519: Dieting

Have you ever gone on a diet?


Full episode script

Body size and it’s supposed connection to health isn’t a new thing in the world, but it has been a particular obsession in the Western World for the last hundred years or so. Quoting extensively from a Slate article by Harriet Brown:

Weight inched its way into the American consciousness around the turn of the 20th century. “I would sooner die than be fat,” declared Amelia Summerville, author of the 1916 volume Why Be Fat? Rules for Weight-Reduction and the Preservation of Youth and Health. (She also wrote, with a giddy glee that likely derived from malnutrition, “I possibly eat more lettuce and pineapple than any other woman on earth!”) As scales became more accurate and affordable, doctors began routinely recording patients’ height and weight at every visit. In 1949, a small group of doctors created the National Obesity Society, the first of many professional associations meant to take obesity treatment from the margins to the mainstream. They believed that “any level of thinness was healthier than being fat, and the thinner a person was, the healthier she or he was,” writes Nita Mary McKinley, a psychologist at the University of Washington-Tacoma. This attitude inspired a number of new and terrible treatments for obesity, including jaw wiring and stereotactic brain surgery that burned lesions into the hypothalamus.

100 years later, the diet industry is big business. Very big business. In 2014, a market research firm quoted by Fortune Magazine estimated that the industry as a whole was worth $64 billion. There’s no denying that dieting is big business — but it’s also a business in transition.  

Quoting from NPR’s report about shifts in the diet industry in 2016:

From summer 2014 to summer 2015, Lean Cuisine’s frozen meal sales dropped from around $700 million to about $600 million, or about 15 percent. Weight Watchers, Medifast and Jenny Craig have also seen revenues wither over the past few years. Sales of diet pills have dropped 20 percent in the last year, according to a report from Mintel, a market research firm. A survey of 2,000 people released by the firm in October found that 94 percent of respondents no longer saw themselves as dieters. They were also disillusioned with the industry: 77 percent of the consumers surveyed said that diet products are not as healthy as they claim to be, and 61 percent said most diets are not actually healthy.

But what IS actually healthy… that’s a whole different question. What’s sure is that diets as we’ve been doing them very rarely work. Traci Mann, who teaches psychology at the University of Minnesota and has been studying eating habits, self-control and dieting for more than 20 years, was interviewed by the Washington Post. In that interview she points out that:

For practically any diet — crazy, or not crazy sounding — in that first 6 to 12 months, people can lose about 10 percent of their starting weight. But the short run isn’t the whole story. Everyone acts like the short run is the whole story, and that anything that happens later is the dieter’s fault and not really part of the diet. People act like the only part that is the diet’s fault is the beginning bit. The long-term part, people always say that’s not the diet, that’s the person. And yet, it’s clear that that’s not true. It’s over the long term that you see all these biological changes take control.

What’s really sad to me is that it isn’t just society that blames dieters when they gain weight. Dieters blame themselves, and I really think that that’s a shame. Yes, it is their hand holding the fork, but it’s the context that is much more important here. There are so many things that affect your ability to control what you do with that fork, that make it impossible to not pick it up. If I could help people understand anything, it would be that.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.