhaps they didn’t have enough self-control, or they just didn’t find the ‘right’ diet yet. Diet culture and the weight loss industry profit off of the shame and guilt one feels in response to this message and uses it to motivate people to buy even more dieting and wellness products that can help them ‘do better’ next time.

But failing at restrictive dieting is evolutionarily healthy. When you suddenly start to restrict your dietary intake calorically or limit yourself from eating certain nutrients (physically and/or mentally), your body interprets it as a threat to its survival. Human bodies are biologically designed to fight perceived starvation and food scarcity, no matter what weight you start at when this starvation occurs. Even if you’re actually surrounded by food and you’re just restricting your diet by choice, your body interprets this the same as it would in a true famine, and it actively works to protect you from starvation by slowing the metabolism and decreasing energy expenditure wherever possible (you can read a more detailed description of this process here). Thus, dieting is based on a concept that is evolutionarily designed to fail. But diet culture and the wellness industry rely on people believing that weight loss and thinness are the only way to achieve ‘health,’ and shaming those who do not aspire to this or achieve this ensures that their 70-plus billion-dollar industry doesn’t collapse.

Another problem with diet culture is the extreme oversimplification of health, which places the emphasis almost exclusively on weight and shape. From this viewpoint, diet culture messages claim that weight-loss through dieting is the best way for improving one’s health, ignoring any other effects it may have on one’s physical or psychological well-being. This singular, weight-focused paradigm has been largely debunked (you can read a great review of the research on this here), finding that weight and BMI tend to be far less predictive of poor health and early mortality, except at the statistical extremes, than diet culture would like you to believe. This mindset also severely minimizes how complex human health truly is. There are countless factors including genetics, socioeconomic status, hormone levels, activity levels, nutritional intake, psychological well-being and stress levels (to name just a few) that all interact with and influence one another and continuously influence an individual’s overall health and well-being.

In addition to promoting a false belief that one's weight and shape is the single most important factor contributing to health, diet culture also falsely portrays weight loss as the best way to improve health across a variety of health-related indicators (e.g., high blood pressure; low energy). However, a review of 21 dieting for weight loss studies showed that across physical health indicators measured in addition to weight loss (e.g. blood pressure, blood glucose levels, cholesterol and triglyceride levels), little-to-no improvements were observed, and none of the changes were associated with the amount of weight participants lost. The researchers of this study concluded that consistent behavioral changes such as increased physical activity, eating a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods, and tuning into and honoring one’s hunger and fullness cues are all likely to contribute to improved physical health regardless of whether changes in weight are observed.

Overall, there is remarkably little evidence to suggest that weight can accurately and independently predict a person’s physical health. There is, however, a lot of evidence showing that engaging in restrictive dieting and/or experiencing the effects of weight stigma (i.e. negative judgement and discrimination due to one’s weight) and ‘fat shaming’ that are driven by diet culture contributes to significantly worse psychological health and well-being. Studies have consistently found that rigid dietary control is associated with increased disordered eating behaviors, higher levels of body dissatisfaction, higher levels of depression and higher levels of disinhibition among both males and females [1, 2]. Similarly, experiencing negative social judgements based on weight stigma consistently predicts increased levels of maladaptive coping, psychological distress, depression and anxiety symptoms [3].

All of these mental health outcomes are associated with a lower quality of life, and often tend to negatively impact the level of engagement in health-related behaviors such as those mentioned above, regardless of what one’s weight or shape is.

So, what resolutions should I set instead?

If you’re still with me, you might be (I hope you are!) questioning that New Year’s resolution you set to “lose x pounds” or “eat better.” These resolutions to “control yourself better,” probably driven by the shame and self-criticism rooted in diet culture, are more likely to diminish your overall health and quality of life than they are to improve them.

Don’t get me wrong, as a psychology resident, I wholeheartedly support using the new year as an opportunity for intention setting and making changes to improve your quality of life. However, research evidence – which I have found to be consistent with my own personal and clinical experiences as a therapist time and time again – suggests that setting resolutions based in self-compassion and self-acceptance rather than shame and self-criticism are far more likely to be successful and promote improved health and happiness throughout the coming year.

If you’re not quite sure how to shift out of a self-critical or diet culture-based mindset as you reconsider your 2023 resolution(s), you're not alone! Asking yourself some of these questions can be a helpful way to get started:

  • What does it mean to take care of myself/someone I love?
  • What does it feel like to be taken care of?
  • What actions does it require?
  • Are there ways that I take care of others that are not as easy to do for myself?
  • Is the choice to do this motivated by care or by control?

In general, our bodies are pretty good at telling us what they need to be taken care of – we just need to listen to them. By starting to tune in to your mind and body’s cues, see if you can identify what it’s asking for or areas that may need more care than you’ve been giving them. Perhaps your body is asking you to engage in some mindful movement each day to release the tension held in your neck and shoulders because you work at a computer all day. Maybe it’s communicating to you that it’s dehydrated and could benefit from you being more intentional about giving it water each day. Perhaps you’re not quite sure what your body is needing at this moment, and that’s OK, too! Sounds like a great year to set the intention of becoming more in tune with your body by being curious and non-judgmental about its own unique wants and needs!

No matter what you decide the best New Year’s resolution is for you, I encourage everyone to consider adding the resolution to ditch diet culture and disengage from “fat-talk” in 2023. A cultural belief system that is designed to profit off shame and stigma is unhealthy for everyone, and a significant amount of research (and maybe even your own personal experiences now that you’ve taken some time to think about it) prove this is true.

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