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Diet Culture In The Media- What Is “Clean Eating?”
Clean eating! Detox juices! Liver cleanses! Pure foods! Low carb! Low fat! Organic! Antioxidants! All-natural! Cheat meal! Guilty pleasure! Superfoods! Diet-friendly! Minimally processed! Metabolism boost!
These are commonly known nutrition buzzwords that continuously float around the media. Through the use of these phrases, we continue the stigma around “a healthy diet” with the categorization of foods as good and bad. This creates an unintended association between emotions and foods where “good” foods are deemed clean and virtuous, and “bad” foods are a subject of shame and guilt. This mindset sets many up for disorderly eating patterns, and it oftentimes results in a toxic cycle of excessive food restriction and excessive food consumption.
When we’re so focused on eating the “right” way, we risk falling into patterns of disordered eating and being subject to the consequences of diet culture. The focus on many of these nutrition buzzwords that we continuously hear, rather than being used as a means of taking care of our bodies, is oftentimes a cover for eating disorders like orthorexia.
Orthorexia is defined as an unsafe obsession with eating healthy food. The desire of eating “clean” for the body is harmful when it starts to interfere with everyday life. Focusing on these nutrition buzzwords so extremely is not only damaging to mental and physical health, but it’s also not as beneficial to the body as many of us may think.
Abbey Sharpe, certified dietician and owner of 300k-subscriber nutrition Youtube channel, displays her caution for following these diet claims. “There are so many so-called detoxes and cleanses out there, all promising that they will flush the toxins right out of your body to yield a squeaky clean body inside and out,” she says. “Some suggest you’ll lose weight, others promise better skin, gut health, and clear thinking. The bottom line is that we have a liver, kidneys, skin, digestive tract and lungs to do all that for us- we don’t need another $10 bottle of putrid green juice… I see these cleanses as sadly one of the most socially acceptable forms of disordered eating of our generation.”
Whether we realize it or not, much of the focus of diet culture is rooted in marketing schemes to trap consumers into spending more money on foods and products. When we fall into this trap, we’re putting our own healths as risk, likening our chances of developing disorders like orthorexia, and essentially wasting our money- just as Sharpe explained.
Overall, there needs to be more attention surrounding the prevalence of diet culture in the media and the increasing risk it’s having on eating disorders in young teens.
What Constitutes Diet Culture?
Christy Harrison, an anti-diet registered dietitian, certified intuitive eating counselor, host of the podcast Food Psych, and author of the book Anti-Diet, has spoken out about the consequences of diet culture through her extensive advocacy.
“Diet culture is a system of beliefs that worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin “ideal.”
[Diet culture] promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body, even though the research is very clear that almost no one can sustain intentional weight loss for more than a few years.
[Diet culture] demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, which means you’re forced to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of making certain food choices, and distracted from your pleasure, your purpose, and your power."
We live in a society that is overridden by negative food stigma. Rather than being taught how to eat for hunger, satisfaction, and taste, we instead are hyper-focused on how to eat for a certain appearance. There are, however, many flaws in this logic. Even if we all ate and exercised to the same extent, we’d all still look completely different because of the way our bodies are made. That’s why the one-size-fits-all diets shown in the media will never guarantee us the results that are so often promised- setting many up for further obsession, food fear, and disappointment.
According to NPD, over 68 percent of Americans have dieted at some point in their lives, with the diet industry at a record high of 66 billion dollars. These industries have been able to profit off of the increasing body-image issues developing in young teens, and they continue to foster this culture that enables them more profit. We are made to believe that in order to achieve these standards of health and beauty, we resultingly have to spend our time, energy, and money. Instead, we should be taught by the media how to stop equating our body image with our sense of sense-worth.
Examples of Diet Culture In Everyday Life
The prevalence of these nutrition buzzwords and diet claims are found throughout our everyday lives. Whether embedded in everyday conversation, advertisements on the subway, or on the menu of your favorite coffee shop, our constant exposure to them only makes these ideas more socially acceptable in society.
Alissa Rumsey, registered dietician and owner of blog Alissa Nutrition, provides a few examples of the diet culture messages we often find in the media and marketing campaigns:
A gym program that sells you a certain look or weight after 8 weeks of their classes.
Spa treatments that claim to shrink your body.
Foods advertised as “guilt-free” or “clean.”
In tag-lines that imply your weight = your worth or happiness.
In products or supplements that imply health requires exorbitant cost, time, energy and privilege.
All of these examples are small, subtle claims that don’t hold scientific proof behind them, but are still extremely misleading to the average individual. They promote the idea that happiness depends on body size. They promote the idea that everybody can achieve the same body type. They promote the idea that there should be positive and negative connotations associated with food, and that certain foods are “cleaner” than others. In reality, learning how to eat a balanced diet is far more sustainable than cutting out food groups and relying on gimmicky weight loss products.
“Often what will happen,” Alissa Rumsey says, “is that this kind of thinking will create a cycle of guilt. If someone who is really trying to eat clean happens to eat a so-called “dirty” food they may spiral into several days of unhealthy eating or wind up experiencing a full-blown binge-eating episode” (Self). Clearly, these simple “clean eating” or “diet-friendly” claims hold negative repercussions beyond the short-term.
Why Don’t These Trends Work?
One of the most frustrating aspects of the diet industry is the amount of misleading and conflicting information that is broadcasted to the public. Can I exercise out a “bad” diet? Are carbs my enemy? Do I watch out for fat? Am I supposed to cut out meat? Does fruit have too much sugar? How much apple cider vinegar am I supposed to drink in the mornings? What supplements am I supposed to take? Should I go keto? Vegan? Pescatarian? Will eating spicy food make you lose weight? Does intermittent fasting really work? What are the best laxatives? How many calories am I allowed to eat in a day? Do I need to cut out dairy? With thousands of other claims, the list could go on…
The point is, there will always be a new weight loss supplement out, a new food group to cut, or a new eating schedule to follow. None of these trends, however, hold any real value beyond adding more confusion to the media.
The human body is a complex machine that needs a variety of nutrients to survive. When one starts restricting the intake of certain foods, the body continues to ask for them in whatever other ways it can, such as increasing the strength of cravings or sending out continuous hunger signals to the brain. Chances are that throughout this process, water weight and muscle mass will be the first things to be lost in the short-term. At the same time, hunger hormone levels will increase, metabolism will decrease, and mood and energy levels will significantly lower. Moreover, a lack of essential calories may lead to health conditions much more permanent. When the body doesn’t have enough energy from food, it conserves its energy for the organs that carry out the body’s most important functions- ie the heart and brain. Therefore, dieters may experience symptoms like hair loss, constant chills, infertility, insomnia, or constipation, resulting from the lack of energy being provided to the body (Self).
It’s also important to mention that many of these fad diets are temporary. What this usually means is that once these diets are over, the body will naturally compensate for its prolonged food deficiency by a surge in appetite. As a result, many individuals may regain the weight they lost from their diet, or fall into a cycle of continuous weight fluctuation. In fact, one study analysis by UCLA on more than 31 different diets found that between 30-60% of all dieters regained all of the weight they lost from their diet and even gained a little more shortly afterwords (Myrgh).
As a whole, diet culture takes away from the satisfaction of eating food and enjoying it with loved ones. It does extensive harm to the body’s physical health and is mentally draining for any individual who believes they have to change their body in order to achieve a beauty standard. In reality, no amount of diet pills or juice cleanses has the power to do that.
The Effect Of Diet Culture On Growing Teens
All in all, the prevalence of eating disorders in the younger generations has been discussed numerous times on this blog before. With so many teens experiencing eating disorders at such young ages and the rise of social media usage heightening the epidemic, these issues can be severely damaging on both an emotional and physical level.
Diet culture in the media is one of the most responsible factors. If teens are growing up seeing these posed magazine covers, television commercials, and internet articles that promote these certain disorderly eating habits, they’re going to follow exactly that.
We can’t exactly take down every single false claim being marketed to the general audience, nor can we erase the history of diet culture that has left a lasting imprint on society. We can, however, do our best to spread awareness around this issue and not fall victim to further media traps.