Diet Culture in the Fitness Industry

Feb 27, 2023

Diet Culture in the Fitness Industry

Written by Lisa Duncan (guest writer and podcast guest)
Owner/Operator of Activate Athletic Studio
Edited and updated by Sandra Gentleman, RD

grocery store cart

I feel so much sadness for my younger self. I wish I could go back in time and make her realize that her worth was not dictated by her body.

And that the people around her loved her for her, and not because of the shape and size of her body.

And that anybody who DID want her around just for her appearance didn’t deserve a place in her life.

grocery store cart

Most of my life I was drowning in diet culture, with nobody to save me, because they were all swimming in it too. My Mom, my Aunties, and family friends. I would hear them talk of the latest and greatest diet they were on. I would hear them speak about their fat bodies with such disgust toward themselves. I would hear them cheer and shout from the rooftops when they lost the baby weight, or fit into their smaller sized jeans. It made me feel like attaining a smaller body must be one of life’s greatest achievements. A fat body was bad. That message stayed with me most of my life.

I’ve been through the whole gamut of diet culture, including disordered eating and body dysmorphia.  

Diet culture is a collective set of social expectations telling us that there’s one way to be and one way to look and one way to eat and that we are a better and healthier person, we’re a more worthy person if our bodies look a certain way. Diet culture is everywhere, and it’s so pervasive, people have no idea just how much they are entrenched in it.

It’s been a very sneaky shape-shifter over the years—you might think you’re not subscribing to diet culture, as these insidious “lifestyles” may not overtly promise weight loss. Often they market “eating healthier” under the guise of well-being, which can make them tougher to recognize. Yet if you look closer, the message is still the same: follow this plan, do these things, and you’ll be “healthier” (subtext: thinner). It’s still making money by feeding into the fear of being fat and all the moral implications that our culture assigns to food choices and body size.  

Inspired by a client who felt her bigger body did not belong at our studio, I took a course on intuitive eating, body diversity, and weight stigma with a respected mentor. That changed everything for me. All of my long-held beliefs on health, food, bodies were all challenged, and transformed.

The most obvious signs of diet culture are: black and white thinking, food described as:

  • clean, dirty,
  • good or bad,
  • foods deemed detoxifying,
  • super foods or miracle foods.

This can cause the simple act of eating into guilt and shame.

Tree Nuts

Sadly, some of the biggest perpetrators of diet culture are the professionals working within the fitness industry. And I was no different.

cans beans

When weight loss and changing our bodies is the driver behind our exercise and food choices, we immediately cut off trust to our body. We rely on other people’s rules and what we think we SHOULD do, instead of listening to what we NEED. When we cannot sustain the diet and exercise plan, we are bound to have guilt, shame, judgement and see food and movement through a good/bad lens.

I’ve learned what we hear, think, and say has a profound influence on how we feel about our health and our bodies.

How many times have you attended a fitness class where phrases like “let’s burn off that cake”, or “alright ladies beach season is coming up, gotta look good in our bathing suits!” or “come on gals, let’s get rid of that muffin top,” have been barked with the intention of being motivating? In the fitness industry, the biggest barometers for success are marked by external physical indicators– fat burned, pounds lost and waist sizes dropped – without adequate regard to mental health or internal physical benefits.

So much of our culture is obsessed with thinness that a lot of gyms and trainers assume that this is what clients want, or should want. But the truth is people truly can be healthy at every size. In fact, there’s a fantastic science-based movement called Health at Every Size (HAES) that emphasizes the fact that body size and shape are NOT the best predictors of health and well-being, and that each person has a unique body with its own needs for optimal health.

Your “ideal” body weight is the weight that allows you to feel strong and energetic and lets you lead a healthy, normal life.

Your body can be healthy across a wide range of weights.

Women have become conditioned to believing in the unrealistic standards of beauty set by society. Their self-worth is so very often decided by others’ perception of them.

blood sugar management

If a Fitness Coach thinks they are motivating me by telling me, get your body ready for summer, get your bikini body, or talks about an exercise being good for a better-looking butt or any body part, this is not motivating, this is body shaming. They are clearly not educated in eating disorders or body dysmorphia.

Words and phrases like that tend to linger and fester, especially for anyone who has struggled with an eating or body dysmorphic disorder. They can be dangerous, causing a person to go home to engage in some very unhealthy behaviors.

As personal trainers and fitness instructors, we have a powerful platform that can impact our clients in meaningful and lasting ways. Words matter. Words have power.

The truth is that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and that all bodies are valuable no matter what they look like or how healthy they are. But that doesn’t mean many of us aren’t subject to subtle or inadvertent shaming even by those closest to us … or that we aren’t accidentally shaming others without realizing it, too. Moving forward and away from the very narrow beauty standards society sets for us is essential for us to live fully and freely. Ditching diet culture and the thin ideal they hold over us will allow us the confidence we need to be ourselves without fear of judgement.

weight management

My approach to training and mindset coaching is heavily influenced by my personal journey breaking free from decades of chronic dieting, toxic workout habits, and working to heal my body image. I want to show you that it is possible to embrace your body as it is, and have an empowering experience with movement and exercise.

(I want to acknowledge that I benefit from thin privilege. That means that my body has always fit inside society’s definition of an “acceptable” size. Although I have struggled with my relationship with food and my body, I have not had to face the discrimination that those in larger bodies face every day just for existing.)

beans heart health

Lisa has been a Personal Trainer since 2018, defying industry standards with her abilities and inclusive approach. She holds certifications in the health and wellness world that lend to empowering individuals on their health journey. These include certified personal trainer, sports nutrition coach, and Girls Gone Strong Women’s Coach Specialist.

Her career started back in 1997 while working for Great West Fitness on the Lower Mainland, a time when she was entrenched in diet and weight loss culture.

After facing body dysmorphia and overcoming disordered eating, Lisa made it her mission to help other women heal their relationships with food and fitness.

In 2018, Lisa and her husband Craig launched their own business, Activate Athletic Studio.

The goal was to create a space that made everyone feel safe and welcome, and to feel comfortable accessing fitness and wellness, while also feeling a sense of community. Their focus is on helping others improve their mood, increase mobility, build strength, get better sleep, and other aspects of overall health rather than setting goals to changing your body’s size or appearance.

At Activate, you will never experience body shame, diet talk, or other behaviours encouraged by diet culture—just 100% judgment-free care on your journey to feel better.

gi health

Listen in to Episode

Tune in to Episode # 60 My Wife The Dietitian to hear the interview with Lisa Duncan

Podcast – Sandra Gentleman

My Wife the Dietitian

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