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The Connection Between Diet Culture and Disordered Eating

So much of the conversation about type 2 diabetes focuses on food and exercise. And much of what is said has a judgmental and moralistic tone to it.

Often I hear people with type 2 diabetes who are seeking advice asking questions like, "Is something a 'good' or a 'bad' food?" and "Am I being 'naughty' when I want to eat this thing or I don't want to do that exercise?" Many people also wonder, "How much do I need to exercise to make up for this thing I ate, or for not exercising yesterday?"

What is disordered eating?

Whether or not we realize it, the ideas behind these questions make a false connection between food, exercise, and moral values. Dwelling on whether you're living up to some artificial ideal that requires making perfect food choices or working off the calories can drive obsessive and compulsive behaviors. Which, in turn, can lead to disordered eating.

Ultimately these unhealthy behaviors can spiral into full-blown eating disorders like orthorexia and binge eating disorder. In the end, accepting these behaviors and the beliefs behind them sabotages the very state of well-being we were aiming for in the first place.1

Diet culture drives disordered eating

Where does the idea that food and exercise have a moral value come from? The answer: diet culture.

Diet culture is a system of beliefs that says eating a certain way makes someone a better person. It offers a very narrow definition of a healthy ideal. And it's all around us.2

Diet culture says that there is only one way to be healthy: to be a certain size and shape and to eat a particular way. And diet culture says being healthy (as it defines it) makes you a better person – better than everyone else.2

Diet culture and false promises

Here's the thing: diet culture isn't based on science or medicine. It's based on artificial standards about what is beautiful and desirable. It makes the false promise that if you meet that standard, you will achieve "the good life." And it puts you at risk of developing disordered eating habits.

Danger signs of developing disordered eating

The 2 major warning signs of disordered eating are:3

  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Judgmental thinking

These warning signs or tendencies lead to a narrow view of situations and encourage reproachful behavior.

All-or-nothing thinking

All-or-nothing thinking is when things are labeled as good or bad. There is no in-between. You want the things that are labeled as "good." And you want to avoid at all costs the things that are labeled as "bad."

Food is often talked about in terms of being good or bad. However, there are no good foods or bad foods. Food, in and of itself, doesn't have a moral value.

What food does have is calories that provide your body with energy. Food also has nutrients that nourish your body so that its systems can grow, function, and repair themselves.

Judgmental thinking

Judgmental thinking is a way of viewing everything from a critical point of view. If whatever the standard or goal is met, then you are worthy. If not, you are a failure. Rewards and punishments are given in response.

For example, run that mile so you can have a treat. But skip a workout, and you have to do extra the next day to make up for it.

Yes, eating healthfully and exercising regularly support your wellbeing. But, missing a target once (or even many times) doesn't mean you deserve to be berated or punished.

Punishing yourself, physically with hard workouts or mentally with harsh words, encourages shame and guilt. Over time these patterns of thoughts lead to anxiety, depression, and even avoiding seeking care.4,5

Diet culture can be sneaky

The pressures we face managing life with type 2 diabetes are always present. The stakes are high in terms of developing complications and shortening our lifespan. But buying into diet culture and developing disordered eating drives behaviors and routines that, in themselves, are detrimental.

Reach out for help

It's having a regimen that is so rigid that, when it's not kept to, there is a price to pay – physically or mentally. It's berating yourself for messing up. It's feeling disgusted with yourself because you aren't perfect. It's pushing yourself to exhaustion. This is not how to successfully manage your diabetes care.

When it gets beyond the point of having a routine or being consistent, it's time to reach out for help. Talk with someone you trust. It could be a registered dietitian or therapist. A friend or family member could also be supportive and helpful.

If you're not sure who to speak with, the NEDA Helpline is available via phone, text, and online chat.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Type2Diabetes.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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