Over the past few months, we have been interviewing experts on the topics of fat shame and body acceptance. Throughout these interviews there has been another topic that has come up again and again. That topic is industry–the food and diet industries to be exact. In our interview with fat shame expert Amy Farrell, she discussed how the diet industry relies on the harmful idea that our bodies are objects which can– and should– be constantly changing, resulting in an unbreakable money making machine. In our interview with food studies scholar Shayne Figueroa, we discovered how the food industry uses cultural anxieties to their benefit. And in our interview with body image blogger and NYU student Stella Boonshoft, she discussed how the diet and beauty industries design specific ideals to control our lives. Rather than focusing on things we truly want, we become sidetracked by our cultural obsessions with thinness and youth. Boonshoft suggested that this ensures that everyone–especially women– are preoccupied by beauty, rather than true health and happiness. Throughout all of our interviews, the theme emerged that the food and diet industries are negatively affecting the way we feel about our bodies. We knew it was time to investigate.
Why are these industries so invested in lowering our self-confidence? We asked Marion Nestle, a Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, this question in a recent interview. She talked about the cultural anxieties that food companies profit on saying, “I don’t know any people who think their diet is adequate, and almost everyone is worried about weight. That leaves plenty of openings for marketing. Supplements are a good example. Hardly any evidence suggests that they make healthy people healthier, but half the adult population takes them.” Why are we so willing to accept what industry promotes? And how can we, as a society break away from such a harmful conundrum? To answer these questions we need to look at where this all began.
In the early 1960s, Jean Nidetch, a housewife who was upset about being overweight, began a weight-loss program from her house. This small business grew into Weight Watchers, a multi-million dollar company that paved the path for the future of a prosperous diet industry. Soon after came Slim-Fast, a diet program that encouraged consumption of a milkshake-like meal substitute and calorie restriction. Just a few years later, Jenny Craig entered the scene with prepackaged portion-controlled meals. While all of these companies began as small businesses owned by the founders, as they grew, they caught the attention of the food industry.
The food industry realized they could make a fortune by promoting diets in addition to their own foods, which ironically were often strictly forbidden by the diets. So they started buying diet companies. Weight Watchers was bought by Heinz, a company known for ketchup and bagel bites. Slimfast is owned by Uniliver, a company known for manufacturing Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and sausages. Jenny Craig is owned by Nestle, a company known for its chocolate products.
You could say that owning both diet food and junk food sounds like a conflict of interest. The success of one business may mean losses for another. But on the contrary, this is a successful and profitable business practice. Professor Marion Nestle commented on this in our interview saying, “Your point [that the food and diet industries profit off each other], I suppose, is that food industry marketing encourages obesity and the diet industry promises to fix it. It’s a perfect arrangement for making money—everyone gets to have it both ways.
Diets promote the idea that there are good and bad foods, which is a type of dichotomous (all-or-none) thinking. These ideas place value on food that is beyond that of nutrition, and plays into feelings of goodness, self-worth, and self-confidence. Therefore, when people eat “good” foods, like diet foods, they feel as though they are good, and when they eat “bad” foods, like the junk foods, they feel as though they are bad. When people start a diet, they often buy loads of diet foods. But it is only a matter of time before cravings arise for “bad” foods, causing the dieter to buy large quantities of “bad” foods to fill their too long restricted cravings. After this the dieter feels bad for eating these “bad” foods and returns to eating the diet foods in an attempt to feel better. Every dieter knows this cycle and the food industry knows it as well. Research has long documented that restriction of certain foods ultimately leads to overeating of those very foods.
“It’s successful because the 84% [who can’t keep the weight off] keep coming back. That’s where your business comes from.” – Richard Samber, the former finance director of Weight Watchers, talking about the profitability of his business.
Diet companies make no money in people maintaining weight loss long-term. Their whole business enterprise is dependent on people failing and coming back. There is no question why close to 100% of diets fail. These diets are made to ensure that they will have long-term return customers. While people may lose weight in the short-term, restriction and dichotomous thinking leads dieters into a cycle of never ending yo-yo dieting, with harmful effects on our physical and mental health. The food and diet industries gain lifetime customers at our expense. The only way to end this cycle is to say good-bye to diets and begin respecting our bodies.
This blog post is guest written by Kimberly Buesser, a nutrition student at New York University, and edited by Dr. Alexis Conason. It is the fourth and final installment in a series of stories and interviews with experts on the topic of Fat Shame that have appeared in this blog over the last few months.