The Diet Culture Myths We Need to Ditch, According to Experts

Source: @sakaralife
Source: @sakaralife

Editor’s Note: This essay discusses disordered eating and diet culture. Please take care of yourself if those topics could be triggering.

Many of us feel like we want to change our bodies instead of love them. We may want to be smaller, taller, leaner, or more toned—anything deemed worthy or acceptable in the eyes of a culture obsessed with appearance. And while changing your body is a personal decision (as it should be), there are often underlying factors at play. Enter: diet culture. But we can each work to actively step away from diet culture and embrace a kinder, gentler way to be in our bodies and take up space in the world.

To pull away the curtain from some of the subtler ways diet culture shows up in our lives, I tapped a few dietitians with plenty of insights to share. Read on for the diet culture myths they say to drop ASAP and the healthier habits to pick up instead.

What is diet culture?

Diet culture promotes a worldview where looking a certain way affords you a certain level of acceptance. It’s the social expectations that say we have to fit into the right boxes to deserve X, Y, and Z (and in a world where anti-fat bias runs rampant, that tends to mean healthcare, employment, and respect). More troubling news: In a 2022 article, The Cut cited evidence via a renewed interest in celebrities’ smaller bodies and clothing brands’ inability to deliver on promises of inclusive sizing as concerning proof that thin could be, as the writer puts it, “in again.”

Diet culture–and thinness as an ideal–has infiltrated much of our world, and it’s a challenge to step away from it completely. Even if you haven’t experienced disordered eating, you’re probably familiar with phrases like “clean eating” or doing a detox after the holidays. While on the surface, these might fall into the category of what we’ve been sold as wellness, these myths are meant to keep us focused on appearance. If that makes you angry and ready to take action, you’re in good company. So let’s separate the fact from fiction, and start ditching diet culture today.

Myth #1: Food is either good or bad

Vegetables, good. Sugar, bad. Smoothies, good. Ice cream, bad. Fruit, good or bad? We’ve learned to categorize food in this way—dividing what we eat into buckets of judgment. Erin Reeves, a registered dietitian at Equip, called this “an incredibly harmful mindset.” She explained that because this habit is so deeply ingrained, it can create a sense of shame, anxiety, and guilt around food, as well as lead to other eating disorder behaviors. 

“What we need to understand is that our self-worth is not dependent on the food we eat,” said Reeves. She offered a key reminder that health is relative, and we all have different needs that make us feel our best. Rather than thinking of food as black or white, it’s important to understand that different foods nourish us in different ways, nutritional value aside. Reeves encouraged us to release the shame and embrace the fuel, connection, and pleasure that food provides.

Myth #2: Detox diets cause weight loss

Alyssa Wilson, a registered and licensed dietitian and metabolic success coach for Signos Health, wants us to ditch the dangerous pattern of detox diets and cleanses. The reality? They may lead to weight loss, but only in the short term. In fact, “Detox diets can actually do more harm than good.” Instead of going all in on a detox or following a restrictive cleanse, Wilson suggested just filling your diet with whole grains, fruits and veggies, lean proteins, and healthy fats (which will help support your body and its natural ability to detox, all on its own).

Myth #3: Avoid or limit carbs

I remember just about every rom-com from the mid-aughts contained a protagonist who swore off carbs. It was always with a desire to fit into a smaller dress or prep for a high school reunion—a belief driven by the myth that carbs lead to weight gain. Reeves explained that our bodies need at least 50% of daily calorie intake to come from carbs. “So if someone is cutting carbs from their diet, they might lose weight only since they are excluding their body’s basic needs,” she said. But that can be dangerous water to tread. Reeves noted that this may lead to weight “gain” as the body rehydrates and replenishes its carbohydrate stores.

What’s more–and this applies to any food group we might cut out–this all-or-nothing behavior leads to a binge-restrict cycle where we may begin to fear some foods and feel out of control around them. Reeves’ short answer? “Carbs are awesome and every single person on this earth should be incorporating them daily.”

Myth #4: Fast food is bad

Though convenient, tasty, and capable of satisfying your late-night cravings, fast food has been demonized in our culture for years. Wendy Lord, a registered dietitian and medical content author at Health Reporter, admitted that while fast food doesn’t contain as much nutritional value as other foods, eating it on occasion won’t ruin your health or make you gain weight. Similar to the food-is-good-or-bad divide, if we try to restrict fast food, we can cause intense cravings. Instead, by learning to adopt a more accepting view of fast food (the All Foods Fit model is great inspiration), we can see fast food—and all its deliciousness—in an entirely different light.

Myth #5: Intuitive eating is easy and everyone should practice it

While I once believed intuitive eating was the solution to saying goodbye to diet culture once and for all, I’ve since learned that it’s not that simple. We may have been told plain and simple that we can learn to eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full, but Reeves cited many other factors, such as beliefs, culture, habits, and medical histories, that add complexity to the mix. Reeves noted that intuitive eating isn’t something we can develop overnight. In fact, it’s a process that can take years for people to develop. 

Reeves encouraged getting to the truth of why you’re turning to intuitive eating. For example, if you want to try intuitive eating to move away from diet culture, reduce anxiety and shame around food, or improve your relationship with food, go ahead and practice eating intuitively. But Reeves cautioned that intuitive eating can be disguised as a weight loss plan. Even if you have the best intentions, intuitive eating can take years to achieve. You may need to work with a specialized nutritionist, therapist, or doctor to help you get back to a place of trusting your hunger cues, needs, and body. Bottom line: There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to diet.