Whether intentional or not, many of us can agree that at some point in our life, we’ve been immersed in diet culture to some degree; some may have also followed extremely (and we mean extremely) questionable advice to achieve what we thought was optimal health. Sigh. While some of the toxic “diet trends” from back in the day have faded away, that’s not to say the effect of diet culture isn’t still alive and well.
“In today’s society, the term ‘healthy’ is still often correlated with a smaller body and happiness,” says Jenna Werner, RD, a registered dietitian and the CEO of Happy Strong Healthy, a virtual nutrition coaching practice built on the foundation that food should not cause stress in your life. “Diet culture makes you feel like micromanaging your diet will equate to a happier life and weight loss, which not only sets unrealistic expectations but misses everything else in between.”
While not all diet culture claims call for drastic measures, many dietitians believe they can negatively impact vulnerable communities in the long run. “There’s a potential risk to sharing nutrition advice when not fully understanding the topic,” says Miranda Galati, MHSc, RD, a Canada-based registered dietitian and founder of Real Life Nutritionist. “Not only can it lead to spreading misinformation, but advising information derived from diet culture could lead to advising people to take actions that could make their symptoms worse or even worsen their health.”
It’s safe to say diet culture has wreaked havoc on society, and unfortunately, it’s not going to stop anytime soon. But one of the first steps to overcoming diet culture is knowing what lies they try to sell, which is why we sat down with three dietitians to uncover the worst lies we’ve been fed in recent years that are not only false but also rooted in complete BS.
The 5 biggest lies that diet culture tells us, according to RDs
1. There are “good” and “bad” foods
All three dietitians agreed that one of the most common lies within diet culture is the idea that there are “good” and “bad” foods—meaning that some foods have a halo on them and support your health, while others hinder your goals.
But Amanda Frothingham, RD, a registered dietitian based in New York and the founder of The Balanced Peach, believes what’s often dismissed with this lie is how all foods, regardless of their nutritional profile, offer value and can nourish your body. “Whether it be sugar from a cookie or a piece of fruit, they’re both going to provide important macronutrients like carbohydrates to give your body energy,” says Frothingham.
It’s also incredibly important to remember that food is so much more than just fuel. “We have to remember that food is also a way to create memories with loved ones, connect with our culture, and a way to nourish our souls,” says Werner.
Viewing foods as “good” or “bad” dismisses the various roles food can play in our lives and can instead result in guilt or fear that creates a negative association with that food. That negative association can then leave us feeling terrible when deciding to eat a given dish—despite that decision satisfying our mental health and natural hunger cues. “If you try to replace cravings [for food you view as ‘bad’] then you can lead yourself down a path where you’re going to eventually have the food you wanted in the first place, but just feel even worse about it versus satisfying your craving and moving forward,” Werner adds. “I always say it’s similar to the forbidden fruit effect: The food becomes more attractive the more you stop yourself from having it.”
In the cases where you find yourself feeling fearful of a food, Werner points out how that same fear can feed into stress, which feeds cortisol (the stress hormone) that can impact gut health, blood sugar, and your overall physical and mental health. “It’s important to realize that if chasing diet culture’s idea of ‘healthy’ starts to compromise other parts of your life like your social life, your relationship with food, and mental health, then it’s not healthy for you.” So the ultimate takeaway is to remember that all food can positively nourish your body and fit in a well-balanced diet, regardless of what you see on social media.
2. The source of sugar matters
It’s true that you do need to be mindful of your added sugar consumption, but diet culture has led many to believe that source of sugar you eat is deeply important—a perfect nod to the the good vs. bad food rules above. More specifically, diet culture tells us to always opt for natural sources of sugar, like honey or maple syrup (deemed “good”) versus refined “bad” options like table sugar to support a healthy diet. However, like many of the ideas derived from diet culture, experts believe this claim simply misses the mark.
“For one, all forms of sugar have the same molecular structure and our body simply cannot discern between them,” says Galati. “It’s true that different sugars like honey or table sugar can vary in glycemic index, which measures the blood sugar response of consuming different foods, but the glucose and fructose contained within them is the same and will have a similar impact on overall health.”
Not only are the different types of sugars quite equal in terms of our health, but she believes focusing on this detail results in spending too much energy on the wrong puzzle piece. For instance, avoiding fruit because it contains sugar is a huge disservice to your health (and your taste buds). “We want to be mindful of added sugars, but when we put honey and maple syrup on a pedestal with a health halo, it’s harder to find a balance with all sugars in a way that’s really satisfying to us,” Galati says. So like many things in life, opt for whatever you like the most while being mindful of your overall sugar consumption—and eat all the damn fruit you want.
3. You need to reduce your carbohydrate consumption
Alongside the idea that food has a moral value, diet culture has spearheaded the movement that heavy restriction of certain foods (ahem, carbohydrates) is crucial to live a healthy lifestyle. When discussing carbohydrate consumption, many are under the impression that consuming them often leads to weight gain, but that’s just not the case—nor is it practical or rational.
Now that’s not to say there needs to be a uniform amount of carb consumption. Galati notes that some people are going to thrive on a higher carbohydrate diet, while others might feel better when carbs are a little lower. As always, it’s important to determine what your needs are and dismiss advice on social media that calls for the restriction of carbohydrates. “The problem I have with the demonization of carbs as a whole is the dismissal of the important purpose they serve and how potentially harmful limiting them to an extreme can be for the vast majority of people,” Galati adds. “Sure, we find carbohydrates ind fun, snacky or dessert foods, but they’re also found in health-promoting foods like beans, fruits, non-starchy and starchy vegetables, and whole grains.” The research is clear that when we eat these foods rich in fiber, micronutrients, and antioxidants, we minimize our risk of chronic diseases and health problems. “It’s valid to be mindful of ultra-processed carb foods and want to maximize high-fiber and minimally-processed carbs in the diet, but there’s truly room for all carbs in a healthy diet,” she says.
When we’re reframing how we view food, especially carbohydrates, it’s important to remember that our body functions similar to a car—you wouldn’t expect your car to go far without gas, so don’t expect your body to run without the proper fuel, which in this case applies to carbohydrates.
4. There’s a standardized way to be healthy
“People think a healthy lifestyle consists of eating as ‘clean’ as possible, eating whole foods only, exercising every day, and so many other things,” says Frothingham.“But I often talk about lifestyle, stress management, sleep, and other things when figuring out what’s best for my clients since they all play a factor in our health—not just nutrition.”
Werner also mentions how she pushes her clients to focus a lot more on stress management, how much sleep they’re getting, if they’re drinking enough water, and their relationship with their food and body—all well before talking about food itself. “As a dietitian, I care about what you put in your body, but there are additional factors we have to consider when it comes to somebody’s overall health. Nutrition is important, but it’s not the only detail to overall health,” says Werner.
To add to that, your nutritional needs are also specific to you, which is why dietitians recommend proceeding with extreme caution before adopting any popular diet, especially ones that tell you to eat a pre-prescribed number of calories. “While no dietitian can say nobody needs 1,200 calories—because we don’t know every single person’s DNA, genetic makeup, or how they move—we can say that 1,200 calories is generally [more] sufficient for toddlers than adults,” Werner adds. Talk about a red flag. “If you eat less than what you need, this can slow down your metabolism and result in low energy levels.” It’s also important to remember that each person is different in terms of nutritional needs, food access, environment, and priorities, which is why all three experts agree to find what works best for you.
“When it comes to diet, it’s really important to have a nutritionally and emotionally satisfying meal regime that you feel good about regardless of your health goals, because sticking to something you enjoy often results in long-term changes,” says Galati. “You can follow a two-week meal plan, but it’s not going to help you make decisions around food when life steps in, work runs late, or you’re at a restaurant with friends,” agrees Frothingham. If you want a plan that’s actually going to make you feel good, experts suggest reminding yourself that nutrition is not a one-size-fits-all and should be individualized to you.
Finding a plan that works for you can also reduce the long-term implications that often accompany diet culture. “There can be long-term implications to our mental health if we can’t sustain these changes, considering diet culture is one of the main industries that places the blame on individuals versus the unsustainable methodologies they create,” says Werner. For that reason, all three experts suggest finding registered dietitians near you that can help you determine your nutritional needs.
5. Supplementation is required to get all your nutrients
If there’s one thing diet culture is notorious for, it’s for selling tons of supplements that claim to seal the deal on helping you achieve optimal health. “People often feel like they need to be taking a laundry list of supplements, powders, and superfoods to be healthy, but they’re often expensive and usually unnecessary,” says Galati. Some notable key players you may have come across on social media often suggest they can help with gut health, supply your daily dose of important vitamins and minerals, and improve mental clarity. But contrary to popular belief and the thousands of posts you see online, Galati believes the most spent on supplements would be better utilized on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to get more nutrition from the food sources.
Galati also notes that supplements aren’t exactly well-regulated. “You don’t necessarily know what you’re getting or the quality of the produce unless they’re third-party tested, whereas with food, things are more predictable in terms of what you’re getting,” she says. “Supplements are meant to supplement a healthy lifestyle, which is why it’s important to get blood work done or talk to your physician if you think you’re deficient in something before investing in a green powder.” If you’re not deficient in a certain vitamin, then there’s a small chance you’ll end up actually benefiting from the product.
But what if supplements like green powders help you get your daily dose of vegetables? Galati still believes opting for food sources is the best route to take. “You’ll be much more satisfied and content overall when you find a balanced eating pattern that works for you versus investing in supplementation which acts like a bandaid that pulls you away from what you really need.” If you struggle with consuming veggies, she suggests thinking about which veggies you do enjoy and exploring ways to cook them in a way that leaves you satisfied.
How to escape diet culture for good
Thanks to the work of experts on social media, it’s becoming easier to access evidence-based tips and tricks on nutrition that are overpowering the BS claims from diet culture. But there’s still a high chance you’ll come across an extremely questionable (and usually false) claim that can make it harder to escape diet culture. However, there are ways to reduce your chances of coming across misinformation online. Some tips from experts are:
Cleaning up your social media feed
Find accounts run by trustworthy sources that have credentials and a nutrition degree like registered dietitians. The reason being almost everyone in the world can have an opinion on nutrition, but it’s important to take everything with a grain of salt to avoid adopting misinformed advice. “You can also mark any posts that seem ridiculous as ‘I’m not interested’ in most platforms to have them not show on your feed again,” says Galati. If you’re unsure if something is true or false, she also suggests challenging the claims found online to see if they’re based on evidence or simply extreme claims.
Pay attention to how you talk about food
Werner suggests being careful on how you talk about food, such as the language used to describe certain foods, to avoid adding moral value to food. “When we assign food a moral value, we can create emotions around the eating experience that can cause stress, thus impacting the way the food is digested since you’re not in rest-and-digest mode,” she says.
Remember that health and nutrition are NOT black and white
Nutrition is a complex topic that has various layers to it. “We don’t live in a black and white world, there is always a middle ground to all these things that are nutrition-related,” says Frothingham. “You can consume birthday cake, not buy organic produce, and everything else diet culture villainizes and still be very much okay.”
The bottom line
“I encourage people to sit and reflect on where diet culture has gotten you so far and if the information you adopted actually worked for you or left you struggling with food,” says Galati. “The tough truth is, if these things worked, then they would’ve worked the first attempt—but that’s usually not the case.”
Werner agrees, sharing that “the idea that weight loss or living a life celebrated by diet culture can solve your problems and result in happiness is very flawed and may even sacrifice our mental health in the process.”
If you discover you’re still struggling at the hands of diet culture, then it may be time to redirect your energy to more sustainable routes that allow you to work on your health at a pace that’s comfortable for you.