Challenging the Evils of the Diet Industry

15:31Ciaran McCormick

Many western consumers now devour foods laced with saturated fat, salt and sugar for most of their lives. Unfortunately, they also lap up the inspired marketing and business model of the diet industry. They rarely work and depend on failure. This is unhelpful for our health and obesity crisis, which will escalate until it becomes a major cause of death. I am particularly concerned about the psychological effects it is having on impressionable young people growing up. Many people's attitudes towards food are unhealthy. This includes people that overeat and those that seek weight-loss obsessively. I want us to re-gain a common sense approach to food. There is a political solution that I would like us to consider. This could make healthy eating more accessible to all in our society.


What are the evils of the diet industry that I have mentioned? Fundamentally, they depend on failure. If they were so successful at solving our weight problems, then people would lose weight and keep it off. Nobody would need the gurus and the programmes any more.
Unfortunately, people lose their weight initially and get a buzz of satisfaction from that. However, research shows that 95% then re-gain the weight because the diets are so unsustainable. They then feel like failures, encouraging them to eat the unhealthy foods that caused the problem. Compulsive dieters then try the next fad diet with a guilt trip or wave of sophisticated marketing. This cycle perpetuates an exploitative industry, never solving the problem.

We all technically have a diet but the term has taken on a different usage. It now involves a person limiting themselves to a lower amount or narrower range of foods. This can include mainstream dieting brands like Weight Watchers or Slimfast. At the most bizarre end of the spectrum, people focus on eating foods such as celery, cabbage or the protein rich foods of Atkins. Some diets are based on nutrition shakes and drinks. This isn't real food and we do not respond positively to them because we have evolved wholesome food rather than diet drinks. These fads are not just a 21st century phenomenon. History is littered with waves of people eating odd 'food' such as tapeworms, rubber and arsenic in order to lose those hallowed pounds. We now live in a food-saturated society where it is impossible to resist most of the supermarket for the months and years needed to produce a sustainable diet. In order to develop a common-sense approach towards dieting, we need to look beyond these fads.

People love the idea of a quick fix. They have lots of money, less common sense, and no time. I have read countless articles telling me to eat plenty of super-foods like turmeric, garlic, dark chocolate and red wine. That seems ridiculous. The first two you use sparingly to season food and the second two are great in moderation. This is the word that I would like to stress above anything else. Moderation is the key to the common-sense approach of dieting. There are no foods that you should not be eating but it should all be balanced with some good sources of protein, carbohydrates, a small amount of fat and some sugar and salt. Remember the pie chart you learnt in primary school with the different food groups? These fads and quick fixes are at best unsustainable and at worst dangerous. Most focus on food and not exercise, which is one of the crucial parts at the 'keeping the weight off' stage.

Obsessive dieting does not involve moderation and permission to eat what you like in moderation. This has produced a society where body shape and weight defines people. Young people like me grow up in a culture of airbrushed images. It is unsurprising that people turn to these diets because we need that beach body or to fit into a wedding dress. This is one of the major evils that the diet industry is fuelling. They encourage the body shaming, eating disorders and low self-esteem that are suffered by more people than medical evidence can acknowledge.

Diets fail to address the underlying problems that can cause eating problems. Boredom, stress, loneliness and unresolved life problems can all be channelled into unhealthy eating habits. Indeed, some lifestyle diets exploit this with social clubs that link people's dieting habits with a support network of friends. On the surface, this is admirable, since a healthy diet needs support from the people around you. However, this ties people emotionally to the companies that exploit the failure of their cult of followers. I double take in disbelief every time that I am in a supermarket and I see foods full of fat, sugar and salt branded by dieting companies. Weight Watchers and Slim Fast cakes and crisps make money by convincing people that they are healthy. People need to break free of these brands and eat a balanced set of foods.

A political solution is essential to encourage more people away from the diet industry towards a common sense approach. I am completely delighted by the NHS scheme 'Change 4 Life'. It encourages a natural balance of foods and recognises the importance of exercise. Hopefully, it will filter through the noise of advertising and influence the next generation forming their lifestyle habits. However, many poorer families are priced out of health by the expensive prices of fresh fruit and vegetables and fish. Supermarkets have a hand in this area. A three year study of food consumption at the University of East Anglia found that price promotions and discounts are weighted towards foods high in sugar, salt and saturated fat. I rarely see the sorts of deals in supermarkets in the grocery section that I can find in the unhealthier reaches of the rest of the store.

A partnership between food retailers and the government needs to be genuinely produced to support consumers looking to make affordable, healthy purchases. I believe that healthy food needs greater government subsidy to allow people to eat better. Though it would cost precious money, there are funding avenues to explore. The Danish fat tax was introduced to raise funds from unhealthy foods. It failed because the public stocked up in Germany and opposed the move. However, a small tax might be a useful tool for reducing prices elsewhere. By 2050, it is estimated that half of adults will be obese. We will pay for the health infrastructure needed to support these people later. Why not address the problem now? We need to change our attitudes towards food and drink and eat in moderation. Leave the gimmicks behind, eat with a sense of balance and use your common sense.

Image courtesy of Flickr/apalapala

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