Growing up in the golden age of teen magazines (aka the late ‘90s and early 2000s), I absorbed countless messages about what bodies “should” look like and how I could make mine look that way. Looking back at that time with modern-day vision, I can now clearly see that the majority of those messages were cringeworthy at best, and downright dangerous at worst. And while I like to think our society has come a long way in terms of how we think about and talk about bodies, I only have to go as far as Instagram or TikTok to see that we still have a lot of unlearning to do when it comes to diet culture.

Though it may not be as blatant today as it was in the ‘90s, diet culture—which is a set of beliefs that values thinness and weight loss above all, and often masquerades under the guise of “health” or “wellness”— has a significant impact on how we view and treat our bodies. To better understand the pervasive diet culture myths that continue to haunt us, I spoke with Equip Lead Dietitian Kristin Quill, RD and licensed psychotherapist Tessa Gordon, LMFT. Here’s what they had to say about some of the most common myths they routinely debunk, where these ideas originated, and how to tune out diet culture noise, no matter where it’s coming from.

Myth #1: Carbohydrates are bad for you and you should avoid them

Why it's wrong: From Atkins to Keto to Paleo and many others, fad diets have long villainized carbohydrates as the ultimate health underminers. In actuality, media figures have mostly had it out for this macronutrient because of its supposed hindrance on weight loss, not any real health effects. But not only are carbs not the enemy when it comes to nutrition, they are absolutely essential to overall well-being.

“Despite all the fear mongering done by diet culture, carbohydrates are actually very important to include in your intake throughout the day,” Quill says. “Glucose, the breakdown product of carbohydrates, is the most efficient source of energy for your body. Your brain depends on glucose as its main energy source!”

Quill also points out that labeling certain foods as “bad” tends to increase fixation on that food and increases the likelihood of experiencing guilt or feeling “out of control” when eating it. “When you move away from rigidly labeling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ you create space to listen to your body and eat in a way that feels good for you, both mentally and physically,” she says.

Myth #2: You can never drink too much water

Why it’s wrong: It seems every magazine article I’ve ever read and every TikTok I’ve ever consumed has professed the benefits of ingesting water all day, every day, with no limit in sight. Those “benefits,” of course, typically revolve around weight loss. The truth, however, is that while water is vital, you can have too much of a good thing.

“You can absolutely drink too much water!” Gordon says. “And it’s surprisingly easier than you may think.” Gordon isn’t just relaying this info as a professional: she’s actually lived the experience of chugging down too much H2O. “Take it from someone who learned this the hard way many years ago and found herself in the ER for simply drinking too much water,” she says. “While not my finest hour, I will say, I never ended up back there for that again.”

Influencers may claim that the more water you drink, the more aesthetic benefits you’ll see, but overhydration can lead to a severe electrolyte imbalance known as water toxicity. “When you consume too much water in a certain amount of time, it dilutes the levels of electrolytes the body needs to function,” Gordon says. “The kidneys, which regulate the body’s balance of water and electrolytes, can’t get rid of the excess fluid fast enough. So the electrolyte level becomes diluted.”

One of the biggest risks of drinking too much water is hyponatremia, a condition that occurs when the blood concentration of sodium is abnormally low. “When sodium levels become low—hyponatremia—the extra water enters the cells and they start to swell, which leads to even more severe symptoms,” Gordon says.

A particularly confusing aspect of this myth is that the symptoms of water toxicity—lightheadedness, dizziness, nausea, confusion, headache, muscle cramps, disorientation, etc.—are extremely similar to the symptoms of dehydration. So because of the overabundance of advice around excessive hydration, some people might drink more water to address certain symptoms, when they actually need to be drinking less. And unfortunately, it doesn’t take all that much overhydration to experience water intoxication.

“It’s generally recommended not to drink more than 48 ounces in an hour, although many water bottles now hold that much or more,” Gordon says. “Water toxicity most commonly occurs in situations where someone has experienced excessive sweating and then over-replenishes, such as a hot yoga, intense workouts, spin class, or workout out in the sun.”

Myth #3: Your body is healthier when you weigh less

Why it's wrong: Consider this the reigning ruler of all diet culture myths. But no matter how many times this lie is repackaged and repeated in various forms, there is no truth to the idea that a lower weight equals a healthier body.

“Weighing less does not automatically translate to being healthier,” Quill says. “In fact, being underweight can lead to a host of consequences for mental and physical health, including worsened anxiety and depression, compromised bone health, weakened immunity, impaired digestion, and increased risk for developing an eating disorder.”

Not convinced? Consider a one-year study that found that a non-diet approach to wellness can produce similar improvements in metabolic fitness, psychology and eating behavior as a diet-centered approach—without all the harmful rhetoric and restriction. Or take a look at this six-month study that found the Health At Every Size (HAES) approach to wellness, rooted in intuitive eating and size acceptance, led to lasting, sustainable health improvements while a diet approach did not.

“For people who are looking to improve their health, research shows that we can see sustained improvements in a variety of health parameters without a focus on weight loss,” Quill says. “Despite our society's obsession with thinness, we know that healthy bodies come in a variety of shapes and sizes.”

Myth #4: If you work hard enough, you can get the body you want (aka the body diet culture has told you you want)

Why it’s wrong: Repeatedly attempting the same impossible task over and over again inevitably has a negative impact on your mental health. And that’s just what I (and countless others) have done over the years, poring over celebrity diet and exercise plans, replicating their supposed methods, and ultimately being disappointed by the results. It turns out, even if the tabloids had correctly printed every detail of Paris Hilton’s early aughts food and fitness regimen (which I am certain they did not), and I followed it to a tee, I could have never been her doppelganger.

“If this was actually possible and attainable, wouldn’t everyone who worked hard enough and followed the ‘right’ plan have the body of their dreams by now?” Gordon says. “This myth exists to support diet culture. The lie is that your body weight and size is completely under your control, and if you do all the ‘right things’ then you can change your body to look how you want it to look. It oversimplifies weight to calories in, calories out, when it is far more nuanced. Body shape, size, weight, fat distribution, presence of cellulite, bones, ligaments, muscle mass, etc. are not determined solely by exercise and diet.”

No matter what the internet or any outdated article claims, weight and shape are not exclusively determined by diet and exercise. Everything from genetics to race, ethnicity, age, gender, hormone levels, stress, health conditions, medications, sleep, mood, and trauma can contribute to why our bodies look and perform the way they do. Not to mention access to food, healthcare, and other services, which is hugely impactful as well, and largely out of our control.

“Suggesting that anyone can set a body goal based on weight and body size is unrealistic because it implies that the ability to change your weight and body composition is fully within your control. It sets people up for frustration and disappointment, and for an internalized sense of failure and shame when it doesn't work,” Gordon says. “And if any changes do occur, they are rarely sustainable.”

Myth #5: You only deserve to eat when you’re hungry

Why it’s wrong: While “honor your hunger” can often be good advice, and is one of the core tenets of intuitive eating, it has its limitations. There are plenty of times when it’s totally fine—and, in fact, wise—to eat when you don’t feel physically hungry: you might need to eat before you’re hungry because of logistical concerns (you’re about to be in the car for a few hours and need to fuel up beforehand, for instance); or you might eat without hunger because you want to share a joyful experience with others (you just ate a satisfying meal but now your family is going out for ice cream).

“While honoring your hunger and fullness cues is an important part of having a healthy relationship with food, this is a nuanced topic,” Quill says. “Let's say it's 12 p.m. and you're not particularly hungry for lunch, but you’re heading into hours of back-to-back meetings all afternoon; it's important to eat something so you don't get ravenous later on. Even if you're not hungry for dessert at a family wedding, eating a slice of wedding cake can help you connect with the joy of the event. Food is more than just fuel—it can be a powerful way to connect to celebration, love and cultural traditions.”

Diet culture myths continue to permeate our society, and it can feel difficult to differentiate myths from reality. In general, Gordon recommends avoiding rules or beliefs that use all-or-nothing thinking, and looking out for language like “always/never,” “good/bad,” “should/shouldn’t.” When you notice yourself following one of those rules, take a step back and consider why you’re doing so, and whether or not it serves you. “This can be a great place to start in getting curious about where the beliefs you have come from,” she says.

It can be difficult to rebel against diet culture, but it’s worth it. Doing so not only reduces your risk of developing an eating disorder and helps you support those in your life who might be struggling with one, but also frees up your mind from the guilt and judgment that accompanies so many of these beliefs. Ultimately, you are the number one expert on your body, and tuning out myths like these will help you tune into what your body truly needs.

References
  1. Peechakara BV, Gupta M. Water Toxicity. [Updated 2023 Jun 26]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537231/
  2. Bacon, L et al. “Evaluating a 'non-diet' wellness intervention for improvement of metabolic fitness, psychological well-being and eating and activity behaviors.” International journal of obesity and related metabolic disorders : journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity vol. 26,6 (2002): 854-65. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0802012
  3. Bacon, Linda et al. “Size acceptance and intuitive eating improve health for obese, female chronic dieters.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association vol. 105,6 (2005): 929-36. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2005.03.011
  4. Institute of Medicine (US) Subcommittee on Military Weight Management. Weight Management: State of the Science and Opportunities for Military Programs. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2004. 3, Factors That Influence Body Weight. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK221834/
Michelle Konstantinovsky, MJ
Equip Contributing Editor
Clinically reviewed by:
Kristin Quill, RD CDN
Lead Dietitian
Our Editorial Policy
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