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

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. This belief can be deeply dangerous for anyone at risk of an eating disorder. Diet culture promotes eating disorder behaviors and increase a person’s chance of developing an eating disorder.

To avoid and heal from eating disorders, we must reject diet culture. This is hard because diet culture is absolutely everywhere.

It’s impossible to separate eating disorder behavior from diet culture. Diet culture reinforces our sense of worthlessness. It tells us we can be a better person if we restrict food and follow food rules. Recovering from an eating disorder requires waking up to diet culture. We must see it for the evil liar that it is.

Parenting for positive food and body

Dieting all the time

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]

Despite its promises, diet culture has absolutely not lowered our body weights. In fact, it likely contributes to weight gain. Diet culture is linked to eating disorder development. It is also a serious barrier to eating disorder recovery.

Diet culture begins with recommendations such as “eat less and move more.” But these simplistic directions do not result in weight loss for most people. The promise is that the problem is never the diet, but the person who is failing to follow the rules correctly.

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. We are not free of diet culture anywhere. It’s 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. Two people can eat the exact same foods and weigh drastically different amounts.

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.

Most people assume that larger bodies are created with a simple problem of eating too much and eating the wrong things.

But in fact the most likely cause of weight gain is repeated dieting.

Since 1959, numerous studies have 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.

Many people who are in larger bodies are actually very accomplished dieters. They have lost significant amounts of weight numerous times in their lifetime. It’s just a side effect that every time they lose weight, they become fatter.

No, they did not fail the diet. Their bodies responded to dieting as expected: by gaining weight.

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. It says that if they simply apply individual discipline and moral conduct. they will lose weight.

Virtually every diet book, blog, and influencer screams some variation of “I did it, and you can do it too!”

The suggestion is that people who are fat just aren’t trying hard enough. The promise is 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. The belief that they do is a core driver of many eating disorders.

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4. Diet culture equates being thin with being healthy.

In diet culture we 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. People living in larger bodies experience weight stigma 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.

It’s very likely that the true risk of having a larger body is weight stigma, not the weight itself.

What diet culture means for eating disorder recovery

Many people who have eating disorders are believers of diet culture.

It’s all too easy to believe diet culture’s lies because they are everywhere. Eating disorders are complex and go beyond food and weight. But they often begin with diet culture lies.

To recover from an eating disorder, we must reject diet culture. 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 pursue health at any size. Slowly, we can 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.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.


[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

37 thoughts on “What parents need to know about diet culture and eating disorder recovery

  1. […] in diet culture has convinced parents that our own bodies and those of our kids are at constant risk of gaining […]

  2. […] Diet culture promotes the idea that weight loss is a 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.  […]

  3. […] impact on intelligent people who are vulnerable to this trend based on an unguarded belief in diet culture (i.e. “healthy” equals “thin,” and achieving a thin body should be a top […]

  4. […] diet culture promotes low body weight at any cost, and there are countless diet programs available to support […]

  5. […] good and supportive of my overall wellbeing I am able to remove the restrictive, external rules of diet culture. I am also able to rid my food choices of morality thereby creating freedom from the cycle of shame […]

  6. […] closely tied to their body. The mistaken belief that we are defined by our bodies is accelerated by diet culture, which promotes the lie that we can and should control our body size and […]

  7. […] we gather our family at the table. And yet, even the kindest families sometimes trample through diet culture every time they sit down to eat. It’s no surprise since we are steeped in diet culture, which […]

  8. […] Diet Culture: Our society applauds weight loss and efforts to control the body through food restriction, so parents can miss critical eating disorder symptoms because they fall under socially-acceptable dieting behavior. […]

  9. […] is important for parents to become educated about diet culture and to actively work to stop the practice of dieting in the family home. When parents stop dieting […]

  10. […] own choices. You may see them as fashion mistakes, but you have been engaged in this fashion/beauty/diet culture, too. So just relax, and remember that your child is wonderful no matter what she […]

  11. […] Schedule at least a few sessions for your child to meet with a non-diet dietitian. Parents should also take advantage of the podcasts, online courses and other materials available from Christy Harrison. Christy is an excellent resource for parents and families that want to escape diet culture. […]

  12. […] not easy in our society, because we are all taught the diet culture from birth, which is that if we don’t control what we eat, we will get fat and lazy. And […]

  13. […] if we follow evidence-based eating guidelines in our own homes, our children are still exposed to diet culture and fatphobia when at school, on sports teams, places of worship and at friends’ homes. […]

  14. […] Raymond: Yes, it always amazes me the volume of messages kids receive about diet culture and fatphobia. But then again, I guess it shouldn’t amaze me since the diet industry is a 60 […]

  15. […] an Intuitive Eating rebuttal below, so that you can build your conversational skills around diet culture with your […]

  16. […] Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder, but it is also terribly misunderstood and frequently mistreated by loved ones, healthcare providers, and even eating disorder treatment providers. This is due to weight stigma and diet culture. […]

  17. […] is where diet culture comes into the picture since dieting is strongly associated with body dissatisfaction and feelings […]

  18. […] you have an eating disorder, it’s helpful to avoid situations that focus on diet culture, weight loss, food fear, and exercise addiction. Unfortunately, Thanksgiving is a national holiday […]

  19. […] even decades – because nobody can see that we have an eating disorder. Worse, because of diet culture, many of our disordered eating behaviors are encouraged, congratulated and […]

  20. […] is not because they are bad people – it’s just an indication that they are living in a diet culture. Gently remind them that you’re in the process of healing a child who has trouble with an […]

  21. […] not easy in our society, because we are all taught the diet culture from birth, which is that if we don’t control what we eat, we will get fat and lazy. And […]

  22. […] us that 1) we need to diet, and 2) diets make us healthier. Neither of these facts is true, and yet diet culture is pervasive, seeping into even the earliest years of our children’s […]

  23. […] that we can and should look like them. Since it’s part of our society, social media promotes diet culture and a thin beauty ideal. But it doesn’t feel as toxic as traditional […]

  24. […] are many factors that contribute to an eating disorder. But we cannot ignore the fact that our diet culture drives many of the behaviors and drivers of eating disorders. Understanding the societal drivers of […]

  25. […] idea that you wish you had some eating disorder symptoms. In doing this, you’re perpetuating diet culture, which is one of the contributing factors in eating […]

  26. […] disordered eating symptoms can be hard to catch. This is because they are incredibly normal in our diet-culture society. It seems like everyone is restricting food. Some cut out sugar. Other cut out meat. Most […]

  27. […] live in a diet culture. The thin ideal is touted in every medium, from billboards to magazines and social media accounts. […]

  28. […] You may need to ask friends and family to change their behavior around your child during treatment. For example, you may need to change long-standing traditions that repeat eating disorder behaviors or perpetuate diet culture. […]

  29. […] I said, it’s totally normal if you are currently seeing both through the cultural lens called diet culture, but I encourage you to read more about Health at Every Size and shift your […]

  30. […] of weight bias and diet culture, most people who have atypical anorexia never receive treatment. In addition, they often get worse […]

  31. […] problem isn’t Instagram itself. The problem is that we live in a diet culture. The culture promotes extreme eating, weight loss, and over-exercising as moral behavior. Our […]

  32. […] I think it’s quite the opposite. People who get eating disorders are intelligent. They’re acutely aware of societal forces. We know what the world wants us to be. And eating disorder behaviors are societally prescribed and reinforced everywhere. From the grocery check out line to doctors offices, everywhere we go, we encounter diet culture. […]

  33. […] Unfortunately, diet culture has co-opted the word “healthy,” and it no longer means what you think or want it to mean. Healthy has become an idea that you need to exercise and eat a restricted food diet: more fruits and vegetables, and less sugar. But health is not achieved by restricting your food groups. You can have a healthy diet that includes carbs, sugar, and fats. In fact, the more that you restrict those foods, the more you crave them.  […]

  34. […] because diet behaviors are indistinguishable from eating disorder behaviors. Parents have to reject diet culture. And we have to talk to our kids about the dangerous media messages that carry the diet […]

  35. […] to your wife about the dangers of diet culture and the truth about […]

  36. […] to be actively exploring your own body image and how you relate and respond to weight stigma and diet culture. Almost all adults have internalized fear of fat and assumptions about what makes a body […]

  37. […] thoughts all make sense because we live in diet culture, which perpetuates them all the time. But we can overcome these false beliefs and thoughts with […]

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