What is diet mentality?
As many as 50% of adults try to diet and lose weight every year. Businesses capitalize on this huge market, resulting in a multi-billion dollar weight loss industry. The incredible amount of fad diets, and weight loss books/apps/social media accounts make it clear that diet mentality, and diet culture is inundated in our society. Firstly, it’s important to define some terms. What do people mean when they say “diet mentality” or “diet culture”? Even more simply, what is a “diet”?
The word “diet” can be understood in more than one way. For example, Merriam’s Dictionary defines “diet” as, “food and drink regularly provided or consumed,” as well as “a regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one’s weight.” I think it’s fair to say the majority of people ascribe to the latter definition. When we hear phrases like, “I’m going on a diet” or “My diet starts tomorrow”, these are referring to restrictive ways of eating in order to lose weight. For the purpose of this discussion surrounding diet mentality, “diet” will be understood using the “restrictive diet” definition.
“Diet culture” or “diet mentality”, used interchangeably, refers to a system of beliefs that focuses on and values weight, shape, and size, over well-being. It’s a culture that worships thinness, promotes weight loss above all else, and assigns a moral value to food as either “good” or bad”. As a result, this diet mentality has a way of praising those who are able to meet body weight, shape, and size standards while at the same time punishing those who don’t.
Diet mentality vs. Non-Diet mentality
It can be hard to identify the subtle ways in which diet culture presents itself because it has been normalized in much of our thinking. Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch created what’s known as Intuitive Eating principles that reject diet mentality and embrace a non-diet approach to food. In their book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works, they share some comparisons between the diet mentality and a non-diet mindset to help identify the problems caused by the diet mentality.
For eating and food choices:
Diet culture sounds like:
Do I deserve it?
That food is bad for me.
That food is good for me.
I’m eating clean.
Non-diet culture sounds like:
Am I hungry?
Do I want to eat it?
Am I in the mood for it?
Will I be deprived if I don’t have it?
Will it taste good?
I deserve to eat food without feeling any guilt.
Diet culture can also present itself in the ways we think about exercise.
Diet culture sounds like:
I want to burn as many calories as possible.
If I miss a workout I will feel bad.
If I workout for another hour, then I can work off that donut I ate earlier.
Non-diet sounds like:
Exercising makes me feel happy.
I feel strong and energized after I workout.
I’m less stressed after working out.
What’s wrong with diet mentality?
We can see the difference between diet and non-diet mentality, but why is diet mentality a problem? There are a number of different ways in which diet culture is problematic, but ultimately it comes down to the fact that diets simply don’t work!
We all have people in our lives who are chronic dieters. They are always trying a new fad diet for a short time, go back to their old way of eating, only to try another restrictive way of eating soon after. The goal is often weight loss, which may be achieved during the initial onset of the diet, followed by weight gain when they go off the diet. This pattern of going on/off diets and losing/gaining weight is called “yo-yo dieting”. Research does not support the fact that long term weight loss is widely achievable following a yo-yo dieting approach. Studies show that dieters do not lose significantly more weight in the long term, and even a third of dieters gain more weight than they lost initially on the diet.
It’s not surprising that our bodies have a myriad of physiological and psychological mechanisms that make weight loss difficult. And yet when diet culture labels individuals as lazy, failures with no self-control, it criminalizes the person instead of acknowledging the inevitable failure of restrictive diets.
There are so many more harms of dieting that include: more intense binges and cravings, slower metabolism, decreased satiety cues, increased risk of disordered eating, increased stress and anxiety, decreased self-confidence, belief that weight gain is a flaw to one’s character, etc. Here is more knowledge on the subject from expert voices.
Embracing a Long-Term Health Mindset
What does it look like to reject diet mentality and embrace a long-term health mindset? The first step in your journey to transition from diet mentality to long-term health is a mindset shift. This shift involves focusing on health behaviors rather than weight or other external factors. This may involve getting rid of dieters tools such as a scale, strict meal plans, calorie tracking apps, fitbits, etc. These tools reiterate the need for external validation to show you are doing something “right”. This is not to say that there is not a place for any of these tools, but in the beginning of your journey it’s important to embrace the fact that the number on the scale is not the most important thing. Health behaviors, such as physical activity and diet, should be done in an enjoyable way so it can be sustained, not in a way that prioritizes thinness at the expense of everything else.
Embracing a long-term health mindset means practicing the first definition of the word “diet”, as in “food and drink regularly provided or consumed” instead of the restrictive diet definition. Health, like all good things, comes to those who wait. There will never be a quick fix to desirable, sustainable health outcomes. Changing your health behaviors and focusing on the process of change rather than the outcome will lead to the most success.
Lastly, be compassionate to yourself. Diet culture has trained us to be very critical of our personal health journey. Acknowledge the harm of diet culture and identify it when you see it. Give yourself permission to enjoy your exercise and diet and feel fulfilled in your health behavior choices. Remember we are all on a diet, but it doesn’t have to be restrictive. And you don’t have to do this alone! Creating a support group is crucial to prevent slipping back into a diet culture mindset.
How do dietitians help me achieve long-term health?
A Health Loft dietitian can be your first support in this journey to a non-diet approach to eating. It is only natural to feel stuck in the diet mentality and pattern of yo-yo-dieting. Long term health involves making small behavior changes over a long period of time. A Health Loft dietitian can work with you one-on-one to help guide you through your journey and support your health behavior goals. There is a lot of confusing/conflicting information about nutrition out there. A session with a dietitian is a safe space for you to ask your questions about all things food and nutrition.
To learn more, you can talk to a Health Loft dietitian in Chicago, IL (virtually via our telehealth platform or in person) by calling us at (312) 374-5399 or by scheduling an appointment online. For more tips and fun facts to also check out our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages for more articles on nutrition, physical therapy, and exercise!
Written by Erica Drost Edited by Alexander Franz Reviewed by Morgan Murdock, RD.
- Hunger, Jeffrey M, Joslyn P Smith, and A. Janet Tomiyama. “An Evidence‐Based Rationale for Adopting Weight‐Inclusive Health Policy.” Social Issues and Policy Review 14.1 (2020): 73–107. Web.
- Intuitive Eating, A Revolutionary Program that Works by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch