Diet Mentality: What it is, Why it’s Harmful and How to Ditch It

An important first step in healing your relationship with food through the Intuitive Eating framework is to Reject the Diet Mentality, but what is diet mentality? This term isn’t part of our common vernacular, and many of my clients feel understandably confused to learn that what they’ve thought to be the “right” way to think about food, may actually be harming their mental and physical well-being.

Let’s explore what diet mentality means, how it might be showing up in your life, why it’s harmful and lastly, what steps you can take to break free from this pattern of thinking.

Diet Mentality: What is It?
What comes to mind when you think of the word diet? Perhaps a diet means:

  • Following some sort of meal plan or set of food rules.
  • Being told what to eat, when to eat, why to eat and how much to eat.
  • Something you do with one goal in mind: to lose weight, get “fit” or make a lifestyle change.

While it might not be news to learn that diets don’t last long (by no fault of your own), the experience of being on a diet or engaging in dieting behaviors leaves a significant imprint on your relationship with food.

Diet mentality refers to the thoughts, beliefs and perceptions that either linger from past dieting experiences, or that have been shaped and reinforced by diet culture.

The act of dieting is a form of trauma to the body and mind, and the impact it has on your thought patterns can be significant and long lasting. In reality, there isn’t much of a difference between “dieting” and “diet mentality” – it’s just that diet mentality is harder to recognize and positively reinforced by society.

Diet mentality can show up in both dieters and non-dieters. Why? Diet culture. Diet culture is a system of beliefs that worships thinness, equates health to weight and demonizes certain foods while glorifying others. Diet culture shows up as:

  • The magazine headlines boasting about ways to “Fight Hunger!” or “Lose Weight Fast!”.
  • Social media accounts posting before and after weight loss photos or messages around calorie counting or fad diets like Keto or Intermittent Fasting.
  • The office diet chatter among co-workers.
  • The weight-blaming messages you receive from concerned doctors and family members.

What this means is: you don’t have to be a “dieter” to be caught up in the culture of dieting and, therefore, struggle with diet mentality.



Diet Mentality: What does it look like?

Diet mentality is sneaky and can show up in different ways for different people. In a nutshell, you might identify diet mentality as your inner monologue or “food police” that, just like a diet, dictates your food choices.

It might sound something like:
I can’t eat _____ because it’s unhealthy.
I can’t eat after ___pm because that will make me gain weight.
I try to avoid breakfast because it makes me hungrier throughout the day.
Sugar is bad. I avoid all added sugars.
I don’t eat bread, salads only.
I can’t eat pasta, I won’t be able to control myself!
I’d never eat fast food!

Diet mentality might also show up in the following ways:

  • Compensating for eating a “bad” food by:
    Exercising more.
    Intentionally eating less at subsequent meals.
    Skipping meals.
  • Creating conditions around eating:
    I allow myself to eat ____ but only once a month.
    I allow myself to eat ____ but only on my cheat days.
    I will allow myself to eat a bagel for breakfast, but will avoid carbohydrates the rest of the day.
    I allow myself to eat ____ but experience extreme guilt afterwards.
  • Using trickery tactics to fake out hunger:
    Curbing appetite with coffee, low calorie beverages or chewing gum.
    Using appetite suppressants or weight loss pills.
    Using low calorie snacks or “air foods” to satisfy your hunger instead of eating a meal.

Diet Mentality: Why is it Harmful?
Now that you have more clarity around what diet mentality is and how it might show up in your life, you may be wondering why it’s harmful – especially since this way of thinking is believed to be health promoting, encouraged by doctors and glorified by the media. Let’s take a look:

Perpetuates feelings of guilt and shame
Diet mentality attaches morality with eating. Therefore, when you eat a “bad” food, extreme guilt and self-judgement follow suit. Over time, this leads to chronic feelings of shame, self-doubt and low self-esteem. To learn more about how guilt and shame might show up for you, click here.

Increases food worry, stress and anxiety
Counting calories, macros, weight watcher points, obsessively reading food labels and closely tracking calories burned during exercise is incredibly stressful – especially when paired with guilt, shame and self-blame. When you heal your relationship with food and unlearn diet mentality, you will notice that a great deal of space opens up for you to focus on other, more important things in your life.

Perpetuates negative patterns of thinking, such as:
Binary Thinking: also known as “all or nothing thinking”, which is often based on the premise of perceiving perfectionism. With binary thinking, you only get two alternatives, which are either unattainable or unsustainable (i.e. on a diet, off a diet; never eating chips, always eating chips; under eating, overeating).

Absolute Thinking: believing that one behavior will absolutely result in a certain outcome. Refers to words like “must, should, supposed to, have to”.

Catastrophic and Pessimistic Thinking: thinking in exaggerating terms or seeing every situation in in its worst-case scenario: “If I don’t lose weight, I will never find love”, or “I overate so many times. I’m such a failure”.

The negative thought patterns associated with diet mentality offer little wiggle room in your food choices and can perpetuate a pendulum swing of emotions and behaviors. Many people with diet mentality notice these patterns of thinking showing up in other areas of their life (i.e. work, relationships, exercise)

Contributes to food thought suppression and rumination
According to research, making certain foods forbidden results in increased food related thoughts (Pop, Miclea, & Hancu, 2004). The greater the attempt to suppress food related thoughts, the louder they become. Among dieters, food thought suppression is most predictive of eating concerns, including preoccupation with food, eating or calories, guilt associated with eating, fear of losing control overeating and eating disorder pathology (Barnes & Tantleff-Dunn, 2011).

Similarly, diet mentality leads to overthinking, thought spirals and ruminating thoughts after eating a forbidden food. Thought rumination can be emotionally paralyzing, and can prolong or intensify depression, as well as impair your ability to think and process emotions. Click here to learn more about ruminating thoughts and how to manage them.

Disrupts mind & body connection

Interoceptive Awareness is the ability to perceive physical sensations as they arise in the body at any given moment (i.e. hunger, fullness, satisfaction, a full bladder, pain, etc.). All emotions have a paired physical sensation. Eating based on external criteria, such as thoughts/rules/beliefs, disrupts your ability to listen, respond and trust the physical sensations that arise from inside the body. It’s for this reason that diet mentality profoundly interferes with the ability to eat intuitively, cultivate self-care behaviors and develop tools to manage your emotions.

Limits and restricts food choices
It is well understood that thoughts, beliefs and perceptions influence behavior. Diet mentality leads to eating behaviors that include restrictive diet, imbalance of nutrients, over exercising, lack of sleep and social withdrawal.

Increases risk for eating disorders
It is well known that the cause of eating disorders isn’t only about food, but it is no surprise that the rigidity and limited food acceptance associated with diet mentality can progress into a diagnosed eating disorder.

Diet Mentality: How can you ditch it?

Step 1: Learning that diet mentality exists, how it shows up in your life and the harms it causes is a great first step in helping you shift away from it – and you’ve already done that by reading this blog!

Step 2: Recognize your diet mentality thoughts as they pop up. Try to simply notice, without judgement. Start separating the diet thoughts in your mind, putting them into an imaginary little box and labeling them: diet mentality. Replace negative thoughts with statements of compassion, kindness, understanding and permission.

Step 3: Start writing down your food rules, thinking about where they came from. Are they scientifically true or was this taught to you from past dieting experiences or diet culture?

Step 4: Work on challenging one food rule at a time. Give yourself permission to eat previously labeled “forbidden” foods. Making Peace with Food is one of the most life changing principles in the Intuitive Eating Framework. However, this can take time, and may require healing in other areas of your relationship with food before tackling permission to eat.

Step 5: Consider seeking support from a Registered Dietitian trained in Intuitive Eating counseling. If you are uncertain where to begin, click here to schedule a free consult call to chat with me about what you’re struggling with and how I can help.



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