You hear it all the time: “I’m going to start the whole 30 this month!” “I need to get down to pre-pregnancy weight” “Ugh, I hate my thighs,” “I’m not going to eat sugar; it’s too addicting,” “If I could just lose X pounds, then I would be happier.” Topics of dieting have become so normalized that these harmful messages trickle their way into our daily conversations, and are highly reinforced by advertisements, media, and yes, even the medical field. It’s no wonder that up to 85% of young girls dislike and want to change their bodies! Furthermore, research has shown those who diet are ten times more likely to develop a diagnosable eating disorder than their non-dieting peers (NEDA, 2019). Dieting, over the years, has become detrimental to both mental and physical health. Studies have reported that yo-yo dieting leads to more weight gain and more health complications than those who maintain a consistent weight (Columbia, 2019). The overall culture of dieting is damaging, mentally, emotionally, and physically, leading to restrictive food intake, overeating, obsessions about food, harmful supplements for the body, anxiety, and shame regarding food choices, and poor body image.

There are several small action steps we can do to work on reducing the harmful effects of dieting. The first thing we can do is to stop labeling foods as good or bad and stop labeling yourself as good or bad based on the specific foods you eat. When we adopt the All Foods Fit model, we are less likely to avoid guilt and shame over what we eat. Also, we can allow ourselves to eat a variety of different foods. Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, and Elyse Resch, MS, RD, FADA, CEDRD describe labeling food in a moral sense as the “Food Police,” in their book, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works (2012). Tribole and Resch report that Policing food leads to rigid rules, which reinforce a sense of guilt for eating “bad foods” or a heightened sense of morality for eating “good foods.” Next time you go for a piece of cake or a salad, remember to give yourself permission to eat all foods and that the type of food you choose to eat does not define you as a person.

Another helpful step to finding freedom from diet culture is to participate in mindful, joyful movement. When we find movement or exercise we enjoy, we are more likely to engage in that activity for a much longer-term than when we feel forced to engage in activities we don’t like. After a while, exercise becomes something we want to do rather than something we have to do. This reduces guilt for the times when we miss a day or feel as if we don’t push hard enough. When we shift our focus to how we feel, rather than how many calories we burned, the distance we ran, or the time we spent working out, we will begin to focus on how exercise actually makes us feel inside. A leisure walk can do more for the mind, body, and soul as we practice mindfulness, nature, and joy in our movement. Stress from missing a work out can do more harm to our body. Being able to find small acts of reducing stress, such as joyful movement, can be helpful in our overall health.

Lastly, we can work on treating our bodies nicely. We live in a society that is slowly starting to honor body diversity, and while we are moving in a more body inclusive direction, we still have a long way to go. It can be difficult to love and respect our bodies when most advertisements tell us that we need to change our bodies. If you find yourself struggling to accept your body, recognize that as a whole, our society puts unrealistic expectations and overemphasis on body shape and appearance. One way to practice body acceptance is by practicing affirming statements, such as “I appreciate my legs because they are strong,” “I appreciate my arms because I can welcome hugs from people I love,” “My stomach helps me to absorb nutrients and digest my food.” When we can start appreciating our body for what it does rather than what it doesn’t do or look like, the desire to participate in diet culture diminishes. We can begin to learn to appreciate the practical sense of our bodies instead of objectifying them.

Being able to honor and respect our bodies while making conscientious decisions about food and exercise can increase our overall health, both mentally and physically. Dieting can be damaging by causing an increase in our risk for eating disorders, preoccupation with food and weight, and even major illnesses such as heart disease. With professional help, you can heal your relationship with food and your body.

Alyssa Booth, MA, LPC