Felicity Wellbeing Marketing Monitor: Diet Culture
It’s almost bikini season, are you ready? This kind of messaging has been part of the western cultural dialogue for years: that the way our bodies look, based on what we eat and how we work out, is a reflection of our health and our value as a person.
It’s called diet culture and quite simply, it makes people feel ashamed, leads to disordered eating and encourages body discrimination.
We recently spoke with Registered Dietitian Samantha Goren about how wellbeing brands can avoid feeding into diet culture.
First, a bit more about Samantha. Samantha Goren is a Registered Dietitian, food and lifestyle content creator and mom of three. Samantha has worked in the field of nutrition and dietetics for more than 12 years. She spent the beginning of her career working as a Clinical Dietitian in the Eating Disorders Program at Toronto General Hospital. Samantha now runs a private practice and she is the founder of Foodhome Co., a website dedicated to creating food, nutrition and lifestyle content. You can find her on Instagram at @foodhome.co and @truthinsocial.
How would you define diet culture?
Diet culture actually doesn’t have to do with diets per se. It’s more about a set of beliefs that focuses on controlled eating and the pursuit of thinness above overall wellbeing. It promotes weight loss as a way of attaining higher status, demonizes certain ways of eating (upholds others) and oppresses people who are not in line with these beliefs. Some ways this manifests include restricting calories, negative self-talk, or labelling foods as “good” and “bad.” For instance, one may (wrongly) consider a sweet potato on the “good list” while a white potato would be on the “bad list.” Other common examples of foods often considered as “good” include foods free of refined sugar, gluten or dairy. Many people who think they are not dieting are pursuing health or wellness in a way that very much looks like a diet. Some experts see this as a “Wellness Diet” and includes everything from “clean eating” to detoxes, cleanses and gluten phobia. Even though the weight-stigma aspect might be removed from this style of diet culture, the demonization of food is still very present.
How does diet culture affect consumers (including your clients)? Why is it buzzworthy right now?
Many foods today are marketed as superior to others because they promote health, wellness or fitness. This impacts people psychologically in terms of making them feel that some choices are better than others, especially with regards to weight. In my practice, I specialize in eating disorders, but this mentality starts way before clients get to me.
There is so much misinformation out there, in terms of claims that can be made on foods and have now come to be perceived as “better for you.” For instance, Keto or gluten-free. Eating foods that can be considered Keto, “clean”, gluten-free or even refined sugar-free are not necessarily better or worse for you (except for people who have Celiac Disease or a true gluten sensitivity). I believe that when foods are marketed in this way, they are often selling hope as the product benefit but this isn’t necessarily based on facts.
There is no other industry really where the products being produced can have such a strong effect in terms of reinforcing diet trends and disordered eating. I would say the beauty industry is a close second in terms of similar impact to our self esteem.
How do marketers feed into diet culture? And, what can marketers do to ensure they are not purveyors of diet culture?
First, I would say to develop your products in consultation with food scientists and experts. Sadly, because diet culture is so pervasive in our society, often the ideas start with “what product will sell?” rather than “what product can we feel good about producing and will, in turn, make our consumers feel good?”
For example, I see products claiming they are “refined sugar-free” intending to make people feel less guilty about eating them. Science tells us that products like this are no healthier than products made with white sugar. Another example are products marketed as “guilt-free”. Guilt should have nothing to do with food but claims like this perpetuate guilt and disordered eating.
I’ll give you some concrete examples. I’ve always thought that Haagen Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s do a great job in selling what they are selling. Their ingredients are exactly what you’d expect in ice creams, like sugar and eggs and cream, and they don’t try to claim otherwise nor alter their products or claims to make you feel less guilty about eating them.
On the other hand, you have Halo Top. Their marketing has implications of not feeling guilty when you eat their product. Their website states “finally, a treat you can feel good about eating”. Don’t get me wrong, if you enjoy the product, by all means, there is nothing wrong with that. But this type of messaging is highly problematic and in my opinion unethical. This can be problematic for a few reasons. First, it promotes that “guilt-free ”feeling with certain foods and then of course a “guilty” feeling with others. It also naturally encourages you to eat more of something when it is perceived as “guilt-free” which can inevitably lead to overeating behaviours. In my practice, I teach clients to eat normal portions of foods regardless of if the food is high-calorie or not. I also stress the importance of not associating emotions with food as I often say “one has nothing to do with the other”. There are exceptions such as eating nostalgic foods which of course can bring about emotions. I certainly don’t feel bad after some Ben & Jerry’s cookie dough ice cream, it’s quite the contrary. I empower my patients to challenge these feelings of guilt so that they can have a healthy relationship with food.
A recent example is Magic Spoon, which has diet culture written all over their marketing. They are trying to market the ability to eat your cereal guilt-free by including all sorts of claims. High protein, low carb, grain-free, gluten-free…so you’re getting a bowl full of what, exactly?
What are some things that you do in your home to counteract the effects of diet culture?
My kids are only 8 and under, but I am well aware of what’s to come as they get older. When you are at the prime of caring about body image as a tween or teen, you are bombarded with messages about products that claim they will help you lose weight.
In our home, we don’t label foods good or bad. Certain foods can be “very nutritious” vs. “not so nutritious” and I have no issue explaining that a donut for example is a treat or snack and not to replace a meal. We talk about food and how it impacts our body on the inside, such as giving you energy or vitamins for our bodies to grow and work optimally. I also don’t shy away from telling my kids what is too much or too little of a food. But it is all about the way you communicate. It’s totally fine to have marshmallows, but 30 of them “might give you a tummy ache”. Or 3 bites of pizza is not sufficient as a portion and you are going to be hungry soon after lunch.
Another thing I tell parents is you should be giving the same feedback to your kids regardless of their body size/shape. Kids pick up on when they are treated differently from their siblings. The way our bodies look naturally has nothing to do with how our eating habits should look. If you are serving dessert to Jenny who has a small body type, but not to Bobby who has a larger body type, that is problematic.
It’s our job as parents to teach our kids to eat in a balanced way, that “all foods fit”—and not having negative language around food. Unfortunately, it has become normalized to eat in a very “health-conscious” way. But in my opinion, those who are the healthiest eaters are the ones who enjoy both a healthy salad at times and a burger and fries at other times, and generally eat a variety of foods. It’s all about balance.
To learn more about diet culture, check out these resources Samantha shared with us:
What is diet culture? Via UC San Diego Recreation
What is diet culture? Via registered dietitian Christy Harrison
The Development of a Scale to Measure Diet-Culture Beliefs, via Kenzie Davidson