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How to resist diet culture in the workplace

Reviewed by Kirsten Davin, OTD, OTR/L, ATP, SMS

Coworkers eating pizza for lunch.

“But is it keto-friendly?!” The question echoes across the room to where Marnie is quietly eating lunch and reading a book.

It’s all she hears in the break room nowadays. Around two weeks ago, a group of Marnie’s coworkers decided to embark on a new weight loss journey by following none other than the trendiest diet of current times—the keto diet.

It goes something like this: You can eat pretty much anything you want, in any amount that you want—as long as you don’t go over 20 grams of carbs in a day. Given this logic, it sounds like you can practically gorge yourself on bacon, but you really need to watch how many carrot sticks you decide to eat.

As a vegetarian, Marnie doesn’t really get the appeal. Is it really all that necessary to cut back so drastically on carbs for the sake of losing weight?

“Marnie, you’re eating chickpeas!” Francesca says to her while walking over to throw something in the garbage bin. “Don’t they make you bloat? I read that legumes cause inflammation.”

“Oh, here we go,” Marnie thinks to herself. She realizes that from this point on, anything she decides to bring for lunch that isn’t meat, avocados, cheese, or leafy greens will be subject to extreme criticism.

“No, they don’t make me bloat,” Marnie tells Francesca without averting her eyes away from her book.

Francesca stares at Marnie for a few seconds. “Hmmm,” she says. “I bookmarked the article about it. It’s actually really interesting. I’ll send it to you!”

Marnie rolls her eyes just as Francesca leaves to go rejoin the keto posse. She suspects they’re about to go into a lengthy discussion about the dangers of consuming legumes.

“Ping!” An email notification pops up on Marnie’s phone. She sighs. It’s Francesca’s legume-hating article.

Marnie can’t help but resent Francesca for judging her over what she chose to have for lunch. 

She looks down at her half-finished chickpea salad and realizes that she’s not even hungry anymore.

She decides to pack up her lunch, throw it back in her bag, and make her way out of the break room—back toward her desk. 

What is Diet Culture?

Dieting is a really touchy subject. On one hand, it’s great that people want to improve their health. On the other, dieting is often more about vanity than it is about health.

And then there are the extreme measures people go to in order to adhere to their diets: calorie counting, restricting entire food groups, over-exercising- you name it.

These things often falsely appear “healthy” because they involve doing the exact opposite of what is generally thought to be unhealthy—a.k.a. eating junk food and being sedentary. 

But the truth is that beneath the surface, traditional diets have always been characterized by unhealthy trends. They’re overly restrictive, unsustainable as a long-term strategy, and even harmful to people’s mental and physical health.

Diet culture is essentially the manifestation of traditional diet values among groups of people. These values are typically more superficial than healthy. Common examples include looking a certain way, reaching a certain goal weight, eating certain foods, restricting certain foods, exercising a certain way, or tracking a certain food- or exercise-related variable.

In a modern day society that makes it so difficult to consistently eat healthy and be active, dieting can feel empowering—like you’re finally taking control over your body and all the “bad” habits you have.

But where do you draw the line? When does “trying to eat healthy and be active” actually become unhealthy?

Why Diet Culture Can Be Toxic

Diet culture becomes toxic when it causes people to feel bad about themselves or deficient in some way. Their newfound feeling of deficiency then prompts them to adopt unhealthy diet-related activities or behaviors in an effort to feel better about themselves.

Unfortunately, people rarely find that they feel better—even if they manage to lose weight or hit a certain milestone. In fact, they might feel even worse. The reason behind this comes down to the tendency for dieters to use negative motivation to fuel their adherence to their diet regimens. 

People who are negatively motivated to pursue a diet are focused on something they don’t like about themselves, something they’re trying to avoid, or something they’re afraid will happen to them in the future. Whatever it is, it’s charged by negative thoughts and feelings.

But what they don’t realize is that as long as they’re negatively motivated to pursue a diet, that negativity will snowball. They’ll find new problems to become preoccupied with, which can drive them to double down on their diet-related activities and behaviors. And that, in turn, can make things very bad for their health.

Some of the mental health problems that diet culture can exacerbate include:

And here are some of the physical effects that can result from dieting for too long or too intensely:

What Does Diet Culture Look Like at Work?

What makes diet culture so tricky is that it’s not always easy to identify. And each person is influenced by it in a completely unique and subjective manner. 

To make matters even more confusing, anyone can flip flop between negative and positive intentions when it comes to something health-related—making it toxic in some ways, and perhaps healthy in other ways. 

Consider a situation in which you’re invited to attend a recurring fitness class with some coworkers, for example. It might be really beneficial if you enjoy the social aspect of it, but it can quickly change to a more toxic experience if you’re made to feel guilty for skipping out on a class every so often for personal reasons.

Although diet culture can rear its ugly head in a number of ways, these are a few of the most common (and obvious) ways it tends to show up in the workplace:

  • Food- or body-shaming among coworkers
  • Weight or size discrimination
  • Water cooler chit chat about food, dieting, exercise, or weight gain/loss
  • Diet, exercise, and/or weight loss challenges
  • Group workout sessions or classes scheduled outside of work hours
  • Encouraging or praising coworkers who skip eating lunch
  • Experiencing anxiety over whether it’s okay to bring or indulge in “unhealthy” foods for work-related events like birthdays, holiday parties, potlucks, etc.
  • Overemphasizing health-related office tools like standing desks, activity trackers, etc.

How to Deal with Diet Culture at Work

Unfortunately, you probably can’t entirely avoid your workplace’s toxic diet culture if you want to keep your job. After all, it’s just a smaller part of your workplace’s overall culture.

There are, however, some things you can do to avoid being sucked into the dysfunctional beliefs and behaviors related to dieting. Here’s where to start:

Work on your own relationship with food and exercise. Many people develop unhealthy beliefs about food, exercise, and body image throughout their lives. If you suspect you have them, it’s important to identify these beliefs, question them, and challenge them. The more confident you feel about what you choose to eat and how you choose to stay active, the less of an impact others’ beliefs and criticisms will have over you.

Use positive motivation to pursue healthy habits. Be honest about your own pursuit to eat healthy, lose weight, get fit, or achieve some other health-related goal. Is it because you feel like you’re lacking in something? Are you motivated by fear? It’s important to address these insecurities in healthy ways (such as through therapy) so you can adopt healthy habits from a state of self-love and the desire to improve yourself (as opposed to a state of self-rejection and the desire to change).

Have a few coping strategies in your back pocket for dealing with diet-related conversations or situations. When something comes up that just stinks of diet culture, you don’t necessarily have to endure it or pretend to go along with it. Here are some ideas for how to react:

  • Change the subject: Look for a segue in the conversation so you can talk about something else—work, family, a relevant news story, the weather, or something else.
  • Tell a harmless joke: Inserting some humor can help lighten the mood and communicate that you don’t take dieting too seriously. The key rule here is to avoid joking about someone else’s thoughts or experiences. Instead, get creative with making your own thoughts and experiences the subject of amusement (without being too self-deprecating about it).
  • Educate and inform: Not everyone might be willing to open their minds up to beliefs and perspectives other than your own, but if you think it’s worth trying, you can certainly share what you know (or think) about diet culture in a polite and non-threatening way.
  • Go do something else: If none of the above seem like appropriate ways to cope with diet culture at work, your last resort is to politely send the message that you’re not interested in it—perhaps through body language or by verbally saying it. 

Speak up against those who engage in diet-related shaming or discrimination. This one can be hard, and it can take a good deal of courage. But if nobody does it, it likely won’t stop. If you’re not prepared for a one-on-one confrontation, consider taking it to management or talking to your HR department.

It’s Possible to Break Free from Diet Culture

There’s a lot that’s wound up in diet culture—from our desire to fit in with everybody, to our personal preferences and struggles with food and exercise. Truth be told, it can be really confusing to try and figure it all out on your own.

If you think you could use a hand in navigating your journey toward a healthier and more balanced life without the toxic aspects of diet culture, have a look through our directory to find a therapist who can help. Because even though each person’s journey is completely unique, you certainly don’t have to go through it alone.

About the author

Elise Burley is a member of the editorial team. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing and editing on a variety of health topics, including for several health-related e-commerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not working, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.

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