MiNDFOOD (New Zealand)

The Diet Culture Con

We all know that diets don’t work in the long run. And yet society is obsessed with weight, and the diet and wellness industry is booming – raking in billions of dollars each and every year. MiNDFOOD investigat­es the paradox of diet culture.


If you’ve ever thought twice about putting on a bathing suit, or looked for the lowest calorie item on a menu, then you’re probably a victim of diet culture. You’re not alone. Diet culture, the misguided idea that thinner is better, is a part of the 21st century zeitgeist. It’s everywhere – from ‘ thinspirat­ion’ on social media, to the noticeable lack of bigger people in TV shows and films.

“Living in a diet culture means living in a society that values weight over health and wellbeing,” says Sarah Harry, a body image psychother­apist and co-founder of Body Positive Australia. “Thinner people are seen as healthier, more beautiful, more desirable and more attractive.”

It’s not a new concept. “Pressure on women to be thin and/or a certain shape has always been part of Western societies: think of corsets and the tight lacing of waists at the turn of the 20th century,” states Professor JaneMaree Maher, of the Centre for Women’s Studies and Gender Research, Sociology, at Monash University.

Harry adds the advent of the Body Mass Index (BMI) in the 1940s inadverten­tly gave diet culture a new tool – a way of ranking people into different weight categories. “It was the beginning of thinking of weight as either good or bad,” she explains.

Diet culture has a huge impact on our society, and there is substantia­l research showing that larger people face discrimina­tion in the workplace. A 2016 study from Sheffield Hallam University found obese women were less likely to get hired than those of average weight, and a 2017 study from the University of Pennsylvan­ia found obese people are stereotype­d as “lazy, incompeten­t, unattracti­ve, lacking willpower, and to blame for their excess weight”. A study from the University of Exeter in 2016 also found overweight women get paid less than their slimmer peers.

A 2015 paper in the Obesity Reviews journal reported that weight bias can play a role in healthcare – when a

larger person seeks medical assistance, healthcare profession­als often attribute their symptoms to their weight.

Fat shaming – mocking a person because of their size – is endemic. A recent survey by FitRated found 92.7 per cent of women and 86.5 per cent of men have been body shamed during their life, and 53 per cent said they had body shamed another person.

Escalating moral panic about the ‘obesity epidemic’ has added fuel to the diet culture fire. Misconcept­ions about obesity (defined by a BMI above 25) include the idea that bigger people are unhealthy and lazy. But the relationsh­ip between weight and health is not so simple. Dietitian, nutritioni­st and ‘mindful eating’ specialist Christina Turner says being thin does not necessaril­y mean we’ll be healthier or live longer. “The research backs this up,” she states.

Turner says the health of people who undertake programs encouragin­g them to make lifestyle changes for the purpose of their wellbeing – rather than weight loss – does improve.

Harry, who offers training for health profession­als on the non- diet approach to health, says diet culture affects us all. “It makes us think we’re not good enough as we are,” she says.

The extent of the damage caused by diet culture is immense. Studies from places as diverse as Brazil, the US and Finland all show very high rates of unhappines­s with our bodies.

A survey of 400 16-year- old girls commission­ed by GirlGuidin­g New Zealand revealed almost half of the 16-year- old respondent­s feel pressure to look good.

Eating disorders are at an all-time high. The Butterfly Foundation for Eating Disorders states that as many as one in 20 Australian­s has an eating disorder. In New Zealand, Health Ministry data shows the number of people with eating disorders increased by 51 per cent between 2011 and 2016.

Is diet culture to blame? CEO of the Butterfly Foundation, Christine Morgan, says that fat shaming can exacerbate body dissatisfa­ction and low self- esteem. This can encourage harmful dieting behaviours. “With both dieting and body dissatisfa­ction being known as major risk factors for the developmen­t of an eating disorder, [diet culture] could definitely be seen as a contributi­ng factor,” Morgan says.

But while diet culture is making a lot of people unhappy – and unwell – there are others who are actively profiting from it. The diet industry (comprising businesses that sell diets, weight-loss plans and weight-loss products such as meal replacemen­t shakes or slimming pills) is worth a whopping US$168.95 billion (NZ$246 billion), and continues to grow.

“It’s a great business model, but it is unethical,” says Turner. “Diets don’t work in the long term. However, people who have lost weight in the short term

“How many brands would go out of business if we loved ourselves?” SARAH HARRY

will come back time and time again in the hope it will eventually work. The companies essentiall­y have ongoing customers for life.”

There is mounting evidence to support Turner’s assertion that diets simply don’t work. A 2017 study from La Trobe University, Ineffectiv­eness of Commercial Weight- Loss Programs for Achieving Modest But Meaningful Weight Loss, revealed that diets aren’t even sustainabl­e in the short term.

Perhaps even more alarming are the findings from a 2016 paper from the American Academy of Paediatric­s. The study, titled Preventing Obesity and Eating Disorders in Adolescent­s, found that calorie restrictio­n with the goal of weight loss led to an increased risk of becoming overweight. In other words, dieting can make you gain weight.

“These [weight loss] companies clearly know that diets don’t work and are taking advantage to sell us the ongoing pursuit of unattainab­le weight loss,” says Turner.

It’s a depressing testament to the power diet culture can wield. Despite the overwhelmi­ng evidence diets don’t work, we continue to buy into the false promise that ‘ this diet’, or ‘ that product’ is the magic solution. Harry says the entire diet industry profits from us feeling badly about ourselves. “How many weight-loss brands would go out of business if we all woke up and loved ourselves?” she asks.

The marketing tactics employed by the diet industry rely very heavily on diet culture. Ads for low- calorie ready-meals and replacemen­t shakes feature before and after photos, and testimonia­ls that imply losing weight has had a transforma­tional effect. The message is loud and clear – get thin, be happy. We buy into it because that message is already deeply embedded.

Even when marketing skirts on the edge of what’s ethical, there is little pushback from consumers.

In February 2018, Weight Watchers (which recently changed its name to WW in an attempt to distance itself from diet culture) announced a plan to offer free sixmonth membership­s to people as young as 13. There were numerous complaints from dietitians, who warned that signing up children in their early teens was akin to indoctrina­ting them into diet culture. Still, WW remained unapologet­ic. “There’s nothing that we’re going to do that’s not rooted in science … so it’s just a matter of clarificat­ion and communicat­ion,” CEO Mindy Grossman told The New York Times.

Social media is the ideal platform to promote diet culture. Hashtags like #cleaneatin­g perpetuate the idea that certain diets are aspiration­al. Famous people, with their prominent social media presence, are also part of the problem. However, although social media is definitely contributi­ng to the diet culture problem, it might also be part of the solution. There is a growing number of social media accounts encouragin­g people to shun diet culture.

Turner agrees that seeing women of varying body sizes in the media is a positive step, but says we also need to reduce weight stigma. “We should support our loved ones to feel okay regardless of their size,” she says.

For support with an eating disorder, call ENANZ on (09) 522 2679.

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