8 Of Diet Culture’s Biggest Myths, Debunked By A Nutritionist

Diet culture goes way further back than we thought...

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Unfortunately, many of us have been exposed to diet culture.

From family members to it being shoved in our faces by all media outlets. Education is vital; it is time to debunk these dangerous folk tales.

What is diet culture?

Diet culture refers to ”collective beliefs and practices that promote the pursuit of weight loss as the ultimate marker of health and well-being.” Diet culture promotes and uses dangerous language, such as ”the ideal body”, ”cheat days” and ”cleanses”. Diet culture also encourages strict eating and magic fixes and deceits people into believing statements such as ”individuals have full control over their health and appearance.”

A brief history 

Health and fitness were important in Ancient Greece; to the Greeks, a healthy body meant a healthy mind. The ”ideal body” wasn’t necessary to them; their physical abilities were. The earliest record referencing diet culture can be traced back to the early 1900s when this was the first time “diet” meant restrictive eating to lose weight. Most people now have access to “food preservation” and “refrigeration”; before this, people ate what they had access to. Transportation transformed lives as people were no longer eating to survive.

Diet books have been around for centuries; the first one was released in 1558 by Luigi Cornaro and is still in print today. The book urged people to eat 12 oz of food and 14 oz of wine daily. “In 1614, The Fruits, Herbs, and Vegetables of Italy heavily criticised the sugary and meaty diet of the British. It became the source material for today’s Mediterranean Diet.” 

Diet books continued to be released in 1730 when the author only consumed vegetables and milk.

It was in the mid-1800s that the “ideal body” became prominent. Lord Byron is classed as ”the first diet influencer” because he was voted ”the most beautiful man in the world by the Victorians.” He was idolised by many, and his dangerous eating habits became normalised. He invented the ”vinegar diet”, which you may know as the apple cider vinegar diet, where you consume a tablespoon before eating, except the Victorians ‘‘drank vinegar with water and vinegar-soaked potatoes.’‘ His diet became so popular that women died as a result of drinking ”pints of vinegar”.

In 1825, the first low-carb diet book was released. This book promoted diet advice, which became ”the blueprint for the extremely popular Paleo, Keto, Atkins, Caveman,” diets which are still trendy today.

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8 of the most popular diet culture myths

We asked Nutritionist and student Dietitian Sinead Larkin for their opinion about the most common diet culture myths – and how she would debunk them. 

Myth 1 – Avoid carbohydrates to lose weight 

I disagree with this, obviously from the point of view of a student dietitian and a nutritionist. You are avoiding a food group which is essential to our health. Carbohydrates give us a lot of energy that help us with basic activities such as resting and walking outside. We need energy for the body to live every day.

We have different types of refined carbohydrates: whole-grain carbohydrates and starchy carbohydrates. Fibre is crucial to our diet; it keeps us full for a long time and prevents constipation. We need about 25 to 30 grams of fibre per day. 

Yes, in the short term, you can lose weight by not eating carbohydrates; however, not eating them can lead to health issues and disordered eating as you are essentially getting rid of a whole food group. Avoiding carbs is not sustainable long term. We need energy to function.

Myth 2 – Detox diets cleanse your body of toxins 

A detox diet can mean many different things: cutting out a food group or taking a detox product such as a pill, drink, or lotion. It is not sustainable, and a lot of the time you do not know what is in it, especially when buying online. Many of these products are also not regulated in Ireland. 

You do not need a detox diet to “cleanse” your body. We need bacteria in our body. You can become dependent on these products; they are not manageable in the long term, and we do not know their long-term side effects.

Myth 3 – You have to be skinny to be healthy  

No, not true. If you are active and eating healthy [having a balanced diet] that’s good enough. People believe being skinny is a God-send. However, you can be so unhealthy on the inside. You could be eating foods high in saturated fats or refined carbohydrates and sugars and eating a lot of processed foods. This can lead to fat being stored in your organs.

People can be confused when skinny people have heart attacks or have serious health issues. They might not be active or have a balanced diet, whereas someone who may be a little bit bigger could be eating a well-balanced diet and doing 150 minutes of physical activity weekly. It is not that you have to be skinny to be healthy; you could be at your healthiest at a bigger size. It is important to remember that people could have medical conditions that can make losing weight challenging. You can be healthy at any size.

Myth 4 – Going vegetarian/vegan will help you lose weight 

It depends on how knowledgeable you are about vegetarianism/veganism. These diets can lack a lot of nutrients we need; there are vital minerals and nutrients we can find in proteins. It can help you lose weight because you’re adding a lot of beans, lentils, fruit and vegetables.

There are positives and negatives; you will lack protein, which is natural, but a lot of people may rely on processed foods; they contain protein, but eating them every day may not be healthy. Without protein, you will lose muscle mass which can make it more difficult for you to lose weight. You will see health benefits if the diet is done correctly and you have the time to prepare and cook meals. Research is key to becoming a vegetarian or vegan.

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Myth 5 – Lifting weights doesn’t help with weight loss 

That is not necessarily true. A combination of cardio and resistance training is essential to losing weight and eating the right food; for example, eating less sweets or cakes. You don’t want to eat more than you expend if your total intake is 2,000 calories, but you burn 1,500 calories, exceeding your calorie input. It is important to do both [types of] exercises about 3 to 5 days per week. It can be a 30-minute walk around the park you live in, along with resistance training two days a week. A balanced diet and exercise will help you lose weight, which is the most natural way of losing weight.

WHO has the recommended physical guidelines activities available if you need clarification.

Myth 6 – Eating less is the primary way to lose weight 

‘Eat less, move more’ is a typical saying we see, but it is something we are trying to change as dieticians. It is not the way forward for people to lose weight. There are so many different factors; obesity is known as a complex disease, and there are so many other factors that can cause it. There are psychological, genetic, environmental factors and so on. The best way for a person to lose weight would be to speak to a dietitian.

It is important to delve deeper into a person’s life because there can be so many barriers, such as an eating disorder. They may not have the right tools or skills to help them move forward. This is very tailored to each individual, so seeking professional help is important. ‘Eat less, move more’ won’t help a lot of people because your diet should be tailored to you. 

Myth 7 – There are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods

This one riles me up! Food should not be labelled. I think this is something that we’ve all grown up with since we were children. We have been told don’t eat that, it’s bad for you, some food will make you gain weight, this food will rot your teeth and so on. It kind of shapes and frames your ideas and perception of what food is, and you will group them as good or bad when you look at them.

Food provides nutrition for the body; it fuels the body. Some foods are nutrient-dense, such as cakes and fizzy drinks, which may give you more calories but might only fill you up for a short time. However, you do need those foods to help you regulate the body. Your body needs calories and a boost of energy at times. Including the foods you want is important. There’s no such thing as good or bad food. 

Myth 8 – Weight loss medications are a ‘magic pill’ 

Diet replacement meals can help you lose weight, but you need to be counselled about this before starting. You can lose weight quickly, but it is not sustainable in the long term, and it can lead to disordered eating. I disagree with diet replacements, but a professional may think it can work for a certain person; with the right help, it can be done.

Medications such as Ozempic or Semaglutide can help with weight loss. Prior to the research coming out, I had bad opinions about them, but I think it is important not to judge these medications; they are very important for some. They don’t work like a magic pill, but they can help people with genetic components that may develop obesity. They are crucial for them. They can also reduce the cost of our healthcare and save people from travelling abroad for bariatric surgery, which could have possible complications.

However, people are buying these injections or weight loss products on the black market, which is extremely dangerous. There are risks if people are misusing them. If you want to lose weight, speak to a professional before using any medication or products.

Check out our expert, Sinead Larkin here. 

If you have been affected by the topics discussed; please reach out to a GP or speak to a trusted person. Information and helplines are listed below: 

Words by EmilyRose Nulty