A woman buying vegetables

What is diet culture? This influencer’s post perfectly explains the problem with labelling foods

Posted by for Nutrition

We need to see vegetables as vegetables and pasta as pasta, rather than better or worse than the other, says Lucy Mountain.

The anti-diet movement has been pivotal in helping many of us understand the insidious nature of diet culture – from exercising to change how we look to ignoring hunger pangs. But there are some associations that aren’t so easy to untangle. As anti-diet PT Lucy Mountain has been explaining, not every ‘healthy’ alternative or supplement is necessarily diet culture.

Writing on her Instagram about when, a few years ago, she partnered with a supplements brand, Mountain wrote: “I had shared a silly little recipe for a protein smoothie. I got a DM asking why I was promoting protein powders as an ‘anti-diet’ account.” 

But for Mountain, “protein powder isn’t diet culture”. Perhaps that sounds surprising – how can a supplement that has for so long been marketed as a tool to help change your body not be seen as part of diet culture? But Mountain urges us to focus less on the food and more on the language surrounding it. “Eating enough [protein] is important for your health. But is a gym bro telling you to supplement all of your meals for [a protein shake diet culture]? Yes.”

You see, breaking up with diet culture doesn’t mean moving away from foods that have been dubbed ‘healthy’ or ‘good’. It means working out your intention behind your eating decisions. “I think it’s worth highlighting the word ‘culture’. In almost all cases, culture is what determines whether something is being positioned or sold under false, negative beauty standards – largely focused on making your bodies really tiny and small,” Mountain writes. 

“Unless we’re talking about skinny tea created for the sole purpose of you shitting your pants, most of the time it’s not the foods, products or objects which are ‘diet culture’ themselves. It’s the branding, the messaging and the subtext for said THING existing.”

Another great example? Courgettes, which really made their mark in the wellness world thanks to courgetti. These spiralised vegetable ribbons were sold as the ‘healthier’ alternative to pasta. As we’ve seen more people calling out nutrition bullshit online, courgetti has fallen from grace: we now know that just because it’s lower in carbs and calories, it’s not necessarily healthier. In fact, we need carbs and calories to keep us functioning – and pasta is great for that (not to mention totally delicious). 

But again, that doesn’t mean that we should always and only plump for pasta over courgetti. “A courgette isn’t diet culture. Grating it, and adding it to pasta sauce ALSO isn’t inherently diet culture. But having it because someone with large, shiny teeth on Instagram told you spaghetti was bad is,” says Mountain.

“A courgette is courgette. It’s the implications of how we’re ‘branding’ certain foods and placing them into a hierarchy [that’s problematic].”

To use a cliche, there’s no point in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If your goal is to reclaim the health you lost while following fads, avoiding vegetables isn’t the answer in the same way that refusing to eat starches was never the answer. Spiralised courgettes with pasta sauce can just be… courgettes with pasta sauce. It offers a completely different nutritional package to spaghetti with sauce and some days that might be what you need; other days, it won’t be.

Similarly, what’s wrong with a protein shake if you’re someone who does a lot of exercise, really likes the flavour or finds them convenient? Downing a sludgy drink you hate because you are trying to avoid other macronutrients or are scared of losing your muscle mass – that’s the real problem.

If you’ve spent the past few years scrolling through online food content, knowing how to differentiate between what you really like and what you’ve been told to like is hard. “This is why it’s important – above anything – to have honest conversations with yourself. Listening to your internal dialogue when you’re eating or cooking dinner, not just people on social media shouting about what’s good or bad or toxic or wrong,” reminds Mountain. 

That also stands for food packets, too. If your favourite nut bar removed the word ‘keto’ from its packet, would you still eat it? If the curry you were so desperately craving happened to fall under the ‘light’ section of the menu, would you feel weird about eating it?

The real solution here is to end our obsession with food labels and particularly with the binary and morality associated with these things. Unfortunately, we can’t do that. So in the meantime, how about thinking of food as it is – a vegetable, a source of protein, some ice cream, a pizza – rather than something that’s a good or bad version of another thing. These labels are pointless. It’s the food that counts. 

Images: Getty

Share this article

Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).

Recommended by Chloe Gray