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What is diet culture and is it toxic?

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, 5 min read

What is diet culture and is it toxic?

Diet culture is as tightly woven into the fabric of our society as reality TV and gossip. We know it isn’t necessarily good for us, but we buy into it and obsess about our body image anyway. But what exactly is diet culture and how does it affect our mental and physical health? 

What is diet culture?

Diet culture is a set of beliefs that prioritize certain body shapes and sizes over actual physical and mental health. It perpetuates the idea that not only does a ‘perfect body’ exist, but that everything else should be sacrificed in order to achieve it. 

Many people now recognize the idea that an obsession with being ‘thin’ isn’t healthy, but diet culture can also create unhealthy fixations about achieving certain levels of muscularity or creating bodies with the ‘right’ curves and shapes.

Unfortunately, diet culture is so prominent in our society that we often don’t even realize that we are buying into these misguided ideas. Some examples of diet culture include:

  • Saying that certain foods or food groups (such as carbohydrates) are ‘bad’
  • Feeling guilty for eating
  • Exercising just to burn off a specific amount of calories or meal
  • Using ‘hacks’ to suppress appetite (like nicotine, caffeine, drinking specific teas)
  • Feeling unattractive or unworthy because of your body and physical appearance
  • Obsessing about weight loss or weight gain

Why diet culture is toxic

Even if you’re not completely obsessed with dieting or achieving the perfect figure, diet culture and its influence is always bubbling away under the surface in western society. In its mildest form, it creates this illusion that you cannot be completely happy unless you have the ‘perfect’ body shape. This can lead to low self-esteem and social anxiety.

In its more dangerous forms, diet culture can exacerbate mental health conditions such as eating disorders. With countless social media outlets, magazines, and websites parading the ‘perfect’ body and plugging the latest diet pills or extreme detoxing programs that supposedly help to achieve it, it’s harder than ever to ignore or avoid diet culture.

What are the mental health complications of toxic diet culture?

The pressures of diet culture can cause anything from mild anxiety to significant distress. If you worry about your weight or feel pressure to conform to societal expectations, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a mental health condition. However, it’s worth reaching out to a healthcare provider or mental health professional for guidance.

Does diet culture cause eating disorders?

Although it is by no means the only cause of eating disorders, research suggests that the societal idealization of thinness is a significant environmental contributor. 

There are many different types of eating disorders as well as many types of anxiety disorders and mental health conditions. These various disorders can sometimes co-exist and overlap in patients, and many of them can be triggered or exacerbated by toxic diet culture.

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD)

Body dysmorphia is a common mental health condition. Although it exists worldwide, experts are still learning about the specific causes of body dysmorphia. It is believed that dysmorphia is caused by a variety of environmental, psychological, and biological factors. 

Those who suffer from BDD struggle with negative thoughts about their appearance. They often become obsessed with certain flaws or blemishes that may or may not exist. Bullying and ridicule can contribute to the feelings of shame and inadequacy that accompany this psychiatric disorder. So, while more research needs to be done to measure the true impact of diet culture on BDD, it’s reasonable to assume that it can be at least one of the contributing factors.

Symptoms of BDD include:

  • Constant mirror checking (or avoiding mirrors completely)
  • Compulsive behaviors like skin picking
  • Needing constant reassurance about how you look
  • Constant grooming
  • Obsessively exercising
  • Hiding body parts (often referred to as camouflaging)
  • Avoiding social activities
  • Obsessively seeking unnecessary plastic surgery or cosmetic surgery
  • Suicidal thoughts

You don’t necessarily need to display all of the symptoms of Body Dysmorphic Disorder in order to be diagnosed. However, in order to receive a diagnosis by a clinician or psychiatry expert, you must be abnormally concerned about a small or non-existent body flaw. Your concerns about this perceived flaw (whether it exists or not) must also be severe enough that it interferes with your daily life.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, you are not alone. Reach out to a national suicide and crisis lifeline and get the support that you need.

Is muscle dysmorphia the same as body dysmorphia?

Muscle dysmorphia (MD) is a form of body dysmorphia. It mainly affects males and is characterized by obsessions with being too small or not muscular or ‘buff’ enough. Just as with general body dysmorphia, those suffering from muscle dysmorphia will obsess over a perceived defect (such as a lack of muscles) which may or may not exist in reality.

There is no one specific known cause for muscle dysmorphia, but it is believed that a variety of factors such as biology, being teased or bullied at a young age, and cultural pressures from unrealistic media portrayals of body standards are contributing factors.

Worried about body dysmorphia or other related disorders? Get help today!

As much as we’d love to live in a world where diet culture does not exist, there’s no escaping its prevalence in modern-day western society. But while many people will inevitably feel a certain amount of pressure due to societal expectations, there is a difference between mild anxiety and a mental health condition.

If you’re concerned that you or a loved one might be displaying symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder, an eating disorder, or another mental health condition, reach out to your healthcare provider for help.

Make an online appointment to discuss your areas of concern with the Babylon healthcare team today.


  1. Choosing Therapy 
  2. National Eating Disorders Association 
  3. Mayo Clinic,may%20avoid%20many%20social%20situations 
  4. Hopkins Medicine,shame%2C%20and%20fear%20of%20ridicule 
  5. International OCD Foundation,objectively%20extremely%20%E2%80%9Cbuff%E2%80%9D%20physique
  6. Mayo Clinic 
  7. National Library of Medicine

The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of a doctor with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never delay seeking or disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read here.

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