The Yearly Insanity of Diet Ads

It's a brand new year, and everyone from scientists to your mom want you to remember that you're fat. The proliferation of commercials for weight loss products is truly dizzying. Even on the TV Guide channel, you're bombarded with claims of what these amazing diet smoothies can do if you use them to replace meals. In between holiday movies, you can learn about meals that can be shipped to your door. Ab machines! Gyms! And especially pills, pills, pills!

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With a new year, we could be vowing to keep our houses cleaner, start a 401K account, do more reading, be kinder to people, rekindle waning relationships, or even to have more or better sex. But no, the commercials make sure that we know: We need to lose weight.

Never mind that books such as Gina Kolata’s Rethinking Thin have shown that all diets work roughly about the same, as in not much at all. Most diets will work for a little while, then the weight will come back. Linda Bacon argued similarly in Health at Every Size, adding that people will often regain more weight than they lost thanks to our sneaky bodies’ desire not to starve during famine times. Restricting calories only works if you do it with the obsessiveness most would consider an eating disorder in someone thinEffective diet pills such as Fen-phen have killed people by damaging their hearts, appetite suppressants are absurdly ineffective while still posing a risk to your health, the fat blockers work but make fat dribble out of your ass, and lap band surgery, recently approved for even lower weights by the FDA, still carries a risk of regained weight and oh, making you die.

So the recent New York Times article, The Fat Trap, brings little news to those of us who have been following this debate and shaking our heads at the glut of commercials trying to shame us about our bodies enough that we’ll buy their new, stupid, dangerous products. Their findings are, as Bacon’s already were, that the body will go through metabolic changes when faced with drastically reduced calories, and it will, as it will any time you try to kill it, fight back. Hormones are released; your metabolism changes.  The reality is, as the author says: “once we become fat, most of us, despite our best efforts, will probably stay fat.”

Bummer! Better quit dieting, then, right? Not according to the author, who would suggest that despite the near impossibility of weight loss as a goal… we should do it anyway. And prevent weight gain. Because being fat is pathologized. But does it really make any sense when presented with this new information to cling to the status quo and to keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting to get different results? Isn’t that someone’s definition of insanity? Does it make sense to change yourself drastically and dangerously because of how other people will treat you? 

Still every year people buy into these ads telling us over and over to try weight loss, this new diet, this new pill, this new exercise regime. We magically think that we will be the one who is part of the 2% of people who will actually be able to keep the weight off. 

The question remains, instead of throwing so much weight onto the issue of weight, why don’t we give a damn about health? Why don’t we give a damn about self-esteem? If something isn’t working, if something exists solely to make us miserable (and in some cases fatter and in many cases less healthy or dead), why the hell do we keep doing it?  The venom against fat is an issue unto itself, but women in particular feel the pressure to always remain thin, to not “let ourselves go,” to “care,” and in some cases, to save our children from our fatness. I remember one commercial in particular wherein the woman talked about not wanting her child to have to grow up with a “fat mommy.” The priorities there seem ridiculously skewed, don’t they? Wouldn’t you want your child to have a healthy, happy mommy over a thin one? Or over not having one at all?

Returning to Bacon’s book, the concept of Health at Every Size is essentially that we should, whatever our weight or fat percentage happens to be, do things that are good for us. When the obsession with weight is removed, you can still exercise, still eat healthily, still care about your blood pressure and make choices about fiber and micronutrients. You just actively try to repair a disordered relationship with food and refuse to let “helpful” ads trying to sell you death in a bottle set your goals for the year.

Maybe this year, resolve to clean your kitchen. Start clipping coupons. Pick up a new novel or audiobook. Start calling your sister again. Start a dating profile, or get a sex toy. If you want to make a health-related resolution, make a health-related resolution and not one based on an external demand that you look a certain way. Exercise, eat well and care for yourself, not about what other people think.

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