Diet culture is a set of myths and expectations around food and weight, which typically equate thinness to health and categorize foods into “good” or “bad” types.

Diet culture creates a moral hierarchy of body sizes and shapes, which typically idealizes thinness and creates fear and negativity about fat. Social media, consumer products, and health fads may all contribute to diet culture.

This article looks at what diet culture is, how it may affect people, tips for challenging it, and how to seek support.

A person taking pictures on their phone of some food.-2Share on Pinterest
valbar STUDIO/Stocksy

According to a 2021 analysis, diet culture is the pervasive idea or cultural norm that equates being thin and losing weight with health. Diet culture portrays being thin as the ideal and views any other size as inherently unhealthy or something to fear.

Some feminist scholars see diet culture as a patriarchal method of discipline or control. However, diet culture can affect all genders. Racialized ideals may also play a part in how society sees body size in relation to health.

Diet culture has a focus and moralization on thinness, food restriction, and control around food and weight.

Diet culture may affect people in the following ways.

Negative body image

A 2020 systematic review suggests that certain social media content may link to negative body image, especially in young females. Comparisons to people whom users perceive as thinner may relate to body dissatisfaction.

Young adult males also report seeking validation on social media for their appearance. Diet culture, in the form of fitness images intended to be inspirational, thin bodies, and aspirational food images, may reinforce body dissatisfaction and body shame.

Negative body image, in turn, can increase the risk of disordered eating, including dieting, fasting, calorie counting, and binge eating.

Disordered eating

Orthorexia nervosa (ON) is an eating disorder in which people have a fixation on eating foods they consider pure or “clean” and rigid eating patterns, which include avoiding any foods deemed “unhealthy.”

A 2023 study of people using social media who self-identified as having ON found that participants perceived diet culture as reinforcing and normalizing harmful ideals and behaviors around health.

A small-scale 2019 study found that 15 university students with eating disorder symptoms reported campus diet culture and glorification of eating disorder symptoms as one of the reasons for their worsening symptoms at university.

Mental health difficulties

Diet culture may also contribute to an increased risk of certain mental health conditions, including:

Elements of diet culture may aim to motivate healthy lifestyle choices for people, and research suggests exposure to idealized images of fitness and food may increase body dissatisfaction and behaviors to lose weight.

However, many of these images idealize one body type, thinness, and high levels of fitness.

Diet culture in the form of social media, celebrity endorsements, or influencers may overshadow or be in opposition to the advice of healthcare professionals.

Healthcare professionals may also turn to these methods to promote a health campaign, which may unintentionally promote negative body image, disordered eating, or unhealthy fitness behaviors.

The Butterfly Foundation, an Australian charity tackling eating disorders and body image issues, suggests the following tips for overcoming diet culture:

  • Radical self-care: Practice self-care by putting oneself first and listening to oneself rather than ideals or behaviors fueled by consumerism.
  • Self-acceptance: Learn to accept one’s body regardless of size, shape, or weight.
  • Focus on nourishing the body: Switching the focus from weight loss to nourishing and looking after the body may be a more positive perspective.
  • Find like-minded connections: Look for like-minded communities who reject diet culture, and avoid following media that makes people feel negative about their bodies.
  • Seek out positive, empowering messages: Read books, articles, or blogs that promote positive messages of body acceptance.
  • Resist diet culture: Call out or challenge ideas of diet culture in everyday life, such as a conversation that focuses on dieting, and begin an alternative conversation that feels more positive.

A 2021 study suggests intuitive eating may help people reject diet culture. Intuitive eating does not emphasize dieting or weight loss but focuses on eating in response to internal cues from the body, such as hunger or satiety.

Participants reported that the benefits of intuitive eating included increased headspace, new hobbies and interests, and an improvement in being able to listen to themselves and act on it.

The role of healthcare professionals

Healthcare professionals can also play a role in challenging diet culture by encouraging overall healthful behavior changes while being conscious of social determinants of health that influence these approaches.

They may suggest behavioral changes, such as regular exercise; eating a nourishing, balanced diet; getting good quality sleep; and finding healthy ways to manage stress and anxiety.

For more help with this, people can speak with a healthcare professional, such as a dietitian, with experience in a “Health at Every Size?” approach.

If people feel they are experiencing negative body image, mental health difficulties due to diet culture, or disordered eating, they can speak with a healthcare professional for support. Symptoms that could indicate someone needs help include:

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) provides a screening tool that can help people determine if they need to seek professional help.

People can also search for local treatment providers by using this search tool, or they can find support groups and other free or low cost resources here.

Diet culture is a set of cultural myths around food, weight, and health. It focuses on thinness as an ideal, and labels foods and behaviors as either “good” or “bad.”

Diet culture may have negative consequences on a person’s well-being, including poor mental health, negative body image, and disordered eating.

Challenging diet culture by focusing on self-care, intuitive eating, and surrounding oneself with positive messages about weight and food may help.

If people are experiencing negative body image or disordered eating, it is important to speak with a doctor, mental health professional, or reputable organization for help.