Eating disorders are complex mental health issues, but it’s impossible to view them without the diet industry. Almost all eating disorders are fueled by a basic distrust of the body and fear of weight gain. This distrust and fear is developed and nurtured by the $72 billion diet industry.
Almost every diet program relies on eating disorder behavior to intentionally change body size and shape. Some rely on direct caloric restriction, but most of today’s diets push indirect restriction via food elimination and/or exercise. There are many choices, and the diets often contradict each other. Low-fat contradicts low-carb, while vegetarian contradicts paleo. But people keep reaching for the next diet that “really works” because they want to feel good about themselves.
The diet industry tells us to “fight” our hunger to “transform” ourselves once and for all into the ideal thin, happy person. Those of us who strive for this ideal often struggle with eating disorders.
The fact is that diet companies and the media promote eating disorder behaviors with diets every single day. Meanwhile, eating disorders are on the rise. It’s important to take a good, hard look at the industry that trains our kids to develop eating disorders.
The diet industry
Our obsession with weight 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 weight gain is both unsightly and unhealthy
- Make people believe they are personally responsible for their weight
- Tell people they can control their weight 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. Businesses love repeat users!
But repeat dieters are stuck in what’s called “weight cycling,” which is associated with many health complications. Weight cycling is a known result of intentional weight loss. In fact, dieters would be healthier if they stopped all weight loss efforts rather than continuing to weight cycle.
Weight Watchers as a predator
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. In 1985 it was $10 billion in annual revenue, but today it is at least $72 billion. The diet industry grows like all businesses, by 1) convincing consumers they have a problem; 2) providing the solution to the problem; 3) making sure the solution isn’t permanent so they get repeat customers.
Even if there were a “cure” for weight gain, the diet industry would not sell it. Why? Because then they lose their money-making machine.
Skeptical? Consider this: if dieting were actually an effective treatment, then where is the scientific evidence? The major diet companies, including Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, should be clamoring to provide us with data and statistics. They should be sharing the medically-proven long-term success of their programs.
Imagine if they fought vicious public relations battles to demonstrate their 5- and 10-year success rates. They don’t. In fact, no diet companies provide us with long-term data about their programs. Not a single scientific study has proven that long-term (2+ years) weight loss is 1) possible; 2) safe.
Instead, diet companies provide us with individual results and testimonials. There is not a single peer-reviewed diet study proving the effectiveness of intentional weight loss.
Diets don’t work – and that’s good for business
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 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. But 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 was helpful. The data could not show dieting could help prevent strokes, heart attacks or deaths from cardiovascular disease. So they cancelled it.
The media and the diet industry
The media also presents itself as a benevolent friend of humanity. It promotes its purpose 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. It’s 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 of advertising. They exist only when their true customers succeed. And their true customers are their advertisers.
There’s no such thing as an anti-diet industry
Let’s think about this for a minute. There is no such thing as an anti-diet industry. Thus there is no revenue to be gained from writing about the fact that diets don’t work. But there is a $72 billion diet industry that is willing to pay for ads to attract diet customers.
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.
Publishing is in trouble. And the only dollars keeping some publications afloat are from the diet industry. So how interested are they in spreading the word that diets are not effective? Not at all.
The media has consistently amplified the diet industry’s messaging about weight and diets. Here are the myths and facts:
Diet industry myths (perpetuated by the media)
- Weight gain is disgusting and unhealthy
- People are individually responsible for weight gain
- Anyone 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 truth about weight (that the media doesn’t tell us)
- Weight gain is normal and natural
- Weight is largely genetic and environmental
- Individuals have very little control over their body weight, regardless of the program or product
- Repeated dieting leads to more problems than living in a larger body
The media sells the message that we’re never good enough. But they say we can achieve goodness if we follow their programs and purchase the products advertised. We cannot ignore the clear relationship between what the media writes about and where they generate their revenue.
The diet industry and eating disorders are best friends
Diet behaviors are eating disorder behaviors. That’s why it’s so important for parents to fight diet culture at home. Diets literally provide a manual for getting started with an eating disorder.
Not all diets turn into full-blown eating disorders, but a teen who diets is up to 15x more likely to develop an eating disorder. Kids are more likely to develop eating disorders from the diet industry than become healthy from a diet.
We want our kids to be healthy, and lots of us were taught that health is based on weight. But our pursuit of diets has not improved our health. Adults who have dieted are not healthier than adults who haven’t. And all diets put us in a dangerous eating disorder mindset.
As parents, we must recognize that corporate power lies behind weight and diet messages. Our children are listening. And they are developing eating disorders in part because diet behaviors are indistinguishable from eating disorder behaviors. Parents have to reject diet culture. And we have to talk to our kids about the dangerous media messages that carry the diet industry’s messages.
Additionally, we need to look out for diet industry products and eliminate them from our homes. That may mean ending diet food purchases. It may mean quitting your favorite diet tracking app. And it may even mean ending a magazine subscription due to the fact that it’s supported by diet industry money.
The diet industry and eating disorders are best friends, but that doesn’t mean we have to invite them into our homes.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the editor of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.