You can’t start a conversation about nutrition and wellness these days without someone mentioning food culture. It’s all over social media, both in anti-diet spaces and in more general wellness spaces. Celebrities are call him. It is mentioned in academic research. Even young teenagers I work with in my nutrition practice use this term. They talk about their parents not keeping certain foods at home, their friend trying to lose weight, or their coach telling them to avoid sugar, « because, you know, diet culture. »
But just because a term is ubiquitous doesn’t mean it’s universally understood. While many people think that food culture is just about, well, diets, it’s actually much more complex and far-reaching. Dietary culture is a whole belief system that associates food with morality and thinness with goodness, and it is rooted in the (very colonial) belief that each individual has full control and responsibility for their health.
Worse yet, diet culture is so entrenched, especially in Western society, that we often don’t even recognize it. That’s why SELF asked experts to answer some of the most common questions and misconceptions about the term to give you a better understanding of food culture. really means and why it is so problematic.
What is the definition of dietary culture?
Although there is no official definition of dietary culture, Christy Harrison, MPH, RDauthor of Anti-diet, published a big on his blog in 2018. Harrison defines diet culture as a belief system that « venerates thinness and equates it with health and moral virtue », promotes weight loss and the maintenance of low weight as a way to elevate social status, and demonizes certain foods and eating styles while elevating others. Diet culture also « oppresses people who don’t fit its supposed image of ‘health,’ which disproportionately harms women, women, trans people, people with larger bodies, people of color and people with disabilities, » Harrison writes.
We are all surrounded and influenced by food culture all the time. « There’s this idea that diet culture only affects people who choose to diet, but that’s not true, » Sabrina Cordes, PhDprofessor of sociology at University of California, Irvine, who studies food culture and fatphobia, says SELF. “Diet culture is the culture we are all steeped in; it is the belief that we can control our bodies based on what we eat and how much we eat, and it places a moral judgment on food and the body. In other words, it makes us believe, consciously or not, that certain foods and bodies (thin, usually white) are good, while other foods and bodies (fat, often black or non-white) are bad.
What are some of the roots of dietetic culture?
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, American Protestants began to publicly equate deprivation with health and health with morality. Probably the most famous example is the clergyman Sylvester Graham (namesake of the Graham cracker, which was originally much less delicious than it is now), which promoted a bland vegetarian diet of bread, whole grains, fruits and vegetables as a way to calm the sexual drives, to improve health and to ensure moral virtue.
There is also a lot of racism and anti-darkness in this colonial idea that thinness and food restriction are synonymous with goodness. In his book Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, Dr. Strings explains how white colonial thought used body size to assert that black people were inferior. « At the height of slavery in the 18th century, there were prominent Europeans who believed that being thin and controlling what they ate made them morally superior, » says Dr Strings. « And so, Africans were inherently considered inferior, because they tended to have bigger bodies, which equated to being lazy. »