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21st Jul 2021

It’s all about the money: The diet industry doesn’t care about your health or happiness

Kat O'Connor

Warning: Some readers may find details in this article triggering

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could eat a croissant for breakfast without it being deemed a big treat? I was out on a walk this morning. The sun was shining and the smell wafting down the road from our local SuperValu was heavenly. Like a sniffer dog, I found myself following the sweet scent of baked goods and picked up a bag of croissants for me and my sisters.

When I got home there was instant discussion about how unhealthy they are and how many calories they contain. ‘Do you know they’re full of sugar?’

‘They’re so fattening!’

‘I’m trying to be good’

Why can’t we simply eat something without panicking about gaining weight? Diet culture has twisted us so much that we can’t even enjoy our breakfast without fretting about calories and dress sizes.

Food is food. It is there to be enjoyed. Life is far too short to be turning away a handful of Celebrations on Christmas Day, right?

Well, according to diet culture we should all be eating lettuce and avoiding anything with a slight gram of sugar in it because how dare we eat a donut! Diet culture has seeped into every aspect of our lives, like an invisible poison.

It’s been a part of my life since I was in my early teens and I’m not the only one.

It is believed that 66% of girls want to lose weight and 46% of 9-11 year-olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets.

The diet industry is preying on the insecurities of women and young girls and has made billions by making us ashamed of our bodies. It has fooled us into believing that the sole purpose of our body is to look good rather than the 101 important functions it carries out on a daily basis.

It is understood that the diet industry in the USA is worth an astonishing $71 billion. We are spending money on detox drinks, which are just laxatives in pretty pink packaging, forcing ourselves to cut out sugar, and trying the latest diet only for the results to dwindle after a couple of months and it’s back to square one. Studies have found that 80% of diets do not work or don’t have long-lasting results so why is the industry thriving when the results are so disappointing?

The problem with the diet industry is it knows there’s a weakness in society, specifically in women, when it comes to body confidence so it latches onto that. How many of us have considered or even attempted dieting during the lockdown? I definitely have, despite the fact that my body deserves to be praised for getting me through a global pandemic.

Christmas will barely be over when the workout displays start cropping up in shops. The selection boxes are swapped for juice detoxes and the days of lounging on the sofa with the latest Taylor Jenkins Reid book are traded for miserable morning jogs in the misty rain.

There is a shame that taints almost every holiday. We act like we’re committing a crime if we put Nutella on our pancakes on Pancake Tuesday. We cringe when we think of all the Mini Eggs we consume at Easter. We even pressured ourselves to lose our ‘lockdown weight’ during a bloody pandemic. As the seasons change, we’re fretting about being bikini body ready and then once winter rolls around we’re panicking about looking good in our NYE dress. The pressure never fades from one end of the year to the other.

Our brains are wired to think the only solution to this is to lose weight but isn’t accepting our bodies and treating them with kindness the way to go?

Diet culture fuels eating disorders, dashes any semblance of confidence we have and harms our mental health. According to the American Physiological Association, “Dieting damages our metabolism because our biology is not programmed to spiral into starvation mode. Dieting increases the likelihood of binging and compulsive eating.”

“Striving to fit society’s portrayal of ideal body shape and size increases one’s likelihood of developing body shame, which relates to eating disorders.”

“Everyone around you is also hyper-focused on their weight and you may view them as the perfect weight”

Kelly Marie was only 13-years-old when she was bullied for being bigger than the rest of the girls in her year.

“I went online and noticed how all the female celebrities that I looked up to were thin. After that, I followed any of their diets and workouts I could find online. Around 15, I learned about laxatives and along with taking them, I was binging and purging.”

By the time she reached 16, Kelly had become extremely underweight and nobody could understand why until doctors diagnosed her with bulimia nervose. “My bones were jutted out and I was still a higher number on the scale than my favourite celebrity.”

Her diagnosis made Kelly realise that she had to love herself. “I needed to stop focusing so much on the number on other people’s scales and focus on what was healthy for me. Recovery was and still is very difficult to deal with, especially when everyone around you is also hyper-focused on their weight and you may view them as the perfect weight.”

“Diet culture is very unhealthy for people who suffer from eating disorders and anyone who thinks they aren’t enough. It can push people to severely hurt themselves and I don’t think it is a positive thing for anyone except companies that try to make money from vulnerable people who are self-conscious.”

We have made strides in dismantling diet culture, but we still have far to go. We’re being targeted by this industry that believes all women should look one way, but it’s simply not possible. They’ve fooled us into thinking that only one standard of beauty exists. Are we all supposed to be the thin, toned, and glowing blonde woman who only eats salad and would never dare let a slice of cake near her lips?

“There was a time when diet culture emptied €2000 a year from my pockets. I never felt better about myself because of it. I only ever felt not good enough, not strong enough, not fit enough.”

The impact the diet industry has on our mental health, never mind our physical health, is hard to wrap your head around.

Mental Health Advocate, Claire Kane said: “I have no doubt that diet culture plays a huge part in an increase of mental health difficulties in women. I know from my own experience how stressful dieting is. I see it on the faces of other people as they worry over what to order on a menu that has the calories written in the margins.”

“There was a time when diet culture emptied €2000 a year from my pockets, maybe more, on personal training sessions, boot camp style classes and protein enriched diet foods. I never felt better about myself because of it. I only ever felt not good enough, not strong enough, not fit enough. I was weighed and measured every week and that would determine my mood and how hard I went on myself for the next 7 days. Diet Culture isn’t just about food, it’s about the culture that’s developed in the fitness industry too.”

“The things I could have spent my money on. Things that didn’t feed off my insecurities. I’m very glad I’m not there anymore.”

Weight loss has been placed on a pedestal in our society, so much so that women believe their worth is based on what the scales say. It is impacting everything from the treatment we receive at the doctors to the adoption process. Marilyn Wann summed it up perfectly, “The only thing anyone can diagnose by looking at a fat person is their own level of prejudice toward fat people.”

We’d all still have different bodies even if we did eat the same food and follow the same workout routines. The diet industry does not care about your health because forcing yourself to live off plain rice cakes and using lettuce instead of burger buns isn’t normal. It’s fueling dangerous eating habits and knocking your self-confidence down to a concerning level.

Diet culture cares more about the figure on the scales and the shape of your body more than your health. Diet culture believes that being thinner makes you a better person and if you’re above a certain weight then you’re not good enough or worth less than others. It’s tricking young girls like Kelly into trying harmful diets that often lead to eating disorders. Women like Claire are spending thousands on diets that don’t even work or make them feel good.

But how are we supposed to ignore something that is so enriched in our culture? TikTok is flooded with what I eat in a day videos. Instagram is full of influencers flogging skinny teas to young girls so they can look like women who have personal trainers and live-in chefs. Even the language we use is tainted by diet culture. How many times have you picked up a biscuit and muttered something like “oh I’m being so bold. I’ll have to go for a run later.”

Dietician Robyn Nohling told Boston Magazine that the best thing we can do to start resisting diet culture is to remove feelings of morality from our diets, appearance, and fitness.

“[Diet culture] promotes a very narrow view of health and beauty and is based in morality when really, food and our bodies aren’t moral things.”

“When we are able to stop blaming our body or food for our problems, we are able to have thoughts, feelings, and emotions that lead to a better quality of life.”

Diet culture demonises food and clouds events like Christmas and birthdays with shame. Imagine eating a measly slice of cake or tuck into a tin of roses and not feeling like it is a big reward. Wouldn’t that be nice?

The shapes of our bodies or the size of our jeans aren’t the problem here. It’s the industry that is causing women to starve themselves because apparently we’re all supposed to look like Barbie dolls.