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12th Jan 2021

Same shit, new year: A brief history of diet culture and why it needs to go

Jade Hayden

*This article includes references to weight loss and restrictive eating.

Diet culture.

A 60+ billion dollar industry, the root of countless poor relationships with food, and a constant reminder that unless you are restricting your eating, you’re probably just not good enough.

With the New Year comes a new wave of goals – some of them positive, some of them not. And with ‘losing weight’ (and ‘getting fit’ often masquerading as ‘losing weight’) shooting to the top of resolution lists around the globe, it’s no surprise that so many of us are feeling the pressure this time of year.

But why is diet culture so prevalent, has it always been so, and how do we achieve a more healthy way of living without it?

We don’t know exactly how long people have been restricting their eating in order to lose weight, but we do know where the word ‘diet’ originates from.

As far back as ancient Greece, people were chatting about their ‘diaita.’ Back then the word was used to discuss a person’s lifestyle choice: the foods they were eating, the exercise they were doing, the way they were living their life to achieve a healthy mind and body.

Now, although the word technically means the same thing, so many of us tend to associate it with something more problematic: food restriction, a focus on loss, and a fear of “getting fat.”

As time has passed, diet culture has only become more prevalent, particularly at the beginning of the New Year, as we’re accosted with every 1,000 calorie fad, every 30-day workout plan, and every promise that weighing less will be an end to all of our problems.

Blogger and chef Nicola Halloran is one of the many people adamant that it won’t. In fact, she’s so against diet culture that she thinks we should reject it entirely.

“I feel that it really is all down to social media and the promotion of making changes come January 1st,” she tells Her.

“For the last number of years, our newsfeeds have been filled with how many burpees you need to do in order to ‘earn’ your Christmas dinner, followed by an onslaught of how to get in shape to ‘undo’ it all to become your ‘best’ self.

“I’m all about goal setting at the beginning of the year for key things that you want to achieve both career-wise and personally, it’s a great way to keep yourself motivated and driven. However, when it comes down to goals around looking or weighing a certain way, that’s where it becomes dangerous territory.”

And dangerous territory it is. According to the National Eating Disorder Association of America, over 50% of teenage girls and 33% of teenage boys are using restrictive measures to lose weight at any given time.

Almost half of 9 – 11 year olds are ‘sometimes’ or ‘very often’ on diets, with the vast majority of their families also engaging in dieting in a bid to lose weight. 40 – 60% of girls aged between 6 and 12 years have reported concerns about their weight or fears around “getting fat.”

The statistics may be shocking, but what’s even more surprising is the retention rate, and more specifically, the results. Although backed by sometimes conflicting evidence, the top line often concentrates on this – 95% of all dieters regaining their lost weight in 1 – 5 years.

The true number we may never be partial to, but it’s important to note that regaining weight is not a failure. For many people, it’s just inevitable.

“These sorts of goals can lead to all kinds of body and food issues,” says Nicola, “as they can lead to determining self worth and happiness based on looking a certain way.

“Diets and excessive exercising are unsustainable short term fixes which inevitably lead to going back to square one. Food is something that our body needs in order to function, we should never have to work for it.

“You should never feel guilty for enjoying something that you love. The idea of burning X amount of calories before consuming Y creates such a negative relationship between us, our bodies and the food we eat.”

Diet culture may be harming our relationships with food, but it sure isn’t harming the bank accounts of those who perpetuate it. A $60+ billion industry (and growing), it’s no surprise that the art of making people feel bad about themselves is showing no sign of slowing.

Dietician, nutritionist, and intuitive eating counsellor Christy Harrison says that diet culture isn’t just about weight, it’s about control. After all, if you’re focusing all of your energy on being thin, you won’t have time for very much else.

In her book Anti-Diet, she writes that diet culture “keeps us too hungry, too fixated on our bodies, and too caught up in the minutiae of our eating regiments to focus our energies on changing the world.”

So, is there a solution? And if so, what is it? As with the vast majority of health-based conundrums, the answer largely differs from person to person. Only each individual will know what lifestyle choices are right for them and what food they should be putting into their bodies.

Rather than dieting, Nicola suggests making small, incremental changes that will actually be sustainable over a long period of time. Drinking more water, trying a new vegetable every week, and switching time spent on social media for time spent doing exercises right for you can all lead to positive changes that will, in time, add up.

So will ensuring the body is getting all of its key nutrients – proteins, carbs, and fats too. In fact, Nicola says that there is no reason a person should be avoiding a specific nutrient unless for medical reasons.

“I really believe that food is to be enjoyed and there’s no such things as good or bad foods,” she says. “It’s all about balance. You should never deprive yourself of something in order to achieve a goal.

“You need to take a moment and assess whether you can see yourself doing these things for the rest of your life. If the answer is yes, then you have achieved the perfect balance.”

You can follow Nicola and The Wonky Spatula on Instagram here.