To tackle the problem of eating disorders, we must look at the villains that drive eating disorder behavior: the diet industry and the media. Both of these for-profit industries have sold us on a concept that being fat is bad, and that each and every one of us is responsible for our body weight and must fight any “excess” fat in every way possible.
Almost every diet program, whether it’s promoted by the diet industry itself or the diet industry’s favorite marketing tool, the media, relies on eating disorder behavior to intentionally change body size and shape. Diets require that we “fight” our hunger to “transform” ourselves once and for all into the ideal thin, happy person. Those of us who are the most successful dieters are often people who struggle with eating disorders.
The fact that diet companies and the media promote eating disorder behaviors again and again without repercussions is shameful. As eating disorders are on the rise, and parents hold their heads and wonder why their children are suffering, it’s important to take a good, hard look at the two industries that teach us why and how to become disordered eaters.
Eating disorders villain #1: the diet industry
Our obsession with weight and obesity is not an accident. It has been carefully crafted by marketers working for the fast-growing diet industry. The diet industry has very cleverly made us believe that dieting is necessary and effective.
The foundational elements of the diet industry marketing plan are:
- Convince people that being fat is disgusting and unhealthy
- Make people believe they are personally responsible for being fat
- Tell people they can eliminate their weight problem with an easy-to-use program/product
- When weight is regained, tell people it’s their own fault, and sell them another program/product
The Weight Watchers’ business plan states “Our members have historically demonstrated a consistent pattern of repeat enrollment over a number of years. On average … our members have enrolled in four separate program cycles.” This is a good thing from a business perspective. Repeat users are very profitable. In business, we want repeat users!
Weight Watchers, and companies like it, convince us that they are helpful friends on our path to health and happiness. They cleverly make us forget that they are profit-driven businesses. Diet businesses have all marketed hard to collectively drive the diet industry from $10 billion in annual revenue in 1985 to almost $70 billion in 2012.
Skeptical? Consider this: if dieting were actually an effective treatment, then the major diet companies, including Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, would not hesitate to bombard us with data and statistics showing the long-term success of their programs. They would fight vicious public battles to demonstrate their 5- and 10-year success rates. They do neither of these things. In fact, neither company provides us with long-term data about their programs.
Most people can lose weight on a diet for 6 months. That’s not a question. The question is whether it’s possible to keep the weight off. It’s not. Ninety-five percent of people who intentionally lose weight have regained all lost weight plus more after 5 years.
When scientists try to prove the efficacy of dieting, they come up empty-handed. The National Institutes of Health was given $15 million to study diets for 15 years, and research was canceled two years ahead of schedule. The official reason for canceling the study was “futility.” They could not find any evidence of benefit for the diet intervention they were studying. It was impossible for the statisticians to find any way to make the data show that dieting could help prevent strokes, heart attacks or deaths from cardiovascular disease, which is what the diet they were studying was designed to prevent. (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases)
Eating disorders villain #2: the media
The media also presents itself as a benevolent friend of humanity. It promotes its purpose in life as spreading truth and knowledge to us. It sells us the promise of delivering balanced information and promoting the idea that it is trustworthy. But the media is also an industry driven by profits.
Information media is under threat, as people seek news and information from increasingly niche markets. The newspaper publishing industry has fallen from $33.59 billion in 2011 to $30.47 billion in 2016, and it is expected to continue falling in the coming years. Entire magazines have stopped printing physical copies, and the job loss for trained journalists is staggering.
The media business is driven by advertising sales. The “trustworthy” information that they provide us is delivered only because they are able to attract businesses that believe they can sell their products to the media outlet’s audience.
Let’s think about this for a minute. There is not anti-diet industry, and thus there is no revenue to be gained from writing about the failure of diets. But there is a $70 billion diet industry that is hungry for repeat customers.
The diet industry is twice the size of the media industry. In some vertical markets, the diet industry is responsible for keeping entire magazines afloat. It is diet ad dollars that allow women’s magazines to continue publishing weight loss tips, recipes, and closet organizing strategies.
When your industry is in trouble, and the only dollars keeping you afloat are from the diet industry, how interested are you in investigating whether diets are necessary or effective? Not at all.
The media has consistently followed the diet industry’s messaging platform about weight and diets:
- Being fat is disgusting and unhealthy
- People are individually responsible for being fat
- People they can eliminate their weight problem with easy-to-use programs and products
- People who fail at weight loss need to try again, with another program/product
The media sells the message that we’re never good enough, but we can achieve goodness if we follow their programs and purchase the products that advertise in their pages. We cannot ignore the clear relationship between what the media writes about and where they generate their revenue.
As parents, we must recognize the corporate powers behind the fat and diet messages we are told. Our children are listening, and they are developing eating disorders because it’s an easy way to express self-hatred in a culture that hates bodies. We have to reject diet mentality, and talk to our kids about the dangerous media messages that carry the diet industry’s advertising into our homes, schools, and communities.
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.