In sixth grade, I begged my mom to fill our cabinets with an endless supply of spearmint tea because I read somewhere that it “aided in weight loss.” As a teen, I put my stomach (and bowels) through the wringer taking a spoonful of apple cider vinegar every single morning before school. As a young adult, I forced myself to love thin crust pizza over the usual Domino’s because it had fewer carbs. I feel like a failure if I’m not making moves every single day to achieve the utmost goal of thinness. Those, my friends, are just a few diet myths I’ve had to debunk over the years.
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“Diet culture has many facets and nuances, but to put it generally, it’s a belief system that values body shape, weight, and size over actual health and wellbeing,” said Callie Exas, CMPH, MS, RDN, founder of Callie Exas Nutrition & Wellness and creator of The Science of Self-Care, a 12-week program teaching people to instill nutrition and self-care in a positive way. “[Diet culture] equates health, morality, and external appearance in the form of the thin white female as the ideal. In our society, it glorifies certain ways of eating while demonizing others so that you become disconnected from your innate mind-body connection. It values thinness over how you actually feel in your body.”
If you exist as a femme-identifying or presenting individual in Western culture, you’ve at some point in your life experienced diet culture. It’s everywhere. While it’s obviously prevalent in the dieting and wellness industry, it’s also pervasive throughout every facet of our lives. “It’s messaging that… promotes a certain, specific way of eating in the name of health and wellness; therefore, many people don’t recognize their behaviors or patterns as ‘dieting’ because they believe they’re just being ‘healthy,’” Exas said. Diet culture is when a celebrity promotes a food item as “clean” or “detoxing”; it’s when someone asks how you’re going to “bounce back after baby.” Diet culture is believing certain foods are good or bad. It’s going for a run after a pizza night with your girlfriends, not because you enjoy running, but because you have to “make good.” Diet culture is being told over and over again to drink lemon water for “good digestion” in the morning.
What does health mean to you? If only thin, rich, white women come to mind, your definition might be a little warped. Here are a few classic diet culture myths Exas wants us to know about:
Myth #1: Juice cleanses
“Listen, if you have a working liver, kidneys, and gut, your body knows how to cleanse itself, and a juice cleanse actually doesn’t do what it claims,” Exas said. When you juice produce, it’s just the water and sugars pressed out of the fruits and veggies, so it “gets rid of all that gut-healthy fiber that helps slow down the absorption of sugar from said fruits and veggies into your bloodstream,” according to Exas. “In reality, it can actually put stress on the body more by #1. starving it and putting it into storage mode, and #2. by giving you a blood sugar imbalance, causing hyperglycemia because you’ve lost all that good fiber.” If you love the taste of juice, by all means, keep drinking it! But if you’re juicing because you want to lose weight quickly or “debloat,” it’s likely to have the opposite effect.
Myth #2: Thinness equals health
Just because you exist in a thin, desirable body doesn’t mean you’re healthy, just as existing in a larger body doesn’t always equate to having diabetes or heart problems. “Being thinner does not necessarily mean you will gain energy, feel confident in your body, and balance your hormones,” Exas said. “Weight alone does not equate to health, happiness, energy, and body confidence.”
Myth #3: Losing weight is the only way to love your body
Losing weight isn’t the only factor in the equation of body acceptance. Being thinner doesn’t mean you’re automatically happier or healthier. But there are healthy ways, both mentally and physically, to lose fat if that’s something you want to do. “I think you can have the goal of fat loss without subscribing to diet culture, but it requires taking a deeper look into your relationship with food and your body,” Exas said. “We can’t just focus on the scale as the outcome because the scale will never tell the entire story.”
Myth #4: Lemon water in the morning aids in digestion
You’ve likely seen this on every “What I Eat in A Day” on YouTube. However, the science isn’t necessarily there to back it up. Just as your body already has a working detoxification system that makes doing a juice cleanse null and void (and entirely unpleasant), you don’t need to drink some special magic concoction every morning to “get it moving.” Your body already does it for you, no lemon required. There is also no scientific evidence out there that lemon can aid in digestion or indigestion either, so much of what people are going off of is anecdotal at best.
If you love the taste of lemon water first thing in the morning, drink it for nothing other than that it’s enjoyable to you. But don’t place all your bets on it detoxifying your system because it simply won’t.
Myth #5: Everyone should feel positive about their bodies at all times
On the flipside, “body positivity” isn’t always the cure-all we think it is. Exas explained that she actually prefers to focus on body respect with her clients. “I like to be real, and it is really difficult to feel positive in your body all the time,” Exas said. “I’m a new mom. My body hasn’t felt like my own in a very long time, and to be honest, I don’t feel positive about it all the time… The idea of forcing positivity or even neutrality on me about it at this point will only shame me more.” However, Exas said that she can respect her body and recognize all that it does for her. Refusing to “resort to abusive, harsh tactics in the name of thinness” is a form of self-respect. “This to me is how we reject and combat diet culture. You can always respect your body, even when you’re having a bad body image day. If we can accept that body image can be dynamic while also respecting our innate needs, then we won’t feel the need to go to extremes in order to find balance.”
Myth #6: There are good foods and bad foods
Placing morality on an innate object such as food is a long-time diet culture ploy to convince us that we all must eat a certain way to feel healthier. Newsflash: there are about a thousand different diets out there all claiming to be the best one while vilifying the others. Some say high-fat, low-carb diets like Keto are everything, while others point to low-fat, high-carb vegan diets. Some say meat is our best friend and others say meat is giving us cancer. “Your diet shouldn’t and doesn’t reflect your morality or make you a better or worse person,” Exas said. “Your nutrition and self-care practices should make you feel empowered, energetic, and satisfied.”
So, then what does a balanced diet look like? “I’d say that a balanced diet looks different on everyone day to day,” Exas said. “If you can focus on tuning out the outside noise when it comes to nutrition, diets, etc. and really focus on how food, movement, and your self-care practices make you feel, then I say that’s a win against diet culture.”
Is it possible to completely forgo diet culture? Yes and no.
Like we said, diet culture is pervasive; it’s in every single sector of our lives, from work to school to relationships to parenthood to wellness and more. But there are ways to tune into diet culture and address if what you’re reading is rooted in science and fact, or if it’s focused on a bunch of BS. “Learn how to recognize it and reject it,” Exas said. To get started, Exas said she recommends taking some time off social media. “I love doing social media detoxes with my clients along with focusing on how to restore your relationship with your body so that you can have your autonomy over how food, movement, people, and ideas make you feel.”