MiNDFOOD (New Zealand)

The Diet Cul­ture Con

We all know that di­ets don’t work in the long run. And yet so­ci­ety is obsessed with weight, and the diet and well­ness in­dus­try is boom­ing – rak­ing in bil­lions of dol­lars each and every year. MiNDFOOD in­ves­ti­gates the para­dox of diet cul­ture.

- WORDS BY CAT RODI E Lifestyle · Healthy Food · Healthy Living · Australia · Monash University · Sheffield · University of Pennsylvania · Pennsylvania · University of Exeter · Christina Milian · Brazil · United States of America · Finland · New Zealand · New York City · Diet of Japan · Exeter · La Trobe University · Adolescents · Weight Watchers POINT'S · Mindy Grossman

If you’ve ever thought twice about putting on a bathing suit, or looked for the low­est calo­rie item on a menu, then you’re prob­a­bly a vic­tim of diet cul­ture. You’re not alone. Diet cul­ture, the mis­guided idea that thin­ner is bet­ter, is a part of the 21st cen­tury zeit­geist. It’s ev­ery­where – from ‘ thin­spi­ra­tion’ on so­cial me­dia, to the no­tice­able lack of big­ger peo­ple in TV shows and films.

“Liv­ing in a diet cul­ture means liv­ing in a so­ci­ety that val­ues weight over health and wellbeing,” says Sarah Harry, a body im­age psy­chother­a­pist and co-founder of Body Pos­i­tive Aus­tralia. “Thin­ner peo­ple are seen as health­ier, more beau­ti­ful, more de­sir­able and more at­trac­tive.”

It’s not a new con­cept. “Pres­sure on women to be thin and/or a cer­tain shape has al­ways been part of West­ern so­ci­eties: think of corsets and the tight lac­ing of waists at the turn of the 20th cen­tury,” states Pro­fes­sor JaneMa­ree Ma­her, of the Cen­tre for Women’s Stud­ies and Gen­der Re­search, So­ci­ol­ogy, at Monash Univer­sity.

Harry adds the ad­vent of the Body Mass In­dex (BMI) in the 1940s in­ad­ver­tently gave diet cul­ture a new tool – a way of rank­ing peo­ple into dif­fer­ent weight cat­e­gories. “It was the be­gin­ning of think­ing of weight as ei­ther good or bad,” she ex­plains.

Diet cul­ture has a huge im­pact on our so­ci­ety, and there is sub­stan­tial re­search show­ing that larger peo­ple face dis­crim­i­na­tion in the work­place. A 2016 study from Sheffield Hal­lam Univer­sity found obese women were less likely to get hired than those of av­er­age weight, and a 2017 study from the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia found obese peo­ple are stereo­typed as “lazy, in­com­pe­tent, unattrac­tive, lack­ing willpower, and to blame for their ex­cess weight”. A study from the Univer­sity of Ex­eter in 2016 also found over­weight women get paid less than their slim­mer peers.

A 2015 paper in the Obe­sity Re­views jour­nal re­ported that weight bias can play a role in health­care – when a

larger per­son seeks med­i­cal as­sis­tance, health­care pro­fes­sion­als of­ten at­tribute their symp­toms to their weight.

Fat sham­ing – mock­ing a per­son be­cause of their size – is en­demic. A re­cent sur­vey by FitRated found 92.7 per cent of women and 86.5 per cent of men have been body shamed dur­ing their life, and 53 per cent said they had body shamed an­other per­son.

Es­ca­lat­ing moral panic about the ‘obe­sity epi­demic’ has added fuel to the diet cul­ture fire. Mis­con­cep­tions about obe­sity (de­fined by a BMI above 25) in­clude the idea that big­ger peo­ple are un­healthy and lazy. But the re­la­tion­ship be­tween weight and health is not so sim­ple. Dietitian, nutritioni­st and ‘mind­ful eat­ing’ spe­cial­ist Christina Turner says be­ing thin does not nec­es­sar­ily mean we’ll be health­ier or live longer. “The re­search backs this up,” she states.

Turner says the health of peo­ple who un­der­take pro­grams en­cour­ag­ing them to make life­style changes for the pur­pose of their wellbeing – rather than weight loss – does im­prove.

Harry, who of­fers train­ing for health pro­fes­sion­als on the non- diet ap­proach to health, says diet cul­ture af­fects us all. “It makes us think we’re not good enough as we are,” she says.

The ex­tent of the dam­age caused by diet cul­ture is im­mense. Stud­ies from places as di­verse as Brazil, the US and Fin­land all show very high rates of un­hap­pi­ness with our bod­ies.

A sur­vey of 400 16-year- old girls com­mis­sioned by Gir­lGuid­ing New Zealand re­vealed al­most half of the 16-year- old re­spon­dents feel pres­sure to look good.

Eat­ing dis­or­ders are at an all-time high. The But­ter­fly Foun­da­tion for Eat­ing Dis­or­ders states that as many as one in 20 Aus­tralians has an eat­ing dis­or­der. In New Zealand, Health Min­istry data shows the num­ber of peo­ple with eat­ing dis­or­ders in­creased by 51 per cent be­tween 2011 and 2016.

Is diet cul­ture to blame? CEO of the But­ter­fly Foun­da­tion, Chris­tine Mor­gan, says that fat sham­ing can ex­ac­er­bate body dis­sat­is­fac­tion and low self- es­teem. This can en­cour­age harm­ful di­et­ing be­hav­iours. “With both di­et­ing and body dis­sat­is­fac­tion be­ing known as ma­jor risk fac­tors for the de­vel­op­ment of an eat­ing dis­or­der, [diet cul­ture] could def­i­nitely be seen as a con­tribut­ing fac­tor,” Mor­gan says.

But while diet cul­ture is mak­ing a lot of peo­ple un­happy – and un­well – there are oth­ers who are ac­tively prof­it­ing from it. The diet in­dus­try (com­pris­ing busi­nesses that sell di­ets, weight-loss plans and weight-loss prod­ucts such as meal re­place­ment shakes or slim­ming pills) is worth a whop­ping US$168.95 bil­lion (NZ$246 bil­lion), and con­tin­ues to grow.

“It’s a great busi­ness model, but it is uneth­i­cal,” says Turner. “Di­ets don’t work in the long term. How­ever, peo­ple who have lost weight in the short term

“How many brands would go out of busi­ness if we loved our­selves?” SARAH HARRY

will come back time and time again in the hope it will even­tu­ally work. The com­pa­nies essen­tially have on­go­ing cus­tomers for life.”

There is mount­ing ev­i­dence to sup­port Turner’s as­ser­tion that di­ets sim­ply don’t work. A 2017 study from La Trobe Univer­sity, In­ef­fec­tive­ness of Com­mer­cial Weight- Loss Pro­grams for Achiev­ing Mod­est But Mean­ing­ful Weight Loss, re­vealed that di­ets aren’t even sus­tain­able in the short term.

Per­haps even more alarm­ing are the find­ings from a 2016 paper from the Amer­i­can Acad­emy of Pae­di­atrics. The study, ti­tled Pre­vent­ing Obe­sity and Eat­ing Dis­or­ders in Ado­les­cents, found that calo­rie re­stric­tion with the goal of weight loss led to an in­creased risk of be­com­ing over­weight. In other words, di­et­ing can make you gain weight.

“These [weight loss] com­pa­nies clearly know that di­ets don’t work and are tak­ing ad­van­tage to sell us the on­go­ing pur­suit of unattain­able weight loss,” says Turner.

It’s a de­press­ing tes­ta­ment to the power diet cul­ture can wield. De­spite the over­whelm­ing ev­i­dence di­ets don’t work, we con­tinue to buy into the false prom­ise that ‘ this diet’, or ‘ that prod­uct’ is the magic so­lu­tion. Harry says the en­tire diet in­dus­try prof­its from us feel­ing badly about our­selves. “How many weight-loss brands would go out of busi­ness if we all woke up and loved our­selves?” she asks.

The mar­ket­ing tac­tics em­ployed by the diet in­dus­try rely very heav­ily on diet cul­ture. Ads for low- calo­rie ready-meals and re­place­ment shakes fea­ture be­fore and af­ter pho­tos, and tes­ti­mo­ni­als that im­ply los­ing weight has had a trans­for­ma­tional ef­fect. The mes­sage is loud and clear – get thin, be happy. We buy into it be­cause that mes­sage is al­ready deeply em­bed­ded.

Even when mar­ket­ing skirts on the edge of what’s eth­i­cal, there is lit­tle pushback from con­sumers.

In Fe­bru­ary 2018, Weight Watch­ers (which re­cently changed its name to WW in an at­tempt to dis­tance it­self from diet cul­ture) an­nounced a plan to of­fer free six­month mem­ber­ships to peo­ple as young as 13. There were nu­mer­ous com­plaints from di­eti­tians, who warned that sign­ing up children in their early teens was akin to in­doc­tri­nat­ing them into diet cul­ture. Still, WW re­mained un­apolo­getic. “There’s noth­ing that we’re go­ing to do that’s not rooted in science … so it’s just a mat­ter of clar­i­fi­ca­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” CEO Mindy Gross­man told The New York Times.

So­cial me­dia is the ideal plat­form to pro­mote diet cul­ture. Hash­tags like #cleaneat­ing per­pet­u­ate the idea that cer­tain di­ets are as­pi­ra­tional. Fa­mous peo­ple, with their prom­i­nent so­cial me­dia pres­ence, are also part of the prob­lem. How­ever, al­though so­cial me­dia is def­i­nitely con­tribut­ing to the diet cul­ture prob­lem, it might also be part of the so­lu­tion. There is a grow­ing num­ber of so­cial me­dia accounts en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to shun diet cul­ture.

Turner agrees that see­ing women of vary­ing body sizes in the me­dia is a pos­i­tive step, but says we also need to re­duce weight stigma. “We should sup­port our loved ones to feel okay re­gard­less of their size,” she says.

For sup­port with an eat­ing dis­or­der, call ENANZ on (09) 522 2679.

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