I know diet culture is a problem, but …

I still want to lose weight!

The journey out of diet culture is challenging. The path isn’t clear and it isn’t straight; sometimes it can feel like you’re spinning your wheels and going no-where, or like you’re lost in the woods. 

It can be frustrating when you know that in most cases diets don’t result in long-term weight loss, but you still want to lose weight.

It can be confusing when you understand that repeated dieting may mess with your metabolism, making it harder and harder to lose or even maintain your weight, but you still consider going on the latest fad diet.

It can be disturbing when you’re told that you’re supposed to love your body just the way it is, but you don’t!

It can feel hypocritical when you no longer believe in diet culture’s lies, but you’d give up the whole anti-diet thing in a hot minute if someone finally came up with the magic pill that would make you slim forever. 

And it can feel lonely and isolating when you no longer fit in with diet culture, but don’t know any other way

For quite a while, I experienced all these emotions myself (and sometimes still do). Here I was, supposedly embracing a non-diet, weight-neutral approach to well-being, while secretly hoping to lose weight. But when I carefully considered what I’m about to share with you, I understood that my feelings made total sense.

Today I’ll explain why the journey out of diet culture to a healthier perspective sometimes feels anything but healthy, why it’s normal and to be expected, and also, what you can do about it.

Our Unfortunate Fatphobic Wiring

Just about everyone raised in western culture was raised in diet culture, where fatphobic messages are ubiquitous. We heard it from our parents and grandparents, from our classmates, neighbors, friends and teachers, and it’s been reinforced in all aspects of the media.

Social media is the worst! Fitspiration, thinspiration, and body-shaming posts are rampant, making it nearly impossible to avoid images of skeletal bodies hailed as the cultural ideal. With all these messages coming at us from every direction, every hour of every day, of course the fear of fat is wired deeply into all of us. 

Unfortunately, when you discover that the diet mentality is deeply flawed and dangerous, it doesn’t instantly override decades of ingrained and internalized fatphobia. Here’s why: 

Understanding versus Believing

It’s well-established in psychology that what we think and believe impacts how we feel and behave, and that we can feel and behave better when we change our beliefs. But that’s easier said than done.

When I was training as a therapist my mentor explained the difference between “understanding” something and “believing” it. When we learn that our beliefs are causing us trouble, or are even patently untrue, that learning happens in the rational part of our brain — we understand it — but the neural pathways for our beliefs are deep. Until we carve out deep pathways for our new beliefs, we understand but don’t truly really believe them.

In most cases, we still act and feel the way we always did, at least for a while. That’s because the new beliefs are unpracticed, and our old beliefs are well-practiced and automatic. By the time we pull-out our little “better beliefs” cheat sheets, our old beliefs have already traveled the fast track to impact our feelings and behavior.

So in the situation we’re exploring today, when we discover the dangers of diet culture, and realize that fatphobia is unjust, we “understand” it. And when we still want to lose weight and still are drawn to each diet we hear about, we are in that uncomfortable but normal and inevitable space between understanding and believing.

Dieting and Brain Chemistry

Dopamine is a brain chemical that gets released whenever we detect the possibility of a reward. It causes us to pursue whatever it is that promises that reward, even if it’s a false reward or will have negative consequences for us. Dopamine doesn’t check in with our values or goals or our newly raised consciousness — it just triggers desire and pursuit.

Diets promise the greatest rewards of all — health, beauty, happiness, love, and acceptance, so when we hear about a new diet, or someone tells us that they just lost some weight and they feel great, our brains get flooded with dopamine and we get flooded with the desire to go on that diet, whether our rational brains want to diet or not. 

To make matters worse, the behavioral law of reinforcement states that we keep doing things that are rewarding, and diets are super-rewarding — at first. When we diet, we often lose some quick weight (actually water weight, but who cares, right?), our pants get loose, the scale becomes our friend, and we get loads of compliments and admiration. That’s pretty rewarding. Then, like a Vegas slot machine that keeps us hooked by offering unpredictable and infrequent payoffs, the possibility that the next diet might be the one that will make us skinny for good, keeps us hooked on dieting.

Both the action of dopamine, and the behavioral law of reinforcement play an important role in addictive behavior, and, from what I’ve just described, you can probably understand how we get “addicted” to diets.

Dieting and our Social Brains

Humans are social animals. Because we live in societies where our survival depends on others, we’ve adapted to feel safe when we’re accepted and stressed when we’re rejected. This occurs at the neurobiological level. It doesn’t make sense to choose social exclusion over inclusion, and by giving up dieting, we risk being excluded and rejected, not just by strangers in the street, social media trolls, or mean girls, but by well-meaning friends and even our loved ones.

When everyone around us is dieting, and we’re not, we can feel isolated and lonely, like we’re not part of the tribe — and that’s stressful and scary. Dieting, or engaging in diet-talk, body-disparaging talk, or fat-talk with the other dieters around us can relieve that stress by letting us be part of the gang again.  

We Can’t Escape but We Can Be Free

Anti-diet advocates often ask how we would feel and what we would do if we woke up tomorrow in a world where diet culture didn’t exist — that’s called a ‘miracle question’ and it’s great for opening our minds to new possibilities, but it doesn’t reflect reality. We’re not going to wake up tomorrow in a magically transformed world. When we wake up tomorrow, and the next day, diet culture’s messages will still be rampant, our brains will still be shooting out dopamine, and we’ll still want to be accepted. And for all these reasons, I’m not sure if anyone ever truly escapes diet culture.

That doesn’t mean it’s hopeless, because even if we can’t escape, we can free ourselves from suffering under diet culture’s oppressive rule.

Struggle in the Right Direction

The struggle for freedom from diet culture is one that offers the possibility of true self-care, wellness, self-acceptance, and the choice to use our time and energy to flourish rather than shrink, while diet culture (no matter how dopamine makes us feel) offers a lifetime of stress and shame, a need to devote ourselves to “fixing” our bodies, and, yes, the possibility of smaller bodies that we can be insecure about forever. If we’re going to be struggling anyway, let’s struggle in the right direction! 

It’s Ok if You Still Want to Lose Weight

The purpose of this post isn’t to judge you if you still want to lose weight or even if you are dieting; as I mentioned earlier, part of me still would like it if I lost weight — because that fatphobic stuff is wired in deep. I just don’t want it enough to walk ashamed and preoccupied all the time anymore and have become ok in that weird space when my mind and my desires are at odds. For all the biochemical, behavioral and social reasons I described above, it makes total sense if you still want to lose weight, even as you come out of the fog of diet culture.

But since the world won’t be transformed when we wake up tomorrow, our only hope for freedom is to work on ourselves, whether we want to lose weight or not. In my next post, I’m going to offer you some tools for freedom from diet culture, designed to help you travel from understanding to believing. 

You can read the follow-up post that offers tools to help you break free from diet culture (whether you are a dieter or not) here.

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2 thoughts on “I know diet culture is a problem, but …”

    1. I’m glad this was helpful. The mall is bad! I tend to write about what I need in the moment. While I was in bed last night, I realized that I forgot to add humor and laughter as a tool to battle diet culture. I am preparing a follow-up post (or I may edit this one).

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