With the holidays coming, you’re likely to receive digital ads and flyers in the mail about weight-loss program discounts. Or, resolution-focused programming that centers an assumed desire for body changes when it gets closer to the new year.
Rampant and unsolicited ads to push folks to focus on weight loss, particularly around the holidays, is just one example of diet culture, or the idea that weight loss is more important than your overall well-being.
It can show up in our lives in subtle ways we don’t realize, like through our language (like the word “fat” being negative instead of just a description) or in the ways we respond to food on a daily basis (like feeling the need to “make up” for eating “bad foods.”)
It can also be more grandiose, leading to
A response to the ways that diet culture has infiltrated much of the health and wellness space is the anti-diet movement — an approach that centers the whole person and their overall health, rather than solely focusing on how much the scale moves.
Everyone should be allowed their own personal journey and experience when it comes to their bodies, without shame.
That includes those who are comfortable and thriving in larger bodies and those who have goals of losing weight. The importance in a shift to being anti-diet is the holistic approach to caring for yourself.
In addition to overall nutrient intake and eating foods that make you feel good, this includes things like adequate rest and sleep, moving in ways that feel good to you, and many other factors that don’t have an explicit connection to how much you weigh.
Society has linked health and weight for so long and it can be hard to separate the two, so Healthline spoke with 10 nutrition experts who are intentional about pushing against food restriction and body exclusionary practices.
Read on to learn how their work aims to challenge diet culture’s influence.
These folks have shaped their careers out of pushing against societal norms and rejecting the idea that food restriction is the pathway to health.
How does your work push against the norms?
Nutrition Therapist and Intuitive Eating Counselor Ayana Habtemariam MSW, RD, LDN of Truly Real Nutrition: I am a fat positive, Health At Every Size (HAES) ® aligned RD who centers the lived experiences of my clients in our work together.
My work is social justice-centered and I actively reject the norms that society has upheld as the standard.
Working in a field dominated by thin white women and just showing up as my full, Black self pushes against societal norms.
Shana Spence RDN, CDN of The Nutrition Tea: I come from a weight-neutral standpoint where a person can have autonomy over their body because it’s ultimately their decision on what to do with their body, but I don’t focus on weight loss.
Dalina Soto, MA, RD, LDN of Your Latina Nutrition: I speak out against racism and oppression daily. I speak about our cultural foods in a positive way and I educate based on science.
The issue is that not all science takes our foods into consideration, so I have to bridge that gap.
Melissa Alazraki RD, CDCES of Culina Health: I specialize in diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and most of my patients are told that weight loss is a cornerstone of disease prevention and management for them.
I am often the first person in a healthcare setting to suggest that they can meet their health goals (such as improving glucose, decreasing blood pressure, decreasing risk of heart disease) without focusing on weight.
I am the first person to tell them that healthy behaviors such as choosing nutrient dense foods and engaging in regular physical activity can have beneficial impacts even if the scale doesn’t move.
A majority of the experts share that a body neutral perspective and explicit anti-diet practices were not always cornerstones of their work, partially connected to ways healthcare professionals are often taught antiquated rhetoric around weight and the need for food restriction.
Even these staunch supporters of body inclusivity had to grow in their understanding, showing that pushing past diet culture is a journey — it’s okay if you’re still growing in the relationship you have with your body.
Has an anti-diet framework always been part of your work?
Culinary Dietitian Marisa Moore, RDN, LD: On some level, yes. I was definitely taught the calories in, calories out ideal in school, but I’ve always practiced with a mindset that all foods fit.
I was never personally willing to give up the foods I enjoy, and that has always been part of my professional philosophy.
In meeting with clients, many would be surprised to walk into my office and not be led to a scale first.
I’ve always taken a client-centered approach — focusing on health outcomes and not adhering to a calorie controlled diet or other restrictive ways of eating.
Spence: No, when I first started as a dietitian I was definitely counseling with the ideas of diet culture.
I believed that people could just “try harder” at their health and that they were in control of their health. I definitely had an elitist mindset, which I know is so damaging now.
It took actual listening and a willingness to learn to realize that this was not the best approach.
Alazraki: No, it’s something I came to over time after having many conversations with people about their relationship with food and weight.
I saw the ways in which diet culture and
My patients need to understand how food choices can affect their medical conditions, but I usually see greater long term success when I can help them do this without moralizing certain foods or creating rigid food rules.
Christie Melonson, LPC and Regional Psychotherapy Director with Mindpath Health: I have always encouraged my patients to learn about the type of eating and nutrition that works for their bodies, and to look into the science around food and how nutrition impacts their mood and anxiety levels.
I have also encouraged my patients to eat what is culturally appropriate for them in their family and cultural contexts. I have not been pro-diet, but more pro-what-is-healthy-for-the-individual.
Soto: No and yes. I used the term anti diet always without actually being anti-diet.
When I first became a dietitian, I knew diets didn’t work but I still promoted intentional weight loss.
I didn’t put people on diets but I celebrated weight loss, and I definitely discussed modifications and portion control — all which I learned in school.
But, through my education outside of school, I found HAES and Intuitive Eating (IE) and that propelled me into this world of being pro-person.
How have you seen weight bias influence medical care?
Habtemariam: I’ve seen this in so many ways, both personally and professionally. I most commonly see it when medical providers suggest weight loss based solely off the BMI.
Standout: Competent medical professionals should be able to discuss underlying reasons without relying on weight as the primary excuse. It’s lazy medicine.
Spence: I’ll never forget one of my former clients who had her pain ignored for months until she finally received a proper check up and they found cysts that had to be removed.
This is incredibly dangerous, and many medical equipment devices (such as blood pressure cuffs) don’t fit those in larger bodies properly which can cause misdiagnosis or
Flourish Heights podcast host and Women’s Health Dietitian Valerie Agyeman, RD, LD: Many people are dismissed in healthcare and not given the care that they need because of their appearance, some even get misdiagnosed which can be life threatening in some cases.
These stories happen too often, and I am tired of it.
Why are diets harmful and ineffective?
Diets also take a toll on someone’s mental health because of the stress that they cause from lack of flexibility and restriction, and can lead to eating disorders, which can become deadly.
“They foster black and white thinking around food, and a lack of flexibility makes it difficult to sustain healthy habits (is your life the same every day?)”
— Melissa Alazraki, RD, CDCES
They place all focus on external prompts, and don’t create a framework to help people connect to their internal cues, and they don’t address behavior, which I have found to be at the root of most people’s obstacles to achieving their nutrition related goals.
Agyeman: When you’re not eating enough, and for a long period of time, your body goes into survival mode as your metabolism starts to slow down to conserve energy for life-sustaining needs.
You can be missing out on key nutrients to support your bodily functions, leading to issues like:
- irregular periods
- sleep disturbances
Why do you think we’re so fixated on dieting?
I think we’re actually fixated on acceptance and doing whatever it takes to not feel rejected by society and the BS norms and standards of “health,” beauty, and size that we’ve been socialized into.
— Ayana Habtemariam MSW, RD, LDN
Moore: Diet culture is pervasive. It’s entrenched in our society and it can be difficult to spot or recognize its influence on our everyday decisions and interactions, and a driving force is the privilege that comes with being thin.
Melonson: Slim people are often portrayed as happy and loved in advertising, and this really speaks to our insecurities.
Spence: There is a profit in people’s insecurities.
The diet industry also is worth about $78B (as of 2019) so there is definite financial gain. It’s very much a business, and if we weren’t to purchase products or buy memberships to apps and programs, then how would the industry make a profit?
Agyeman: Mainstream media has a tremendous impact on how people think their bodies should look. It’s everywhere: in magazines, TV shows, on social media.
Soto: It’s a way to feel in control when not many things can be controlled. Food feels like something we can do, and we manipulate how we eat.
But it also gives us a false
How would you like to see the health and nutrition space evolve further when it comes to representation?
Spence: I would love for the field to diversify because there are so many various populations that need representation.
I want to see medical professionals provide compassionate and respectful care.
Also, for less
The lack of representation and respectful care is killing people.
— Ayana Habtemariam MSW, RD, LDN
Jessi Kneeland, author and body neutrality coach: Actual people running businesses, being given grants and loans so that representation is on every level, not just who’s in an ad.
I would really love to see more people in those [health] spaces doing liberation work.
Soto: I would like to see the conversation around equity and health be the norm.
It’s so exhausting to be fighting misinformation daily and I feel like there needs to be more representation to combat it.
Alazraki: I’d be remiss not to acknowledge this moment of intersectionality: communities with the highest rates of chronic disease in our country tend to be communities that are under-resourced; communities of color; communities in which many people have
And, they are hard pressed to find nutrition providers that look like them, or that understand their lived experience. So we need to invest effort, time and money into giving a wider range of people access to joining our field.
Whether or not we realize it, many of us are negatively affected by diet culture.
Society has done a great job of pushing us to center our lives around losing weight or changing our bodies, but these nutrition experts have shown through their careers that being health-centric is possible without reducing your worth to the numbers on the scale.
These responses have been edited for brevity.