‘Lifestyle Changes’ Are Often Diet Culture in Sheep’s Clothing

Photo: Getty Images/ Kseniya Ovchinnikova
From Weight Watchers rebranding to “WW” to Noom’s “happier, healthier lives” phrasing, these days, we’re seeing a lot of diet companies and their diet-y messages—eat less, limit your desserts, etc.—framed as “lifestyle changes.” They're giving a more positive connotation than the word “diet,” and are being passed off as “less rigid” and more about “wellness.”

However, in actuality, they bring us further from listening to what and how much our bodies truly need, whether that’s less or more or different. In other words, this small change is purely semantic; it’s not improving our well-being.

Experts In This Article

Virginia Sole-Smith writes about this and the “strive for the middle” eating approach (which encourages moderation and balance in food choices) in her recently released bestselling book, Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture. “It’s the kind of plan that women’s magazines have run forever as ‘just a lifestyle change.’ After all, you’re not cutting out any food groups, and you can even still eat dessert!” she writes. “But when I emailed a description of that plan around to a few eating disorder experts, I could just about hear their horrified gasps through my laptop.”

Many dietitians see the ramifications and are worried about individuals sliding down this slippery slope. For starters, according to a study in BMJ, teen girls who diet are five to 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder. And no wonder people are sliding: With all the ways in which our culture excludes people in bigger bodies—from a lack of size-inclusive clothing to doctors ignoring fat people’s needs and more—it’s understandable that someone may find this type of messaging convincing.

“The danger is that the underlying message of these ‘lifestyle changes’ is still the same: That thin bodies are healthier, more attractive, and desirable,” says Breese Annable, PsyD, CEDS-S, a psychologist and the owner of Living Balance Psychotherapy. “Especially if you live in a larger body, the constant message you likely receive is that your body isn’t good enough as it is and needs to change.” In other words, we’re made to think a “lifestyle change” is needed.

Why diet culture is being repackaged as “lifestyle changes”

Many experts and influencers have raised awareness about the problems that come with diets and diet-y behavior. As a result, our society is starting to learn that diets—other than making people unhappy—simply don’t work the way people hoped they did, as up to 95 percent of dieters regain the weight they lost. (After all, how would the weight loss industry have hit a $78 billion record high in 2019 if diets worked and people didn’t need to keep coming back?)

With dieting becoming less popular, what is the diet industry—which is trying to make money in our capitalistic culture—to do?

Rebrand. They use sneaky words like “wellness” and even create “problems” they can “fix.”

While this is ethically wrong, it’s not stupid. At times, people do have to use money to solve various “problems” in their lives. “Telling people that they can trust their bodies to tell them when they are hungry and satisfied doesn’t support a multi-billion dollar industry,” says Kerry Heath, LPC-S, NCC, CEDS-S, a therapist with Choosing Therapy. “It doesn’t sell diet memberships, cookbooks, health coaching sessions, fitness equipment, plastic surgery, diet supplements, weight loss drugs, and bariatric surgeries. A ‘diet’ bar now called a ‘nutrition’ or ‘protein’ bar is still a diet product designed to cause a caloric deficit in the consumer.”

Along with the idea of “creating problems,” brands also illuminate and exacerbate our fears and insecurities. “Notice how the phrase ‘lifestyle change’ indicates there’s something wrong with your current lifestyle, or that there is a right or wrong way to live your life,” adds Meredith Nisbet, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Behavior Health. “By pretending they are invested in our health and well-being, rather than profits, they can create an endless array of new things we think we ‘need’ to support our wellness.”

Additionally, companies pay attention to how people talk about health, including what’s “in” versus “out.” Since the word “diet” is “out,” according to Gen Z, you may be seeing more Pepsi Zero Sugar, Sprite Zero, etc. offered, not just the “diet” version. It’s yet another slight change in wording. Businesses don’t want to defy the movements that are growing, like those related to body liberation. They also want to pick phrasing that suggests the weight loss will be more long-lasting than we know diets to be. By doing this, they can increase profits again.

Gabriella Giachin, LMSW, a therapist with New York City Psychotherapy Collective, has noticed this, and she doesn’t like it. “Calling it a ‘lifestyle change’ helps it sound healthier and more on trend with the cultural shift we’ve seen,” she says. “In my opinion, it’s a different name for the same harmful concept, which is dieting to change the way you look to fit a cultural, unrealistic, unattainable, and toxic standard.”

Because again, health can’t be determined by looking at someone’s body. “People with bodies of all shapes and sizes can be healthy,” Dr. Annable says. “And people with bodies of all shapes and sizes may not ever experience the privilege of health, no matter what they do.”

Yet, the culture surrounding these diet products is the same: Don’t mess up. Don’t gain weight. You can’t make health “mistakes.” If you do, you’re “bad,” and you better get back up quickly. As Christine Byrne, MPH, LD, RDN discusses in a blog post, the shame and feelings of failure that come with this leads to the same unhealthy cycles that diets do: restricting, binging, guilt, and emotional eating. It can also lead to orthorexia, a disordered eating pattern that involves an obsession with only eating foods labeled as “healthy.”

Food isn’t the only place where “lifestyle changes” are discussed. “Individuals adhering to the idea of ‘lifestyle changes’ may develop unhealthy expectations around exercise, as well,” adds Stephanie Carlyle, LCPC, a counselor and regional clinic director with Thriveworks in Baltimore, who specializes in diet culture, eating disorders, and coping skills. “For instance, one may believe that you have to exercise daily, and if not, you are not adhering to the lifestyle change.”

We’re seeing this mindset in individuals trying to promote their services, too. “A significant part of the problem on social media is that many ‘health and wellness’ professionals, including personal trainers and registered dietitians, are working through their own disordered eating (and body acceptance) issues, but have the endorsement of education and certifications,” says Rachel Trotta, NASM, a certified personal trainer. “Maybe we’re not talking about calories or weight loss as much, but the language has shifted to ‘clean’ eating, plant-based purity, or toxin-free lifestyles.”

You may even see influencers and companies promote a mix of anti-diet and pro-diet messages. “For instance, one of the most well-known diet programs around, which also markets itself to children, states on their website that ‘fad diets can be restrictive and rarely work long-term’ while their program also induces a caloric deficit to promote weight loss,” Heath says. “They simply utilize gimmicky tricks to mask that fact so that they seem less unhealthy and stay relevant.”

The dangers of “lifestyle changes” are the same or greater as the ones that come with diets

What may seem like a small, semantic change has serious health effects. “The cycle of being told your body isn’t good enough, the promise of a ‘fix’ to your ‘problem,’ then ‘failing’ at the ‘solution’ that should be achievable by just changing your ‘lifestyle’ is incredibly damaging to people’s self-worth and relationship with their bodies,” Dr. Annable says. “In fact, people may be even more likely to experience shame because they may think, ‘I even fail at changing my lifestyle.’”

Noting diets are a major predictor of eating disorders, and that eating disorders are the second deadliest mental illness, Giachin worries this problem could easily grow. “If people don’t know that what they're doing is unhealthy, if parents don’t realize they're feeding negativity to their children, and if children don’t have any other frame of reference, I fear these rates will continue to rise, and we’ll have more annual deaths due to eating disorders, and we’ll never live in a culture that really embraces people for the bodies that they have,” she says.

The likelihood of that risk can’t be ignored, especially with how slippery and insidious the branding and effects are. “When a diet is repackaged as a ‘lifestyle change,’ it’s easy to overlook the fact that restriction is being encouraged,” Trotta says. “When a caloric deficit (or avoidance of particular foods) is prolonged, especially for very active people, the body doesn’t become healthier. Instead, hormones become dysregulated, and key markers of health—like bone density—can be compromised.”

Nisbet adds that when we dampen awareness of this, people—especially children—become more vulnerable to falling down the rabbit hole.

In short, when it comes to conversations about health, bodies, and nutrition, remember to think critically: Who’s benefiting from this message? Do those suggestions feel good and happy to you? Do the messages sound similar to diet culture, or do they lean more toward body liberation? Ultimately, stick with what feels right for you individually.

The Wellness Intel You Need—Without the BS You Don't
Sign up today to have the latest (and greatest) well-being news and expert-approved tips delivered straight to your inbox.
Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.

Loading More Posts...