How Diet Culture Harms Women in Recovery

Olivia Pennelle
6 min readDec 6, 2019

Overlooking the physical impact that substance use disorder has had on our bodies will exacerbate disordered eating and poor mental health. As many as 72% of women with alcohol use disorder also have an eating disorder.

Substance use disorder can cause considerable damage to our bodies that can take years to even out.

Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST on Unsplash

Diet culture is insidious. We spend our lives obsessed with our bodies — always wishing for a smaller shape, scrutinizing the size of the portions on our plates, and unscrupulously comparing ourselves to thinner people. It’s damaging because it leads us to equate our worth with our appearance. For people in recovery, that is especially harmful. We experience physiological changes quickly — including weight gain — once we find recovery, and we can often leap to the assumption that we have a food addiction and reach for harmful, quick-fix solutions.

But what if that weight gain is actually the inevitable evolution of our bodies in early recovery?

When we stop taking drugs and drinking and instead prioritize basic human needs that we previously neglected, like eating, we often gain weight. Unfortunately, before allowing our bodies and appetite to achieve homeostasis, we seek to avoid feelings of discomfort which makes us vulnerable to the pervasive messaging from diet culture.

What Is Diet Culture?

Diet culture affects people of all body sizes, but it is particularly harmful for people who have larger bodies. It also perpetuates eating disorders because being seen as fat is believed to be one of the worst things that can happen to a person. And in many ways, it is: we’re treated differently, we’re stigmatized, and we’re valued less.

The National Eating Disorders Association states: “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.”

In order to overcome diet culture, however, we must first create awareness of what it looks like. NEDA identified the key tenets of diet culture as:

  • Encouraging rules about what, when, and how much to eat. This can manifest as restrictive diets — perhaps marketed as juice cleanses or liquid diets — and the trend to label food “good”…
Olivia Pennelle

Writer. Journalist. Activist. MSW student. Passionate about challenging perspectives on addiction and recovery.