A Brief History of Diet Culture: How Your Eating Habits Affect Health


For as long as humans have had access to a surplus of food, we’ve had conflicting ideas about how much of it we should eat. Diet culture has deep roots in human history and has evolved over centuries of different perceptions about how bodies should look, being molded by the in-vogue ideas of body image, health, and what the “in” foods are. From ancient civilizations to modern society, dieting has been influenced by cultural, social, and economic factors, and understanding how this evolution has given us diet culture as we know it can provide useful insight on the practice today. 

As a content warning, this article will discuss eating disorders as their origins are deeply rooted in body image shaped by diet culture. If you’re reading this and are interested in the health side of diets, consider looking at online nurse practitioner programs. After all, health starts in the kitchen, but that doesn’t mean you see a chef when you’re sick.

Ancient Origins?

You read that right. Ancient Greece and Rome had strong ideas of pursuing physical perfection, and you’ve got to take one look at their depictions of their gods to see where that idea came from. The classic and well-known statue of Heracles – a hero, therefore a technically attainable physique, and just look at him! A slender, muscular build was the beauty standard, and carrying excess weight would often be stigmatized. Greek philosophers like Pythagoras were strong advocates for eating in moderation, which is a foundation for the belief that restricting your diet could lead to enlightenment.

Medieval Period and Renaissance Europe

Ever wonder where (or when) the custom of fasting for Lent came from? Medieval Christian Europe. Fasting and abstaining from food were considered pious acts, especially around Easter. Great artists and thinkers like Leonardo Da Vinci sparked a renewed interest in the human body and its beauty during the Renaissance era. He, like Pythagoras, promoted the idea of balance in physical appearance and diet.

19th Century: Commercial Dieting

This was truly the Wild West of the diet, with pills and drugs flying off the shelves by those trying to achieve skinnier physiques. However, they were completely unregulated and often contained dangerous chemicals like arsenic, yet they claimed that they sped up the metabolism to burn fat. An Englishman by the name of William Banting was the first person to come up with a low-carb diet with the aim of weight loss, which is an idea that persists to this day. Next time you see something low-carb in the wild, you know who to thank!

20th Century: Dieting Goes Mainstream

Things are getting serious now. Consumerism, mass media, television, and the medicalization of weight loss – these were all major factors in being able to tell people that being skinny was good, and being larger was not. Celebrity culture exacerbated this rabid desire for thinness and bodily “perfection” and perpetuated unrealistic beauty standards. Diet books and programs were all the rage: think Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers making dieting accessible to the general public, turning it into a multi-billion dollar industry. This wasn’t niche any more – there was serious money to be made in telling people that they needed to be skinny.

21st Century: What now?

Fortunately, there has been a growing movement opposing the diet culture of yesteryear, with social media trends encouraging sustainable eating, body positivity, and recognising that all body types can be healthy. Dieting can often lead to disordered eating behaviors and negative body image, and this knowledge has become more mainstream in the last 20 years. 

However, the advent of social media has also resulted in trends spreading faster than ever, with some having subtextual links to toxic diet culture while being seemingly innocuous, like the Clean Girl aesthetic. With that being said, social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram are also places where healthcare professionals and dieticians can share up-to-date information about what food we should be eating, as well as content creators sharing healthy recipes to make at home, so the platforms are double-edged swords. 

How does it impact health?

With the growth in popularity of diet culture, it became intrinsically linked with public health. While the intention of dieting can be to improve health and wellbeing, it must be carefully managed to avoid yo-yo dieting and eating that is too restrictive, as these can have detrimental effects on physical and mental health. In fact, they can make losing weight more difficult as they change your body composition. 

So What’s Ozempic?

It’s difficult to discuss dieting in 2024 without mentioning the diabetes injection Ozempic. Pharmaceutical interventions have become more and more popular in the past decade to treat obesity, and Ozempic has gained massive attention due to its ability to suppress appetite and regular blood sugar levels, making it incredibly effective in helping people lose weight. Medications like Ozempic are not a one-size-fits-all solution, though, and should be approached with care and professional medical advice, especially for those who are not affected by diabetes. Losing weight is only healthy if it’s done in a healthy way and within a healthy lifestyle.

So, what now?

Looking back on diet culture’s history gives us a fascinating glance into the self-consciousness of humans about how their bodies appear to themselves and others. The relationship between food, health, and body image has always been complex and multifaceted, and being overloaded with more information in a day than your average Ancient Roman would’ve learned in a month hasn’t helped with this, either. 

While it’s important to prioritize eating nutritious meals and getting outside and active, it’s most important to develop a healthy and sustainable relationship with the food that you’re eating, while also embracing the diversity that comes with the human body. If you’re forcing yourself to eat a certain way, then take a step back and look at your overall approach: to be sustainable, you have to be happy. Try something new, throw a new vegetable into your dinner, or go for a walk after lunch. Massive, sporadic changes aren’t likely to stay in your routine. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say.

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