Diet culture may be prevalent in many areas of a person’s life, from the media they consume to the messages they receive from family, friends, and institutions. It’s such a common part of many people’s lives that they often participate in it and help to maintain it without realizing that they are doing so.
For adolescents, the impacts of diet culture on mental health and well-being can be significant. Adolescents typically deal with a wide range of social pressures, including the pressures to fit in, connect meaningfully with others, and receive approval from those around them. These factors and others can make them vulnerable to the harmful effects of diet culture.
To counter diet culture’s narrow and often damaging messages, it’s important to create environments and foster attitudes that promote genuinely healthy and inclusive behaviors. These behaviors can include enjoying exercise, eating a range of foods, and celebrating bodies of all sizes.
What Is Diet Culture?
When people refer to diet culture, they are usually talking about a belief system that values thin or toned bodies over other body types and links weight and body size to health and social status.
The following are some characteristics of diet culture:
- Diet culture can be a significant source of stress and anxiety and can prompt people to feel many negative emotions, including fear, shame, and guilt about their food choices.
- Diet culture can promote restrictive and compulsive behaviors when it comes to eating and exercising. This can make these important, everyday behaviors feel unpleasant and punishing.
- Diet culture often labels certain foods and behaviors as either “good” or “bad.” This can lead people to experience a sense of failure when they do not conform to the narrow rules diet culture promotes.
What Makes Adolescents Vulnerable to Diet Culture?
Adolescence is often a formative time, when young people may develop habits, attitudes, and behaviors that can have ongoing impacts on their mental and physical well-being. Adolescence can also be a time when forming connections and finding acceptance are particularly high priorities. These pressures may make adolescents more vulnerable to unhealthy messages about weight, food, and exercise that might exist in their social environments.
Social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok have large numbers of adolescent users and large amounts of content that deals with topics like weight loss, nutrition, and fitness. One study that looked at key themes in popular nutrition- and weight-related posts on TikTok found the following :
- Of the content analyzed, 11.1% was created by high school-age users.
- Nearly 44% of videos in the study included weight loss content, and 20.4% of videos featured a person’s weight transformation.
- The topic of diets or dieting was present in 14% of videos in the study.
- Only 1.4% of videos in the study came from registered dietitians.
Additionally, most posts in the study featured weight-normative content, with less than 3% of posts featuring weight-inclusive content . A weight-normative view of health and nutrition emphasizes the importance of weight management for good health, while a weight-inclusive approach focuses on a wider range of ways people can improve their well-being . One important aspect of the weight-inclusive approach is access to quality healthcare that does not stigmatize people based on weight .
It’s also important to realize that social media may not be the only source of diet culture in an adolescent’s life. Parents, family members, friends, advertisers, and even healthcare professionals may view health and well-being through the limited and potentially harmful lens of body size and weight. These attitudes can affect adolescents as they navigate social situations, consume media, and make daily health and lifestyle choices.
Diet Culture’s Harmful Effects
Diet culture can lead to a variety of negative outcomes for people, including lower self-esteem, unhealthy views on food and exercise, and poorer mental health. People who adhere to diet culture may adopt unhealthy eating behaviors, such as consuming only low-calorie foods instead of eating a balanced and nutritious diet .
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), weight-related stigma can contribute to body dissatisfaction, which can put someone at higher risk for developing an eating disorder .
In addition to putting adolescents’ mental and physical health at risk, diet culture can also contribute to the spread of inaccurate or misleading information about nutrition and health. Social media influencers often have the primary goal of selling a product rather than educating their audiences, and they frequently lack the qualifications or credentials that could help them provide more accurate and empowering health information.
The results of one cross-sectional study from the U.K. suggest that diet culture may be having an increasingly serious impact on young people. The study found that :
- In 2015, about 44% of teens dieted and 60% used exercise to lose weight, whereas in 1986, about 37% of teens dieted and only 7% exercised to lose weight.
- Weight control behaviors were associated with greater depressive symptoms among teenage girls in 2015 relative to 1986.
Toward an Inclusive View of Health & Nutrition
If you are a parent, educator, or healthcare provider, you can’t necessarily prevent the young people in your care from experiencing diet culture. But you can provide them with access to accurate, inclusive health information and help them resist the potentially harmful messages they may encounter in their daily lives.
You can also promote holistic attitudes toward food and exercise, helping young people make eating and exercise decisions that enhance their happiness, confidence, and development as a person.
Understanding that each person’s body and lifestyle are unique and learning how to celebrate those differences can help provide an effective path to health and happiness. Additionally, absorbing these lessons early in life may help adolescents better nurture their health and well-being as they transition to adulthood.
 Minadeo, M., & Pope, L. (2022). Weight-normative messaging predominates on TikTok — A qualitative content analysis. PLOS ONE, 17(11), Article e0267997. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0267997
 Tylka, T.L., Annunziato, R.A., Burgard, D., Daníelsdóttir, S., Shuman, E., Davis, C., & Calogero, R.M. (2014). The weight-inclusive versus weight-normative approach to health: Evaluating the evidence for prioritizing well-being over weight loss. Journal of Obesity, 2014, Article 983495. https://doi.org/10.1155/2014/983495
 MacPherson, R. (2022, February 23). What is diet culture? Verywell Fit. https://www.verywellfit.com/what-is-diet-culture-5194402
 National Eating Disorders Association. Weight Stigma. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/weight-stigma
 Solmi, F., Sharpe, H., Gage, S.H., Maddock, J., Lewis, G., & Patalay, P. (2021). Changes in the prevalence and correlates of weight-control behaviors and weight perception in adolescents in the UK, 1986-2015. JAMA Pediatrics, 175(3), 267–275. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.4746
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The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published December 14, 2022 on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on December, 2022, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC