What Does ‘Diet Culture’ Mean and Why Is It Harmful?

These days, you can’t get into a conversation about nutrition and wellness without someone mentioning diet culture. It’s all over social media, in both anti-diet spaces and more general wellness ones. Celebrities are calling it out. It’s mentioned in academic research. Even the young teenagers I work with in my nutrition practice use the term. They talk about how their parents don’t keep certain foods in the house, their friend is trying to lose weight, or their coach told them to avoid sugar, “because, you know, diet culture.”

But just because a term is ubiquitous doesn’t mean that it’s universally understood. While many people think diet culture is just about, well, diets, it’s actually far more complex and far-reaching. Diet culture is an entire belief system that associates food with morality and thinness with goodness, and it’s rooted in the (very colonial) belief that every individual has full control and responsibility over their health.

What’s worse, diet culture is so ingrained, especially in Western society, that we often don’t even recognize it. That’s why SELF asked experts to address some of the most common questions and misconceptions about the term to give you a better understanding of what diet culture really means and why it’s so problematic.

What’s the definition of diet culture?

Although there’s no official definition of diet culture, Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, author of Anti-Diet, published a great one on her blog in 2018. Harrison defines diet culture as a belief system that “worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue,” promotes weight loss and maintaining a low weight as a way to elevate social status, and demonizes certain foods and eating styles while elevating others. Diet culture also “oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of ‘health,’ which disproportionately harms women, femmes, trans folks, people in larger bodies, people of color, and people with disabilities,” Harrison writes.

We’re all surrounded—and influenced—by diet culture, all the time. “There’s this idea that diet culture only affects people who choose to diet, but that’s not true,” Sabrina Strings, PhD, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies diet culture and fatphobia, tells SELF. “Diet culture is the culture we’re all steeped in; it’s the belief that we can control our bodies based on what and how much we eat, and it places a moral judgment on food and bodies.” In other words, it makes us believe, consciously or not, that certain foods and (thin, usually white) bodies are good, while other foods and (fat, often Black or non-white) bodies are bad.

What are some of the roots of diet culture?

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, American protestants started to publicly equate deprivation with health, and health with morality. The most famous example is probably clergyman Sylvester Graham (namesake of the graham cracker, which was originally much less delicious than it is now), who promoted a bland vegetarian diet of bread, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables as a way to quell sexual urges, improve health, and ensure moral virtue.

There’s also plenty of racism and anti-Blackness baked into this colonial idea that thinness and food restriction equal goodness. In her book Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, Dr. Strings talks about how white colonial thought used body size as a way to argue that Black people were inferior. “During the height of slavery in the 18th century, there were prominent Europeans who believed that being thin and controlling what they ate made them morally superior,” Dr. Strings says. “And thus, African people were inherently viewed as inferior, because they tended to have larger bodies, which was equated to being lazy.”