Diet Culture in the Workplace

Content warning on mentions of diet culture and food

Social media. Magazines. Newspapers. Books. Celebrities. Fashion.

No matter where you go, or what you do, diet culture is all around.

As someone who has been in recovery for an eating disorder for the past five years, and who has accepted they will always be in recovery, I do my best to avoid diet culture as much as possible. I do this to prevent myself from becoming triggered and causing a decline in my mental health. I block and mute words on social media, refuse to support companies that encourage unhealthy and disordered eating habits, and companies that place an (incorrect) correlation between weight and beauty. And I will distance myself from people who threaten my recovery with their way of thinking. Except there is one place I cannot escape the constant chatter that is diet culture: work.

DIET CULTURE IN THE WORKPLACE

It’s no exaggeration to say that 90% of the conversations I hear in my office are about food, weight, or exercise. Not all of it is necessarily bad. I’m never going to ignore a conversation about cake, unless it’s carrot cake. I’m sorry but cakes are supposed to be sugary and sweet. There should definitely not be any vegetables in cake. When there’s a choice between chocolate cake and carrot cake, who in their right mind would choose carrot cake? Well that was a tangent! While, yes, we do discuss cake at length in work, it’s not as often as I would like.

Conversations about fad diets and the amount of pounds they’ve lost dominate the office. For someone who has struggled with an eating disorder, who has and always will have a form of disordered eating, conversations of this nature can be extremely detrimental to my mental health. All I hear about is the diets they’re on, the diets they’ve tried in the past, how much exercise they do, and the food they eat that they label as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. 

Food has no moral value and therefore cannot be ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Food is just food.

When you label foods as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, you reaffirm to those of us who struggle with disordered eating/eating disorders that we ought to feel guilty for eating food deemed ‘bad’ and that this is shameful. How are people meant to recover and lead healthy lives when society tells us to eat is shameful?

SOCIETAL EXPECTATIONS

It upsets me to think those who engage in these kinds of workplace conversations are deeply unhappy with themselves as a result of society conditioning, which has led us to believe their unrealistic and unsustainable beauty standards are what we should be striving for. Weight loss companies reinforce the idea that weight equals beauty, and that food should be labelled as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They force individuals to feel guilt and shame for what they’re eating, when no one at all should feel guilty or shameful for something that is essential for survival. 

The media publishes articles publicly body shaming celebrities. They take photos without their consent and use them in articles to speculate whether that person has gained weight and to shame them if they have. They speculate whether celebrities who can get pregnant are pregnant if they so much as put on a few pounds. We perpetuate diet culture by reading these articles. The truth is that if no one read those articles then they wouldn’t post them. The more people read them, the more newspaper, magazine, and online editors deem these articles ‘in the public interest’. 

Worst of all for spreading diet culture far and wide is the fashion industry. The majority of fashion shows hire only models who match their desired height and weight criteria. The lack of representation of all shapes and sizes on the runway sends the message that only those who look like fashion models are worthy. Is it any wonder that eating disorders are on the rise?

Diet culture has spread like a disease into every single part of our lives. 

It’s easy to mute words and block accounts on social media and cultivate your space online so that it’s safe. Real life isn’t as simple. Diet culture is all around us, yet workplace diet culture is the kind that can be impossible to escape. 

While I’m (mostly) comfortable admitting I’ve had an eating disorder to strangers online, I’m not at all comfortable discussing it with the people in my life. This includes family, friends, and colleagues. While I wholeheartedly believe there is nothing shameful about having a mental illness, I feel guilty admitting that having an eating disorder makes me feel ashamed. The blame lies on the stigma around eating disorders – and mental illness in general. Bulimia, especially, is seen as a dirty illness that only affects overweight individuals. This is a lie. There is no truth to this whatsoever. It’s an illness and can affect anyone. There is nothing remotely glamorous about any eating disorder. 

And I’m afraid. I’m afraid to admit what I did. I’m afraid of how people will treat me and that my eating habits will be observed and scrutinised. Conscious or not, people will comment on what you’re eating, how much you’re eating, and how often you eat when you admit to having or having had an eating disorder. 

No one should have to make themselves uncomfortable and divulge information about their experiences in order for people to understand how toxic diet culture is. 

Diet culture is everywhere but, for me, it’s much more noticeable in the workplace. In my shared office, food is the number one conversation topic. It’s customary to share a birthday cake when celebrating someone’s day, tea and coffee breaks with biscuits are expected five times a day, bake sales to raise money for charity take place every couple of weeks, and asking what’s for lunch and dinner seem to be everyone’s favourite conversation starter. It’s never ending. 

If you’re guilty of this kind of chatter in the workplace – or anywhere – please be mindful that not everyone will be comfortable with this topic. Not everyone will be able to speak up about why this makes them uncomfortable. That’s not to say you can’t talk about your diet or about food but be mindful of the language you use. Don’t equate food with moral value by labelling as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Don’t talk about ‘clean eating’ when the only dirty food is food you drop on the floor.

Diet culture is designed to prey on our insecurities and companies profit off it. You gain nothing but an unhealthy relationship with food and your body by buying into it.

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7 Comments

  1. I love this so much, thank you!
    Wow- I had no idea so many people in an office would talk about food.. I agree, saying just « block it out » is just plain mean and not being considerate to eating disorder’s survivors.

    Working in a coffee shop, I hear it a bit but not as often as you’d think (if it’s keto friendly, how many carbs/calories is in something, etc.) — frankly, I don’t care 🤷🏽‍♀️ so i’m sorry but I don’t know and can’t answer thoses. We used to have someone with an eating disorder and thoses would piss her off so much… All thoses are available on the website, i think, so err.. it’s not like they can’t check.

    1. I’m glad you liked it!
      It’s so irritating. I’ve worked in a couple of offices before and it was never that bad, but this one is awful for it – and so many people are coming out to tell me it’s a huge issue for them as well in their offices.

      Oh, how frustrating for you all! If I ever need to look up what’s in something, I ALWAYS check the website first, because you just never know what someone has been/is going through. It’s quite sad that people are so obsessed with calories and carbs etc. I can understand if they have a genuine reason for needing to know, like diabetes or Crohn’s etc. and I’ll never begrudge them because it is literally about their health, but, for everyone else, like, it’s just coffee.

      Thank you for your comment!

  2. This was a really really great read and something we’re all too familiar with. It makes me sad but I also think it’s an attempt at bonding with others! Which of course, isnt the right thing. Like you, I can block this out sometimes but For me, the biggest problem is when people comment on my food. Whether it’s good, bad or meant to be a compliment.. it’s not needed. “Ohh that’s healthy” as I put food to my mouth. My brain automatically gets defensive and anxious.
    Thank you for writing this. It does need to be said. Work place diet culture IS toxic af.

    1. I totally get what you mean – I was even guilty of it myself when I first joined my team because I felt like it would make it easier for me to integrate myself into their group. It kinda worked. But now I feel absolutely awful about the fact that I gave in to the pressure of it.
      YES! I hate it when people are like ‘oh, that’s a healthy lunch… not’ whenever I have like a piece of cake or a bar of chocolate at lunch. It makes me not want to eat it. Comments like that are so unnecessary – it’s not like it’s impacting them or anything. I’m sorry you have to go through it as well!

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