How Does Diet Culture Affect Women in Recovery?

by Renee W.

When I got sober the first time in 2014, my strategy was simple: get my body back.

I had gained weight from my alcoholism, and I thought if I could eat better and exercise, I would lose weight,  feel better about myself, and stay sober.

So, I put all my effort into avoiding carbs, processed food, sugar, and working out at least 2-3 hours each day.

If I ended up giving in and eating a piece of cake during a birthday party or drinking a sugar-filled mocha from the coffee shop or (God-forbid!) missing a workout, I felt like a complete failure, and I berated myself excessively.

I did lose the weight I had put on during my addiction, and I did get physically fit to where I would run at least six miles a day.

I remember stepping on the scale a few months into my rigorous routine and saw I had lost 40 pounds since I had stopped drinking. My weight was lower than it had been in high school.

I then looked in the mirror, and I burst into tears.

I still hated the person looking back at me.

What went wrong? Why was I not feeling better after about myself after losing weight and improving my fitness?

I was too busy consumed with working on my outsides while falling victim to diet culture and not working on what I needed for true sobriety: the turmoil going on inside of me.

What is Diet Culture?

The National Eating Disorders Association defines diet culture like this:

“Diet culture creates the belief that it’s okay to risk the life of a fat person in order to make them a thin person.”

NEDA further identifies the key ideas behind diet culture:

1. Diet Culture Encourages Rules About What, When, and How Much to Eat.

This has to do with food rules and restrictions to control body size, all for the aim of becoming thin.

Fad diets are often unrealistic with no scientific reasoning behind them, and they often fall under this culture.

2. Diet Culture Suggests that People are More or Less Good/Moral/Worthy Based on Their Body Size.

This is perhaps the biggest lie that those in recovery must dispel for the sake of their sobriety.

Unfortunately, diet culture shames and stigmatizes overweight individuals to the point where they believe their self-worth and acceptance from others are based on their physical size.

3. Diet Culture Creates Thin Privilege.

Thin privilege is created when society accommodates thin people and not overweight people when it comes to jobs, benefits, comforts, and accommodations.

4. Diet Culture Suggests Exercise is a Punishment for Being Overweight.

Exercise should be an activity to be enjoyed. I know that is a bold statement, but I am convinced that if someone hates to exercise, they haven’t found the right ones yet!

Diet culture creates the idea that exercise is a punishment for being overweight and something one has to do rather than wants to do.

5. Diet Culture Views Overweight People as Less Valuable and More at Risk.

This is why those who are overweight can go to the doctor to get diet pills or risky bariatric surgery.

Let me be clear in saying that sometimes, these measures are necessary for health issues, but oftentimes, they are not.

Also, keep in mind that these methods are not always successful and often leave long-term psychological effects.

Diet Culture and Women in Recovery

eating disorders recovery

When we are deep in our addictions, we often overlook physical needs such as food, water, exercise, and personal hygiene.

Once we remove drugs and alcohol, our bodies undergo biochemical changes that may lead to an increased desire to eat!

This is normal because we are able to finally fix the nutritional deficiencies that we had while in our addiction.

However, some of us go overboard to combat the desire to eat by severely restricting that basic need. Others eat much and often and see weight gain. (Some of us need this weight gain!)

Especially, women in recovery are more likely to develop an eating disorder. In fact, research shows that up to 72 percent of women with alcohol use disorder also have an eating disorder.

As you can see, diet culture is dangerous for those in recovery.

Here’s what happened to me: I spent all this time and effort trying to improve my appearance in order to fill a void – the same void that I filled with alcohol I made what should be a good thing: healthy diet and exercise into a bad thing: another addiction.

Instead of working on my “insides,” I was consumed with my “outsides.” I’m not the only one.

What’s the Solution?

Woman walking sunlight

In recovery, we focus on healing.

That means not only our physical bodies but our minds and hearts. We must unlearn everything we think we know about recovery and then relearn it in healthy ways.

I believe this is the first step.

We must also reject diet culture, period. Here are some practical ways:

  • Identify negative talk/ideas/beliefs and dispel them right away
  • Eliminate media outlets where diet culture is promoted
  • Set boundaries with family and friends around diet talk and body image (unless it is helpful!)
  • Cultivate respect, acceptance, and gratitude for your body
  • Work on your inner self regarding value and worth
  • Get support from resources such as books, podcasts, and support groups

I ended up relapsing after 3.5 years sober, and part of the reason was because I didn’t understand that sobriety is an inside job.

I put all my self-worth in my appearance and was never satisfied.

I could never be thin enough, fit enough, pretty enough, good enough.

This time around, I am focusing on my spirituality and who I am as a person, not what I look like, and it has been a game-changer.

I am happy, but best of all, I am free from the diet culture bondage. I still exercise, but for one main reason: I like to exercise.

I don’t worry about my eating.  My body tells me what I need and how much I need.

In fact, as I am typing this, I am eating a piece of chocolate cake from my mom’s birthday party with absolutely no guilt.

While I am focusing on women here, it’s only because statistically,  they are more affected by diet culture in recovery.

However, that does not mean men aren’t affected.

The message applies to all in recovery, and my message is always this:

There is always hope!


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