Diet Culture & Food Marketing

by Lauren Ranley, MS, RD, LDN

What Is Diet Culture?

Diet culture encompasses a wide range of ideologies and concepts. The notion of “clean” diets, “good” versus “bad” foods, and stigmas against people in larger bodies. Balanced diets consisting of carbohydrates, fat, proteins, and processed foods are demonized, while restriction and self-discipline are touted as desirable. Diet culture messages promote eating processed foods and carbohydrates as a lack of restraint and capacity to make healthy decisions. The idea of clean eating can be physically and mentally damaging because it encourages unbalanced, extreme diets that are often unsustainable long-term and lack essential nutrients. Beyond clean eating, diet culture also promotes “detoxing,” which refers to a diet that consists of beverages (often teas) and encourages restricted food intake to prevent consuming more “toxins.” Realistically, our body detoxifies itself daily through the liver, kidneys, breathing, and sweating. No toxic “sludge” lives in your colon despite what supplement companies want you to believe.

The Marketing Scheme

The diet industry comprises commercial weight loss chains, retail meal replacements and diet supplements, medical programs, and low-calorie dinner entrees, to name a few. In 2022, the weight loss service industry boasts a $3.8 billion profit – all thanks to the marketing teams targeting our greatest insecurities. Heavily marketed to women, advertisements on social media feature photoshopped, edited, and highly unrealistic images of bodies with claims that certain products or ways of eating will get similar results. Before and after photos have become the caveat for selling diet/weight loss products. The truth behind these photos is often creative posing, clothing placement on the body, and angles that give the illusion of the “ideal” body shape. Moreover, the before and after marketing plan suggests that the “before” body is unworthy, unwanted, and undesirable. As a HAES-aligned practitioner, messages like this don’t sit right with me.

Clever advertising frequently uses buzzwords like “organic,” “detox,” “natural,” “anti-inflammatory,” and “cleanse.” The truth is that these words have no legal definition and are not monitored by governing bodies like the FDA. Essentially, companies can use buzzwords on products that don’t do what they claim.

And don’t think they forgot about the kids…

Data1 shows that kids are not immune to this kind of advertising, either. In fact, 42% of 1st-3rd graders expressed a desire to be thinner, 46% of 9-11-year-olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on a diet, 81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat, and 35-57% of adolescent girls engage in diets, fasting, diet pills, laxatives, or purging as a way of controlling weight. While advertising and marketing can’t solely be blamed for these numbers, we can’t ignore their contribution.

With social media and third-party streaming services, children have access to product-promoting influencers and advertisements 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even worse, young children find it challenging to distinguish between television programs and advertisements2. Businesses target children with messages tailored to their interests and developing brains.

What You Can Do:
  1. Be Aware
    Be aware of the television shows, websites, and games your kids view and play. Even though it seems obvious, you would be occasionally surprised by the things kids are learning, especially since you can’t always keep a close eye on them. Play the game they like and spend some time watching a complete episode of the program they prefer without skipping the ads. Learn about their world.
  2. Educate
    No matter what we do, marketing to children will continue to exist. By teaching kids how to have a healthy relationship with food and their body, these messages won’t have as big of an impact. Help them to understand how to distinguish between truth and untruth in marketing.
  3. Be Heard
    Together, we can change things. For instance, compel social media platforms and companies within the diet culture umbrella to establish a clear marketing strategy for kids that includes strict requirements for all marketing and advertising through the business’s kid-focused media.
  4. Don’t Give In
    If your child expresses interest in harmful weight loss products, supplements, or diets, use that opportunity to discuss the “why” behind the decision. Guide them towards intuitive eating and accepting their body the way it is.
  5. Get Your Kids Into the Kitchen
    Let kids connect with food. One of the best ways to do this is to get them cooking with you. Get kids started with a passion (or at least an understanding) for cooking, starting with the most straightforward jobs and progressing to creating meals as they age.