Even if you’ve never tried a ‘fad’ diet yourself, chances are you know someone who has. I’ve watched friends suffer through unpalatable shakes, weekly fasts, and questionable ‘natural’ medications. All of these people are intelligent and successful, so what is it about the £2bn UK dieting industry which makes them buy into it again and again? The grip which the dieting industry has on us is perhaps stronger than ever, as developments in social media mean we are constantly bombarded with images of what we should look like, as well as advertisements for “miracle” diets, if only we’re willing to part with some cash. It’s a dangerous business, and one that looks set to continue growing.
The trend for slender bodies stretches back to the 1840s. The American Presbyterian, Sylvester Graham, began promoting simple, plain food, in restricted quantities, as a lifestyle which would discourage sin. Ever since, being thin has come to be a marker of superior morals – a physical representation of self-restraint. With body-shape being so tied to an individual’s sense of self-worth, our willingness to go through so much to achieve this ideal quickly begins to make sense. It’s worth pointing out here that the thinness trend has tended to disproportionately affect women. Although, more recently, men have come under pressure to look a certain way, this is usually to be toned and strong, rather than slender and small.
The main reason we come back to diets again and again is fairly simple. Most diets – as many as 95% – fail. The industry is basically tricking us, by selling us programmes which allow unsustainable short-term weight-loss. The popular “5:2” diet, which involves fasting for 2 days in every 7, tends to leave adherents drained and irritable, impeding their day-to-day lives, whilst jumping on the Weight Watchers bandwagon adds £60 to weekly shops. The worst part is, because of the continued connections drawn between weight-gain and immorality, we assume that relapses are our own fault, rather than putting it down to the diet’s impracticability. This leads to the “yo-yo” dieting which the industry thrives on, selling us diet foods, books, DVDs, and online resources, which continue to drain people’s resources without ever really improving their health.
Perhaps the most worrying thing about the dieting industry today is the fine line between the diets it promotes, and actual disordered eating. The impractical “5:2” diet again provides a good example of this. On fast days, dieters are instructed to consume 500 calories or fewer – a calorie intake which is medically classed as anorexic behaviour. Despite this, the trend spread like wild-fire, with many media outlets covering it praising the results. All of this dangerously normalises disordered eating behaviours. One US study found that 35% of “occasional dieters” progressed into “pathological dieting”, whilst a further 25% eventually developed full-blown eating disorders. It can’t be denied that obesity is a real problem in the UK and US, but the dieting industry, rather than helping us reach a healthy weight, is profiting off the pathological relationship many people now have with food. Since some diets are virtually designed to fail, punters keep coming back for the next one in a vicious cycle which only sustains weight-loss companies.
The only healthy way to lose weight is through eating healthily and exercising regularly – anything else should be viewed critically.