Introduction to Diet Culture and Disabilities

Every disability is different. Just like anything, everyone’s story and lived experiences will be different from one another. Not everyone experiences the same degree of discrimination, and not everyone faces issues such as body image and a poor relationship with food.

Now, I am not someone who lives with any form of disability, and I am not going to pretend that I understand the lived experiences of those who are disabled. However, it’s important for us all to understand ableism as an oppressive tool towards people with disabilities, and to realize the impact that it has had on the treatment of these individuals and how we view their bodies.

This blog post serves as a short introduction to understanding ableism, disabilities and the intersection between these with body image and diet culture. Let’s continue to do the work to unlearn our internal biases and make room for growth to support ALL bodies!

What is a disability?

According to the CDC, “a disability is any condition of the body or mind (impairment), that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitations) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions)”. This is with the world that we have set up for them based on our able bodied normative society.

The World Health Organization divides disabilities into 3 dimensions:

Impairment: relating to the body’s structure, function or mental functioning

Activity Limitations: difficulties seeing, hearing, walking or problem solving

Participation Restrictions: normal daily activities such as socializing or working.

–> Someone can have a disability that touches on one or all of these dimensions.

There are many types of disabilities, such as:

  • Hearing
  • Vision
  • Movement
  • Thinking
  • Learning
  • Mental Health

Disabilities can stem from many different roots. They can be:

  • Related to a condition present at birth
  • A developmental condition (ex: Autism or ADHD)
  • Related to an injury (ex: traumatic brain injury)
  • Secondary to another condition (ex: diabetes
  • Progressive (muscular dystrophy), static (losing a limb) or intermittent (Multiple Sclerosis)

What is Ableism?

Discrimination essentially means when someone chooses to act on their negative beliefs in a manner that is unfair towards a particular group of individuals.

  • Ableism is discrimination in favour of able-bodied people. So basically, it’s the underlying belief that being able bodied is superior.
    • Ex: The fact that most buildings have stairs and not elevators, this is ableist because it is built in favour of those who can walk and go up the stairs vs people who cannot. Because of these, people who can’t use stairs are excluded from this building.

Ableism is deeply rooted in the way we perceive ourselves and others. For most of us who are not disabled, we don’t realize how prominent this issue is in our society. Ableism exists everywhere and in many different forms. Like DIET CULTURE! Diet culture is an example of ableism as it completely excludes specific groups of people who do not fit a specific mold.

Diet culture and Disabilities:

Diet culture messages do not target people with disabilities. They exclude them.

You might be wondering, so what’s the problem? Why is it so bad that people with disabilities are excluded from this horrible, system of oppression?

Well, just because their messages aren’t tailored for people with disabilities (because their messaging is ableism af), it doesn’t mean that the exclusion and the unacknowledgement of how one fits within this system doesn’t damage their relationship with food and their bodies. There is a huge lack of representation in the media of all types of bodies, which include disabled bodies, which can affect the way someone views and appreciates their body.

Not only does diet culture idealize thin bodies, but it idealizes able bodies. So, bodies that don’t have any medical conditions or health challenges. It continues to perpetuate the belief that being in an able body is the superior way to be.

  • For example, some people have disabilities that don’t allow them to properly chew and swallow food. They may have a really difficult time trying to even maintain their weight and ensure they are eating enough. So, their reality is that they will never be able to attain that body with a “6 pack”.

This goes to show how much power diet culture holds. 

Nutrition and health care towards people with disabilities:

As we know, our health care system is deeply rooted in diet culture. Weight is often seen as the central cause of all, if not most, health conditions. Because of these beliefs, for people in larger bodies, weight loss is usually a doctor’s first line of treatment for most diagnoses.

For someone in larger body with a physical disability that limits their mobility, doctors will often still recommend weight loss as their first line of treatment. For example, perhaps an individual who is in a wheelchair is presenting themselves to the clinic to discuss their sore back as they have been spending excessive amounts of time sitting. A doctor may still recommend weight loss to ease this pain, when really, going to see a physiotherapist is what was helpful in treating the back pain.

  • Would you tell this to a thinner, able bodied person? Probably not! Because there are other factors that affect our health other than weight.
  • Also, this is such an ableist recommendation as the more “typical” ways to lose weight as portrayed in the media and diet culture, are not accessible to this group of people. So, this is just useless information. (PS. Recommending weight loss as a form of treatment is always unimportant but, we know this :D).

Tips to improve your relationship with food & your body:

  • Weight Neutral approach: focus on maintaining your strength and do movement that feels good for you. This is going to matter a lot more than your weight to help you stay functional and independent.
  • Acknowledge how incredible your body is: Your body has undergone so much, from surgeries to trauma. It’s still here today, getting you by and that’s amazing!!
  • Body Neutrality: Don’t worry about making a big jump to body positivity! Work on accepting the body you currently have.
  • Practice Self Compassio

How you can Increase Accessibility:

  • Making your marketing more accessible: Diversity is beautiful! Include people with disabilities in your images.
  • Use captions: if you are doing an Instagram story, use captions so that individuals who are deaf can still participate in your messaging.
  • Cater to different learning styles: In your handouts/resources, try not only to include words but also include images for people who learn better visually.


I hope you found this blog post useful!

This is only the beginning on a much larger conversation. There a many forms of disabilities and everyone’s relationship with food and their bodies will be different. This is not the last we will be discussing this topic. More podcast episodes and blog posts to come on these topics in the future!


Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Disability and Health Overview. Retrieved from:

Want to listen to the podcast episode? Access it here!

Check out my podcast episode “Introduction to Nutrition, Body Image and Disabilities” with Jackie Silver. In this episode, we talked about how mental and physical disabilities can impact nutrition and body image, weight stigma in health care, finding body neutrality and the role fo diet culture in ableism.

Need support?👇

The Balanced Practice is a team of professionals specialized in eating disorder outpatient treatment, disordered eating. Our mission is to help as many folks heal their relationship with food and their bodies so they can live happily outside of diet culture!

We strive to provide evidence based nutrition counselling to support you, or your loved one, in achieving full recovery. Schedule a connection call now.

Marie-Pier Pitre-D’Iorio, RD, B.Sc.Psychology
Lead Registered Dietitian and Founder of  The Balanced Practice

Eating disorders are complex illnesses | The Balanced Practice Inc | Ottawa, ON

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