What parents need to know about diet culture and eating disorder recovery

Diet culture promotes the idea that weight loss is a meaningful, good and healthy pursuit in life. When we recover from an eating disorder, we must work to eradicate the belief that our health and self-worth are based on our weight. This is hard because diet culture is absolutely everywhere.

There are a lot of things we need to do to recover. Mainly, we need to learn our innate worth and heal the deep wounds that cause us to seek soothing through our disorder behaviors. But it’s impossible to separate eating disorder behavior from diet culture, which reinforces our sense of worthlessness and tells us we can be a better person if we restrict food and follow the rules. Recovering from an eating disorder requires waking up to diet culture and seeing it for the evil liar that it is.

At any given time, about one-third of Americans are on a diet. [1] And yet, the adult obesity rate, at 39.8 percent, continues to rise. [2] We can say without a doubt that diet culture has absolutely not lowered our body weights, and some even attribute diet culture to our weight gain. Many attribute diet culture as an underlying factor in our eating disorders and a serious barrier to eating disorder recovery.

Diet culture begins with recommendations such as “eat less and move more,” despite the fact that this has been decisively shown to not reduce weight for most people. It takes diets further, however, by assigning morality to people who restrict their food and/or maintain low body weight. This can apply to people living in larger bodies who deny themselves cake at a party to demonstrate that they are being “good,” but it also applies to people who are naturally thin and take no measures to lose weight and yet are praised for their bodies.

Diet culture absolutely surrounds us. It is impossible to live in our society and not be immersed in diet culture. It is perpetrated on billboards, television, and social media, but it is also promoted in doctor’s offices, classrooms, places of worship, playing fields, workplaces, and, worst of all, in people’s homes. Surveys of higher-weight adults find that their worst experiences of discrimination come from their own families. [3]

Here are is a definition of diet culture:

1. Diet culture tells us that there is an ideal body type and that everyone can achieve that body type if they try hard enough.

Diet culture blatantly ignores the fact that bodies are naturally diverse. We have seen time and time again that two people can eat the exact same foods and weigh drastically different amounts. Given everything we know about metabolism, it is simply unscientific to suggest that all bodies can follow a particular diet and weigh the same amount. When everyone believes they can and should have the same body size, regardless of their genetic blueprint and starting weight, we create a fertile breeding ground for eating disorders.

2. Diet culture tells us that people who are fat are fat because they don’t control what they eat.

This assertion simply isn’t true, and we’ve known that for a long time. Dieting does not result in long-term weight loss. In fact, as the diet industry has grown, so have our waistlines, proving that dieting is actually correlated with weight gain. Since 1959, numerous studies have conclusively shown that 95% to 98% of all intentional weight loss efforts result in weight gain, plus extra. This is due to our biology, as just a 3% loss of body weight results in a 17% reduction in the body’s metabolic rate. This is a simple, biologic starvation response that is not in dispute. Many people who are fat are actually very accomplished dieters who have lost significant amounts of weight numerous times in their lifetime. It’s just a biologic fact that every time they lose weight, they become fatter.

3. Diet culture tells us that people who are thin are smarter and morally superior to those who are not.

Diet culture relies on the idea that anyone can avoid being fat relatively easily if they simply apply individual discipline and moral conduct. Virtually every diet book, blog and social media account, celebrity and influencer scream some variation of “I did it, this is how, and you can do it too!” and “If you follow my program, you can have a body just like mine!” The suggestion is that people who are fat just aren’t trying hard enough, and if they just had the willpower and moral fortitude, they could be thin. This is a very harmful lie. Morality and inner strength have nothing to do with weight. This belief is a core driver of most eating disorders, which are held in place by a deep sense of shame and worthlessness.

4. Diet culture equates being thin with being healthy.

It is a given to in our society to assume that a person who is thin is healthier than a person who is fat. However, this is not supported by research. It turns out that the largest indicators of health are health behaviors – and body weight is not a behavior. Healthy people can be fat or thin, and unhealthy people can be fat or thin. The difference lies largely in what they do, and exercise, healthful eating, avoiding alcohol, and reducing stress are all much stronger predictors of health than weight. The continued assumption by diet culture that thin = healthy causes incredible damage, because people living in larger bodies experience severe trauma that decreases their chances of being healthy. They seek medical advice less frequently, receive biased medical advice for non-weight-based medical conditions, feel ashamed when they exercise, and seek comfort in food more frequently. Living in a larger body is innately stressful.

What diet culture means for eating disorder recovery

Most of us who have an eating disorder are deep believers in diet culture and have a deep fear of weight gain. Even if we can see other people at higher weights and think they look fine, we do not accept that our own bodies should do anything other than become smaller. These feelings are complex and go beyond weight, but they are also rooted in diet culture, which has told us in millions of ways that we can and should control our bodies.

The unworthiness and shame tied up in a person who has an eating disorder make us deeply vulnerable to diet culture, and recovering from an eating disorder into diet culture is incredibly difficult.

To recover from an eating disorder, we must discard our fear of getting fat and face diet culture head-on. To free ourselves, we must repeatedly assure ourselves that diet culture is a liar based on completely faulty evidence. We must remind ourselves that our bodies can be healthy at any size. Slowly, we will establish a truce with our bodies. We may never achieve full love for our bodies, but we can definitely achieve acceptance. This will be much easier for us if our parents and families join us in rejecting diet culture.


[1] International Food Information Council Foundation, 2018

[2] National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2017

[3] Everything You Know About Obesity is Wrong, Michael Hobbes, Huffington Post, Sept 19, 2018

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