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13th Aug 2021

The dangers of diet culture – and how we can rethink it

For Body Month, Her caught up with Nicola Halloran to assess the risks posed by an inescapable diet culture.

While a big part of the conversation around dieting has moved on from weight loss to general health and well-being, fad diets haven’t gone away.

In fact, they’ve slipped into the mainstream without scrutiny. Keto, Paleo and intermittent fasting are household names now, rather than fringe dietary terms.

Having said that, few long-term studies have been conducted on these diets, and health experts have noted that the majority of them come with their own risks.

Keto, for instance, which was originally developed to help reduce the frequency of seizures in children with epilepsy, is far from the miracle diet it often presents itself as.

Kathy McManus, a registered dietitian at the Department of Nutrition at Brigham and Women’s University, has said that we don’t know the long-term effects of this hugely popular diet, nor whether it’s safe.

Harvard Health Publishing has also pointed to a number of risks it poses. These include increased LDL cholesterol, kidney problems, nutrient deficiencies and liver problems.

The paleo diet has also been dubbed by dietitians as being ineffective for sustained weight loss.

Intermittent fasting, additionally, enjoys similar levels of popularity. However, dietitians have flagged it as a trend to avoid if one is prone to disordered eating. On top of that, it can lead to food craving, binge-eating and fatigue.

“No two bodies are the same.”

Beyond the individual failings of these fads, diet culture looms large in everyday society. One woman who has been calling for its end is Nicola Halloran, the author of The Wonky Spatula.

An area that concerns Nicola is the infiltration of misleading diet culture claims in online spaces.

I particularly would be worried about young teenagers because they’ve been isolated from their peer groups for so long, so their media consumption is way up, and with that comes insecurities around your body.

“What’s really interesting is that there are a couple of really big known influencers in the fitness space whose before and afters are being used to promote keto, or to promote intermittent fasting. And it’s not a true representation of how they got from A to B.”

Diet culture often fails to consider how no two bodies, or their nutritional needs, are the same.

“Depending on where your body is and what it needs, it’s very hard to know what eating a certain way, or changing something so radically can do,” Nicola explains.

“That’s where people need to think long and hard before drastically changing their nutrition. Every person’s body is so, so different. No two bodies are the same, so no two plates should be the same.”

For Nicola, a balanced approach to nutrition is grounded in sustainability – something that fad diets fail to take into account.

“It all comes down to people’s lifestyles,” she says. “Everyone needs to find something that is sustainable in the long run.”

In tackling diet culture generally, but particularly in online spaces, Nicola cites the importance of trust.

“I think the key thing about getting away from diet culture, and understanding a balanced lifestyle and healthy nutrition is finding trusted sources and understanding what it takes to nourish a healthy body.”

Above all, she echoes the importance of freedom when it comes to lifestyle choices.

“For me, it’s all about not restricting yourself,” she says. “Not having rules.”