Content warning: This article contains topics such as dieting, weight loss, controlled eating and body image that may be unsuitable for some readers.
From TV personalities who advertise health products like Dr. Oz to #WhatIEatInADay videos on TikTok, the diet industry has remained an unstoppable force in American life and culture.
Fad diets like juice cleanses, the Keto Diet and alternate-day fasting have dominated the health world for over a century, promising easy ways to lose weight and quick fixes to solve ailments.
The popularity of trendy diets has brought along a cultural obsession with dieting, one that tells people in order to be happy, they must be thin. Corporations, in order to make profit in any way they can, prey on women's insecurities and sell pseudo-diet products to the public, which has long-term, devastating effects.
According to University of Liverpool history professor Dr. Myriam Wilks-Heeg in “Low-carb, no sugar, no fat: the fad diets popular in the 20th century,” the 1920s brought along the emergence of the “New Woman” and thinness became the ideal body expectation for women.
The 1950s saw a dramatic increase in weight loss commercials promoting slim bodies for women, what economic historian Avner Offer refers to as the “cult of slimming.” Liquid diets became highly marketable in the 1950s and 1960s with food companies advertising meal replacement diet products to consumers.
In an attempt to associate dieting and weight loss with happiness and success, one advertisement for the popular 1960s liquid diet drink Sego told consumers, “Fun is waiting everywhere … when you’re slender.”
Exercise became a tantamount part of weight loss culture in the 1980s. Women dressed in leotards and leg warmers participating in group exercise classes such as Jazzercise became a staple part of the health industry in America.
Over the next several decades, the diet industry continued to evolve and today, pulls in billions of dollars annually. According to a report by PR Newswire, the weight loss market is expected to grow from $254 billion in 2021 to $377 billion by 2026.
Despite the public’s trust in dieting to help them lose weight and achieve the ideal body, fad diets are also unsustainable, can give people adverse health effects and contribute to disordered eating, according to the 2016 study, “Fad Diets: Lifestyle Promises and Health Challenges.”
Senior dietetics major Sarah Jellinek said diets promoted on social media are almost always rooted in pseudoscience and are rarely sustainable ways to lose weight in a healthy manner.
“The diet industry is mostly quackery, especially with what you see on social media,” Jellinek said. “These diets — juice cleanses and what not — all sound good in theory, but it’s just average people providing diet information and advertising health products, not professionals.
“Everyone is easily marketable and wants a fix-all solution. Diet culture cannot be trusted; that’s why you should see a registered dietician for your concerns.”
Senior exercise and movement science major Maddy Lepper explained why fad dieting is simply not sustainable for long periods of time.
“For long-term (weight loss) results, it takes months and years of behavior change, consistent physical activity and balanced diet with calorie deficit to lose weight and build a stronger body,” Lepper said. “Years of training isn’t what folks are looking for when they have a problem they want solved at this very minute.”
“Diet culture capitalizes off of our needs to get in shape ‘right now,’ so they give us all of these products that claim to help you drop 30 pounds in two months. Some may be effective in helping you lose weight, but unless it is sustainable for the rest of your life, it’s not the long-term answer,” Lepper also said.
Talking about diet culture without discussing unrealistic body expectations for women would be pointless. Hidden under the weight loss industry’s intention to promote healthy lifestyles is a culture that targets women and their insecurities to convince them to buy products.
Jellinek said diet culture is rooted in misogyny and perpetuated by the male gaze, or the depiction of women from a hyper-masculine perspective.
“This has been going on forever in America, the idea that (women) need to be thin,” Jellinek said. “You see this a lot in magazines — how to please a man and how to look good for a man. There was a point when Marilyn Monroe’s body was the ideal figure, and then being skinny dominated the culture. Now with celebrities like Kim Kardahsian, the ideal body is skinny, but you also have to have curves and a big butt. This isn’t anything new. Women have always been objectified and our bodies are either in trend or they’re not.”
In order to combat the unhealthy aspects of fad dieting, many people have been practicing intuitive eating, an eating framework that specifically rejects diet culture.
According to the official intuitive eating website, the idea behind intuitive eating was originally created by registered dieticians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch and focuses on the following 10 principles:
Reject the diet mentality
Honor your hunger by eating when you feel hungry
Make peace with food by giving yourself permission to eat
Challenge unreasonable rules of diet culture, such as that eating cake is “bad” or eating minimal calories is “good”
Discover the satisfaction and pleasure in eating food
Feel your fullness and listen to your body when it tells you it’s no longer hungry
Cope with your emotions with kindness, rather than with food
Respect your body
Be active by focusing on how it feels to move your body, rather than how many calories you are burning when exercising
Make food choices that honor your health and taste buds while making you feel good
While intuitive eating is not a perfect fit for everyone, it can be a helpful way to practice rejecting diet culture and instead focus on eating and exercising in a way that benefits individual needs.
When confronting weight loss and diet advertisements, it’s important to get any diet information strictly from registered professionals.
Most importantly, regardless of whether someone is using weight loss products or practicing intuitive eating, it’s best not to comment on people’s food choices and eating habits in any circumstance. The best plan of action is to focus on yourself and what makes you healthiest.
Follow Paige Nicewaner on Twitter, @indienerdtrash
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