New Left Project

The Diet Industry: Profiting from Anxiety

Psychotherapist Susie Orbach and writer and editor Sharon Haywood are two of the main organisers of the Anybody initiative. They spoke to NLP's Alex Doherty.

Commercial slimming clubs such as Weight Watchers and Slimming World  argue that they are helping women (and some men) to deal with genuine weight problems. What do you make of that claim?

Unfortunately, weight-loss clubs such as Weight Watchers and Slimming World are part of the problem in that dieting only contributes to weight gain. It doesn’t matter which approach the slimming club takes—be it a point system, a “healthy lifestyle” change or using pre-packaged foods or supplements—clients usually lose weight in the beginning. But this initial weight loss is deceiving because after the diet, often a month or so, most people will regain most of the weight they lost. More seriously, within 4 to 5 years 95% will gain back the lost weight and one-third to two-thirds of their clients ultimately end up being fatter than their pre-diet weight. They don’t help the individual understand their appetite, how to eat with their hunger, how to recognise fullness and not override it. It substitutes compulsive eating for compulsive dieting. Although these clubs may have the best of intentions in helping people manage their health, they in fact are only contributing to the rising rates of obesity.

We have to ask if commercial weight-loss centres are truly helping folks, why does the diet industry have a 95% rate of failure? Or to put it another way, if dieting really worked, you’d only need to do it once.

If the diet industry isn't even successful on its own terms (in helping to reduce weight) how does it manage to continue to attract customers?

In the UK alone, Weight Watchers has one million active members; Slimming World reports having 400,000 regular attending members but a good many of those are returning customers. The aforementioned slimming clubs reported these numbers at the UK All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry on Body Image on January 16, 2012; however, neither company were able to state the specific percentage which were first-time members but they did admit that a portion of members return. The truth is that the diet industry relies on a 95% recidivism rate. We have to point out that if these clubs were genuinely helping people, clients would not have to return. There would be no revolving door and no recurrent income from the same people.

One of the largest motivators the diet industry relies on is shame. Instead of acknowledging that our bodies naturally resist weight loss and seek their own equilibrium, the onus is placed on the client’s lack of willpower. Research clearly shows that dieting, which relies on restriction and avoiding ‘bad’ foods, leads to overeating and binging and interferes with the proper functioning of our metabolism. Regardless of these facts, the message that slimming clubs consistently send is that we must control ourselves in order to be successful. With heads hung low, “failed” dieters return time and time again to slimming clubs with the hope that “this time” they’ll be able to stick with the program and lose the weight for good. But most of them won’t, keeping them stuck in the inevitable diet/binge cycle.

Obesity is an increasing health problem in the UK and other developed countries; if it is not to be tackled through dieting, what can be done about it?

Dieting plays a significant role as to why obesity is on the rise. Tackling the issue of obesity requires a major shift in thinking. When it comes to nourishing our bodies, we have been taught to focus on external cues: follow this diet, avoid these foods, eat more of these products etc. In order for true health to be achieved, we need to redirect our focus internally. Dieting teaches us to ignore our natural hunger and fullness signals and it does not address the underlying emotional issues that can often lead to overeating.

It’s crucial to point out that although people weigh more than they have in the past, having the label of ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ doesn’t necessarily equate to ill health. Various studies have indicated that yo-yo dieting can be more detrimental to our health than being categorized as ‘overweight’. (Many studies have shown that conditions frequently attributed to obesity such as diabetes, gall bladder problems and hypertension are actually strongly correlated with yo-yo dieting.) Furthermore, we need to critically examine what ‘overweight’ and ‘obese’ really mean. These labels are derived from the flawed BMI (Body Mass Index) chart that excludes important factors such as age, metabolism rate, muscle mass and physical build. As Susie Orbach states in her book Bodies this unsound tool categorizes Brad Pitt as ‘overweight’ and George Clooney as ‘obese’.

Instead of dieting, a healthy weight that is individual to each person can be achieved by applying the principles of intuitive eating, such as eating when you are hungry, consuming foods your body craves and exploring why you eat when you are not hungry. Commonly, when dieters abandon the losing and gaining game and tune into their appetites some of them actually lose weight. Apart from slight fluctuations (often seasonally), intuitive eaters consistently maintain a stable weight over the long-term.

But let’s not be fooled by the obesity stats. It is now well established that the construction of a disease entity called Obesity is a money maker for the food and diet industry (the latter usually owned by the former as it happens). The International Obesity Task Force sound very worthy but they were set up and funded by an industry that grows big profits from selling services to those who believe they are the wrong size.

What is the relationship between the diet industry, the fashion industry and body image anxiety?

There isn’t a conscious conspiracy. Both the diet industry and the fashion industry rely on an aesthetic, which is limited, limiting and entirely unrepresentative of most people. They are both selling bodies as commodities and aspiration while undermining the bodies we have. Such conditions have laid the perfect foundation for the multi-billion-pound diet industry. When we consider the visual onslaught of this one aesthetic, it’s understandable that girls and women strive to emulate this one standard (which incidentally only 5% of the population can actually achieve).

Body image anxiety today is so normalized that it’s odd to question it. It’s viewed as a typical part of women and men’s existence but also disturbingly for children and teens. When Susie Orbach presented evidence against the diet industry at the Parliamentary inquiry on the 16th of January, she cited a Dove study which revealed that 70% of girls would not participate in certain activities, such as going to school on those days they felt bad about their bodies. And girls who diet are 12 times more likely to binge throughout their adult lifetimes. Many women and some men live with body image distress but are able to function while suffering. What this leaves us with is a hidden public health crisis that both the diet and fashion industry feed.

Susie Orbach is a psychotherapist, social critic and activist. Her first book looking at women and bodies was the groundbreaking Fat is a Feminist Issue. She has since written 10 more books. Her latest is Bodies. She is the convenor of AnyBody/UK Endangered Bodies

Sharon Haywood is a Canadian freelance writer and editor living in Argentina. She is co-editor of Adios Barbie, a website that promotes healthy self-image for people of all sizes, cultures, races, abilities and sexual identities. Sharon leads the Endangered Bodies initiative in Argentina, called AnyBody Argentina.

Alex Doherty is a co-editor of New Left Project. You can follow him on twiter @alexdoherty7

About this article

Published on 21 February, 2012
By Susie Orbach, Sharon Haywood, Alex Doherty