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Deconstructing Diet Culture: Lessons Unlearned From a Thin-Obsessed Society

An illustration of a man sitting in front of an empty plate, holding a fork. A thought bubble leads to a picture of health food, diet books, other food, and a person's feet on a scale. The images are linked in a dotted circle. A title reads: "Deconstructing Diet Culture."
Charnel Hunter
We've all heard a lot from diet culture. But how about from those who are challenging it?

Diet culture is everywhere. It affects the care we get at the doctor's office and our experience in fitness spaces. And we may be misunderstanding the science used to uphold moral standards of weight and health.

Diet culture is the water we're all swimming in. It’s a system that upholds thinness and says the smaller your body, the greater your moral superiority. But there’s no body shape that’s intrinsically good or bad.

Host Anita Rao unpacks the science that props up diet culture with anti-diet registered dietician Christy Harrison and certified internal medicine physician Dr. Louise Metz. She also hears from Mirna Valerio, ultrarunner and author of “A Beautiful Work in Progress,” about how she’s pushing back against the ways diet culture manifests in the doctor's office and on the trails.

Also joining the conversation are Ilya Parker, owner of Decolonizing Fitness, and Natalia Petrzela, associate professor of history at The New School, to talk about the history of fitness culture and its intersections with diet culture.

10 important lessons to take away about diet culture

1. Diet culture is rooted in racism and misogyny

“Early evolutionary biologists who were working around [the 1800s] started to point to fatness as a mark of ‘evolutionary inferiority,’” says Christy Harrison, registered dietician and author of "Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating."

This thinking has been used to justify the oppression of people considered to have “excess” body fat, including women and people of color.

2. Body Mass Index (BMI) wasn’t meant to be used as an indicator of health

In fact, this method of determining one’s body mass wasn’t even invented by a medical professional.

“It was actually originally created by a Belgian astronomer in the 1830s,” says Dr. Louise Metz, an internal medicine physician based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “It was designed for populations — not for individuals — and was not designed to define health in any way.”

3. It’s impossible to determine someone’s health or fitness based on the way they look

Just ask Mirna Valerio, creator of the blog Fat Girl Running, who frequently fields “concerns” about her larger size despite the fact that she trains for marathons on a near-daily basis.

“The questions are always there on people's faces,” Valerio says of the weight stigma she encounters on the trail. “The questions about whether I really do the things that I say that I do — because I'm still fat, despite the fact that I've done 14 ultramarathons and 10 marathons.”

4. Medical fatphobia prevents people of all sizes from receiving adequate healthcare

For those in larger bodies, the prevalence of medical fatphobia means doctors can be quick to attribute their symptoms to their weight — a phenomenon that causes them to rule out other and often more insidious explanations.

“The same goes for someone in a smaller body,” says Metz. “If we assume they are healthy based on their body, we will misdiagnose a high number of people who have metabolic conditions.”

5. Medical fatphobia means you can also be denied treatment based on your size

Ilya Parker, physical therapist assistant and founder of Decolonizing Fitness, describes the experience of being denied gender-affirming treatment as a result of weight stigma: “I experienced a lot of medical gatekeeping from my primary care physicians, who were literally refusing to initiate gender-affirming care or refer me to an endocrinologist, which is who I needed to see to receive hormone replacement therapy.”

6. Diet culture has always been about money, not health

At the turn of the century, many doctors took their cues from the burgeoning life insurance industry when deciding which bodies posed the highest financial risk. According to Harrison, doctors at the time began encouraging patients to lose weight “as a way of supposedly reducing health risks, but really, it was about reducing monetary risks from the insurance industry.”

7. Intentional weight loss is rarely permanent

“We see in the research that up to 98% of the time when people embark on weight loss efforts, they end up regaining all the weight they lost within five years,” says Harrison. “In fact, up to two-thirds of people who embark on weight loss efforts may regain more weight than they lost.”

8. Language used in fitness spaces perpetuates transphobia

Based on his own experiences of being a transmasculine participant in group exercise classes, Parker urges fellow fitness instructors and trainers to reconsider their gendered language.

“It's countless group classes that I've been in where language was so important, especially when you're like: Hey, guys can only do this exercise, ladies can only do this exercise. And then also making the assumption that you know who's in the room.”

9. Diet culture claims that fatness is un-American

Historian Natalia Petrzela traces this connection back to the 1950s, when physical fitness began to be touted as a key component of American citizenship. “[Politicians] spoke of this in unapologetically fat-shaming ways,” Petrzela says. “I mean, JFK gives this big talk about the ‘soft American’ and how an American who is physically soft is a national liability.”

10. You can decline to be weighed at the doctor’s office

“Let your provider know that you would like medical care from a ‘Health at Every Size’ perspective,” says Metz. “And if you do not want to discuss weight or weight management at your visit, then you have the right to ask for that.”

Find other episodes in the "Resolved" series >>

Find the "Resolved" discussion guides >>

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Charlie Shelton-Ormond is a podcast producer for WUNC.
Josie Taris left her home in Fayetteville in 2014 to study journalism at Northwestern University. There, she took a class called Journalism of Empathy and found her passion in audio storytelling. She hopes every story she produces challenges the audience's preconceptions of the world. After spending the summer of 2018 working in communications for a Chicago nonprofit, she decided to come home to work for the station she grew up listening to. When she's not working, Josie is likely rooting for the Chicago Cubs or petting every dog she passes on the street.
Kaia Findlay is the lead producer of Embodied, WUNC's weekly podcast and radio show about sex, relationships and health. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.