Scratchy sheets. A faint but constant beep. I blink an eye open and my morning routine begins—kicking off with the daily, yet still shocking, realization that I lay not in the comfort of my queen-size bed, but in the cold darkness of Room 311, on the third floor of a hospital I had only visited once prior, for the birth of my baby sister. It was day twenty-one, but I was no less afraid than I was twenty-one days before. Not victim to a car crash, an electric shock, or a shark attack. At the raw age of fifteen, diet culture had its fiery claws wrapped around me so tightly I began to suffocate. Anorexia rehabilitation, the white board across from my bed read. Goals: stabilize heart, increase caloric intake, lessen orthostasis.
I was no stranger to diet culture before my diagnosis. At eight, I watched my godmother cut out sugar. At twelve, I took the advice from gymnastics coaches to lose weight. At fourteen, I learned the “benefits” of counting calories and tracking macros. Billboards and magazines and television ads preached the newest rapid fat-burning pill or low carb pancake mix. Adults made celebratory comments about how “good” they were eating (until the cookie after dinner) and how “bad” they were for gaining three pounds on vacation. Diet culture, which “worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, and demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others,” has leverage so strong in our society we often fail to recognize its presence (Rumsey).
Sadly, 75% of American women have unhealthy thoughts, feelings, or behaviors related to food or their bodies (Science Daily). The ideals of diet culture have infiltrated the minds of three out of four women so heavily that they actively engage in unhealthy activity. The number of women who diet “healthily” is even higher—an astounding 91%. Millions of men also desire weight loss and attempt to control their food intake. The US diet industry profits off of these insecurities, building up a net worth of over $72 billion by 2019—a number forecasted to increase by 2.6% each year (Market Research).
Through weight loss programs, pharmaceutical and medical companies producing fat-burning and appetite-suppressing drugs, supplements, procedures, and other companies marketing “beauty” or “health,” the diet industry thrives on people believing they are addicted to food and that attaining the ultimate physique will solve all their problems. From low-calorie entrees to dangerous weight loss pills to artificial sweeteners, this industry capitalizes on society’s debilitating desire to control and conform.
Despite the time, money, and dedication so willingly surrendered in attempts at weight loss, the harsh truth is that most diets don’t work. A 2007 study done at UCLA revealed that within two years of dieting, 83% of dieters gained back more weight than they had lost. Why? For one, the deprivation of restrictive diets often leads to a toxic overeating and restricting cycle. This increases food fixation and teaches the body to cling to any nutrition it receives, thus slowing the metabolism and holding onto weight. It ignites a survival mode or a famine state, so to speak, as the body loses trust in the dieter’s ability to feed it sufficiently. Along with this, dieting goes against the way the human body is wired—to maintain weight.
When we try to cut out the foods our bodies crave, we fight nature itself, a losing battle. A 2018 study done at the University of Washington pitted low-carb and low-fat diets against each other and found that neither were successful in weight loss and both resulted in the dieters gaining more weight than they had lost. Whether it’s Keto, Atkins, Paleo, or South Beach, all diets depriving the body of nutrients necessary for its survival often create the opposite effect.
Besides not working, dieting can lead to an array of physical symptoms, including reduced bone density, fatigue, hair loss, migraines, and heart damage. Restricting food can weaken the immune system and reduce fertility. It wreaks havoc on the metabolism and hunger cues. Dieting is even worse psychologically, heightening both food and weight fixation. Diet culture trains society to see food as either good or bad and to value the number on the scale over physical health. This takes a major toll on self-esteem and often makes dieters feel like failures. Food and weight loss obsession so effortlessly creeps in and consumes people, frequently leading to disordered eating.
A study from BYU Idaho found that 35% of “occasional dieters” progress into pathological dieting (disordered eating) and as many as 25% progress into full blown eating disorders such as anorexia1, bulimia2, and orthorexia3. Eating disorders have the highest fatality rate of any mental illness and are seen affecting children as young as five. A seemingly harmless diet can quickly take the reins of dieters’ rational decision-making and subsequently transfer these ideas into those who look up to them. The diet industry is nothing but a multi-billion-dollar trap, stealing lives and creating generations of unrest.
1. Anorexia – a fear of being overweight, which leads to starvation and/or excessive exercise.
2. Bulimia – an obsessive desire to lose weight, which leads to extreme overeating, followed by self-induced vomiting and/or fasting.
3. Orthorexia – a distorted notion of healthy eating, which leads to isolation, malnutrition, and sometimes death (Dr. Steven Bratman 1997).
Dieters commonly fear that if they stop controlling food, they will continue to gain weight without limit. But the human body has a set point—a weight range that it will try to maintain. In her book The F*ck It Diet, Caroline Dooner explains, “No matter how you are eating or moving, there is a weight range your body wants to be in—some are higher, some are lower. Your body will adjust your metabolism to keep you in your set point range” (31). Dieting has been seen to raise set point ranges by slowing the metabolism. But when you listen to your body and feed it well, responding to hunger and cravings, it will normalize and feel healthy and strong.
True loss of control comes with dieting, scrambling to take the reins, beating yourself up for imperfect eating or failing to reach an unrealistic goal. Our bodies are unbelievably smart and can be trusted. As ubiquitous as the message healthy-means-thin is, it’s simply not true. Peace and acceptance can be found at any size. Respect your body and treat it well. There is so much more to life than trying to control something that cannot be controlled.
Three years later, I find myself still unlearning the lessons I so tightly clung to deep within my eating disorder. A seemingly harmless attempt at cutting calories eventually progressed into anorexia, sending me off the edge and almost taking my life. If I had continued for three weeks longer, I would have lost my battle. For many less fortunate, diet culture wins. We owe it to them to rebel against this system that tells us to change. We owe our bodies celebration for working so hard to keep us alive. We owe activism to future generations, so they don’t feed into the lies that consume us. And we owe it to ourselves to find peace where we are, regardless of the number on the scale.
If I’ve learned anything through this journey, it’s that living has so much more to offer than the calorie-counting app on my phone. Life can be embraced to its fullest in a body of any size. Dieting is not worth missing out on late night ice cream dates with friends, weekends away with family, going out to dinner or going to the beach. In old age, we will celebrate experiences with friends and family, not skipping cake on our birthdays. Your body is not the problem. Your food intake is not the problem. Diet culture is.
- Covey, Alice. “Dieting Is Out; Listening to Our Bodies Is In.” BYUI. 25 May 2020. www.byui.edu/counseling-center/self-help/eating-disorders/dieting-is-out. Accessed 24 May 2020.
- Dooner, Caroline. The F*ck It Diet. HarperCollins, 2019.
- LaRosa, John. “Top 9 Things to Know about the Weight Loss Industry.” MarketResearch. 6 Mar. 2019. Accessed 20 May 2020.
- Princing, Mckenna. “A Doctor Explains Why Diets Don’t Work.” Right as Rain. UW Medicine, 11 Apr. 2019. Accessed 24 May 2020.
- Rumsey, Alissa. “What Is ‘Diet Culture’?” Alissa Rumsey, 11 Apr. 2019. Accessed 24 May 2020.
- “Three Out of Four American Women Have Disordered Eating, Survey Suggests.” ScienceDaily. 23 April. Accessed 22 May 2020.
- Wolpert, Stewart. “Dieting Does Not Work, UCLA Researchers Report.” UCLA Newsroom. UCLA, 3 Apr. 2007. Accessed 20 May 2020.