Female looking in the mirrorHave you ever felt pressured to look a certain way? If so, you’re not alone. These pressures often stem from societal norms, body ideals and ‘diet culture.’ Here are a few things you should know about diet culture, its impacts, how it can be harmful and what you can do to better support yourself and others in a culture centered around dieting. 

1. What is ‘diet culture’? 

When we think about diets, we are often talking about individual food choices or ways to change our body shape. However, diet culture represents a set of systemic beliefs that affect everyone.et culture idealize thinness as a signal of status, health and moral virtue. As a result, those who live in thinner bodies often benefit from unspoken privileges that those in larger bodies do not. In fact, diet culture tends to demean those who live in larger bodies by assuming that they are unhealthy, are not worthy of dignity and should be ashamed of how they look or what they eat. 

Under diet culture, many people may feel pressured to lose weight, even if they live in a smaller body or are in good health, regardless of their size. We often see these tenants play out across media platforms like social media, television, magazines and advertisements. However, diet culture can also impact how people interact and experience everyday activities, such as receiving health care, going to the gym and shopping at clothing stores, to name a few.  

2. What can diet culture look like? 

Diet culture is pervasive, and it can show up in both obvious and subtle ways. Here are a few examples of how diet culture may show up in your life. 

Body idealization. You may notice that celebrities and influencers are often praised for losing weight or altering their body shape or size. In contrast, those who gain weight or exist in larger bodies are often criticized or shamed for their appearance, perceived health or other traits. You may most often notice body idolization through comments on social media, before and after photos or tabloids. 

Filters and altered images. Social media is wrought with body-distorting filters and highly edited images. These images often encourage viewers to compare themselves to enhanced and often unachievable body ideals. It’s also important to be wary of influencers who use these types of images to sell or promote products. Many influencers receive commissions for products sold through their platform, and the pictured ‘results’ may not be real. 

Unqualified advice. Information about what and how to eat is everywhere in our culture. In fact, just about anyone can share nutrition advice online without having the proper credentials. When looking at nutritional advice online, it’s important to be wary of things like ‘detoxes,’ quick fixes and minimal or no qualifications. When searching for advice, be sure to look for individuals who are registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) or have a PhD in nutrition sciences.  

Moral value. It’s common for people to attach moral value to different foods. For instance, you may have seen foods being labeled as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Foods may also be labeled more subtly as ‘guilt-free’ and ‘guilty pleasures.’ This kind of food labeling is a symptom of diet culture that places higher value on foods that are less caloric than others. However, it’s important to know that all food is morally neutral. 

Earning food. While physical activity is often beneficial for our mental and physical health, some people may use exercise as a way to exert control over their bodies, alter their appearance or determine what they are ‘allowed’ to eat. These sentiments may come from influencers online or fitness coaches who encourage clients to ‘earn’ their food. 

Everyday conversations. Whether we notice it or not, diet culture can sneak its way into our everyday conversations with friends, classmates or family members. Some examples can include celebrating weight loss or body transformations, encouraging someone to lose weight, talking about eating a certain way to lose weight that reflects recent choices you have made for yourself (e.g., going low-carb after you have ordered a plate of spaghetti), berating yourself or others for being ‘unhealthy’ and more.

3. How can diet culture be harmful? 

Diet culture focuses on thinness over health and well-being. The pursuit of these unrealistic standards can have harmful impacts, including: 

Body dissatisfaction. Weight-related stigma can contribute to feelings of body dissatisfaction, especially among young adults. This can include things like criticizing our body, feeling unhappy with how we look, negatively impacting our self-confidence and making comparisons between our body and others’. 

Food restriction. Dieting culture can cause us to fear certain foods, cut out food groups, engage in restrictive diets or exercise to excess. It can also contribute to disordered eating behaviors and eating disorders. 

Excess stress. Diets often dictate what, when and how you eat. Adhering to a strict diet can be overwhelming, as you may lose a sense of control over your own food. It can also make eating a more stressful and less pleasurable experience as you attempt to navigate food choices that meet the requirements of a specific diet. 

Social isolation. When we follow a strict or rigid diet, we may miss out on social occasions, especially when they revolve around eating out or enjoying food together. 

Health impacts. While excess weight can be associated with negative health consequences, it’s important to know that losing and gaining weight repeatedly over time (also known as ‘weight cycling’) can also negatively impact your health. In fact, studies indicate that weight cycling can cause fluctuations in cardiovascular risk factors, including blood pressure, heart rate, glucose, lipids and insulin levels. 

One easy way to tell if you’ve been impacted by diet culture is to ask yourself: Does diet- or body-talk make you feel bad about yourself? If the answer is yes, you’ve likely been affected by diet culture and body ideals. 

4. How can you find support for yourself and others? 

Separating ourselves from diet culture can be difficult. However, there are ways that you can support yourself and others if you choose to discard the premise of diet culture. Here are a few ideas to get you started: 

Foster food freedom. Tracking macros, counting calories, evaluating every food label and avoiding more calorific foods can be exhausting. Instead, try giving yourself the freedom to eat the foods you enjoy without feeling guilty or needing to ‘make up for it’ later. If that sounds too difficult to achieve right now, you can try avoiding food labels like ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ 

Set goals. Many people set goals related to their body, appearance, weight or shape. However, you may find it more meaningful to set goals that are not body-oriented. For instance, you may set goals related to improving your flexibility, running a 5K or doing 10 pushups, gaining self-confidence, learning a new skill or improving health metrics, like cholesterol or blood pressure. 

Try intuitive eating. Intuitive eating is an evidence-based approach to eating that can help individuals heal their relationship with food, stop restrictive dieting and rediscover the pleasure of eating. This approach was developed by two registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) who have more than 30 years of experience in dietetics and mindful eating.  

Make movement joyful. Oftentimes, when we think of movement, we automatically associate it with a sweat-inducing workout at the gym. However, movement can take many forms, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Take some time to reflect on your relationship with movement and explore ways you can make movement more intuitive and fun. 

Refresh your feeds. Take a moment to review your social media feeds. What kinds of accounts do you follow? What type of content shows up on your ‘for you’ page? Consider refreshing your accounts by unfollowing wellness or fitness influencers who provide unqualified advice, make negative comments or encourage you to compare your body to theirs. Instead, seek out accounts from experts and practitioners that are size-inclusive. Those who practice Health at Every Size (HAES) are a good resource for non-weight-loss advice. 

Practice body neutrality. ‘Body positivity’ often asks people to love their body, regardless of its shape, size or appearance. However, this concept may feel unrealistic, because it’s rare for people to love their bodies all the time. Instead, it may be better to practice ‘body neutrality.’ This approach deemphasizes your body’s physical appearance to focus on your body’s abilities and non-physical attributes. You can practice body neutrality by using positive affirmations, such as “I love that my legs allow me to run fast,” or “My body works hard and deserves love.” 

Ditch the BMI. Body Mass Index (BMI) is often used by doctors to determine whether or not a person is a 'normal’ weight, but it does not have a category for ‘healthy.’ In fact, this measure is flawed and often misleading. That’s because the BMI only takes your height and weight into account without looking at body composition, sex differences, body fat, genetics, how you feed your body or how you move your body. Instead of focusing on your BMI, you can work with your doctor to evaluate your health through other measures like your resting pulse rate, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, eating habits and physical activity. Did you also know that you can request not to be weighed at doctor’s visits? Most visits don’t require a weigh-in unless you’re undergoing anesthesia or trying to determine certain medication dosages. If you prefer not to see your weight when it is needed for a visit, you can also request a blind weight. This allows your doctor to see your weight while you do not. 

5. What resources are available? 

If you are struggling with body image or would like help changing your relationship with food, there are resources on campus that can support you. 

Nutrition Services

The registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) at Wardenburg can help students decipher fact from fiction when it comes to nutritional advice. Campus RDNs can also help you create individualized nutrition goals to support a sustainable eating pattern for you. 

Food and Body Image Support Meeting

The Collegiate Recovery Community (CUCRC) offers a free food and body image support group for students, staff and faculty. This group is designed to help individuals build community and work with others who are in recovery from unhealthy relationships with food and body image. 

Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS)

CAPS provides support for students struggling with issues related to food, weight and body image. They can also provide coordinated care with medical providers or help refer students to community resources. 


Students, staff and faculty can access free nutrition counseling from registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) online through AcademicLiveCare, regardless of your insurance plan. 

Thriving Campus

Students, staff and faculty can connect with community providers who offer individual counseling related to body image, dieting and eating disorders. To find providers with your desired specialty, use the filters section to search for 'practice areas.’