Mental Health and Weight Loss Ads

I was recently asked to contribute to an article on the mental health impact of weight loss advertising for Metro.

You can read the article here, but I also wanted to share with you the questions I was asked and the answers I gave.

How do weight loss ads encourage us to change our diets/eating habits?  

Rather than encourage us, weight loss ads shame us. They usually feature a picture of the “perfect” body – or worse, a “before” and “after” photo. Anyone who’s the size of the “before” body or bigger is likely to feel shame. Diet companies then offer the “solution” to our shame by selling us an eating regime usually marketed as “simple” and “easy” with “guaranteed results”.

When the diet fails, as it inevitably will, we don’t blame the diet, we blame ourselves. After all, they told us it was simple and easy and other people succeed at it, so there must be something wrong with us, right? 

Do weight loss ads make us feel different about ourselves and our bodies?

Weight loss ads are often blatant in their fat shaming. The message is “fat bodies are disgusting, thin bodies are desirable”, and we’re only allowed to be happy if we have the perfect body. They perpetuate the idea that women in particular are supposed to be the same size and shape.

Genetically, we’re not all built the same – why would our bodies look the same? They remind us relentlessly how we fail to measure up to their ideal, and tell us we have to do something about it or we’re simply unacceptable.

Do weight loss ads contribute to negative thinking around food? 

Weight loss ads promote a language around food that’s psychologically unhealthy. It’s often about getting “control” and eating the “right” way. Food is labelled either “good” or “bad”, as are we depending on our choices.

When we eat something on the “bad” list (which we will because we’re human), we judge ourselves negatively and tell ourselves we’ve ruined the diet. This often triggers a binge of all the foods we’ve been denying ourselves. Then the whole thing starts over again as we go back on the diet. Before we know it, we’re stuck in a diet/binge/shame cycle and can’t find a way out.

Is fad dieting effective or sustainable? 

Not only is dieting ineffective and unsustainable with at least a 95% failure rate, it’s downright dangerous. In a major study of 14-15 year olds, those who dieted moderately were 5 times more likely to develop an eating disorder. For those who dieted severely, the risk increased to 18 times more likely. The research concluded that dieting is the most important predictor of developing an eating disorder.

We’re not supposed to eat according to someone else’s instructions, we’re supposed to eat according to our innate instincts and autonomy. Diets say we can’t trust our bodies. In reality, the best thing we can do if we want a peaceful relationship with food is to reject Diet Culture, dismantle our diet mentality and learn to trust our bodies again.

©️ Julie de Rohan 2021.

24 thoughts on “Mental Health and Weight Loss Ads

  1. This is very balanced. A great article/ interview. Dieting ads really do shame us (as do almost all fashion ads). Instead of being comfortable in our our body, and being glad that it allows us to do so much in life, we start to attack, reject and disown it (and ourselves). It’s very sad.
    As you say, we are brainwashed into believing there is only one acceptable body type and size – which is just wrong. For example, I volunteer with immigrants from the middle east and they have told me that in their culture being heavier is a sign of being well-provided for and is, therefore, prized.

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    1. You’re so right that diet ads make us reject our bodies, in the same way that dieting makes us reject our natural appetite and instinct with food. The “perfect” body that weight loss ads promote is usually that of a white European woman – as though this is the only standard of attractiveness and beauty, which is horrifying. I’m so interested to hear larger bodies are considered more desirable in Middle Eastern culture – I find it difficult when I hear girls and young women expressing the desire to be “skinny”.

      Thank you so much for sharing you thoughts and for your feedback on the article – I wasn’t given much notice so I’m pleased if it reads well.

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      1. It reads very well! And it’s an important topic. It’s very sad when we hate our bodies. Our bodies give us life! I also think it’s interesting to look at how our view of bodies has changed even in Europe over the last few centuries. You only have to look in an art gallery to see that in the past artists typically depicted heavier women. Those were also the days before plastic surgery so the typical shape was quite different from our idealized view of what is apparently the perfect body today!!

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      2. There’s a great article here about how the “ideal” woman’s body shape has changed throughout history – exactly as you describe. It includes a fantastic 2-minute animation that’s well worth a look if you have a moment. It is sad when we hate our bodies – I hated mine for decades and it feels so much better to value and appreciate it.

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      1. Ha, not at all!!! I write about stuff but you write about things that are important and you do so in an easy-to-follow, non-lecturing way! It is had to catch the right tone in writing but you consistently nail it!!!
        All ok here thanks! We have now hit 2m vaccinated but still no sign of lockdown easing 😦 Stay well, stay safe! 🙂

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      2. I really appreciate your feedback – you’re very kind. Glad you’re safe and well in Brittany. No sign of lockdown lifting here either, but it will be lovely when it does (*sigh*).

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  2. “A peaceful relationship with food” sounds so very lovely and is the opposite of the feeling weight loss ads are going for – they want us to be unhappy with ourselves and our eating habits so that we’ll buy products or programs to ‘improve’. Thanks for sharing this interview, Julie 🙂

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    1. It’s the shame they induce and then the promise of a solution that I find so toxic. As you say, they promote body dissatisfaction for profit. Great to hear from you, Karen. Hope you’re safe and well.

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      1. My teenage daughter has good news for the next generation – she doesn’t really see ads. There’s youtube ones she skips but ‘dieting’ to her is an old person’s thing. I’m sure marketers will find her at some point, but she’s getting pretty good at paying attention to her own body’s needs for now.
        All is safe-ish here, bit of a respite from full lockdown with rates low. Take care 🙂

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      2. I love that – “an old person’s thing”. Wouldn’t it be great if dieting became obsolete, like floppy disks or ashtrays in cars? It sounds like your daughter is really switched on (why am I not surprised?). Glad you’re doing well, Karen. We’re looking forward to lockdown easing – just not sure when that will be.

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  3. I’ve only seen the ads for Noom which seems to be dealing more with why we eat what we do rather than a diet or exercise regime. Do you think that may be a healthier approach or just repackaged more of the same?

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    1. I think you might be right there! In my experience, the best thing we can do is to deepen trust within our own bodies so we can really hear what they’re telling us about food and movement.

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    1. You’re right – there are many reasons why it’s hard to hear what our bodies are telling us. Sometimes it’s due to a history of dieting which has taken us away from our natural autonomy with food, but other times it’s because something has happened in our life that has made us disconnect from our body. This is what is usually explored in therapy. Thank you for sharing you thoughts on this.

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  4. So very, very well said. I absolutely agree with all of it. Weight loss adds shame, not encourage. They put the label of ‘fat’ onto something that’s not socially acceptable, tell you that you’re not valuable as you are unless you change, then continue to control you by telling you what you can and cannot eat. It’s all garbage, but it’s effective because we see them, even out the corner of our eye, and feel disgusting, ashamed, then perhaps motivated by the need to change ourselves to fit their ideals. Weight loss is a multi-billion dollar/pound industry that thrives on making people feel like trash as they yearn for the ‘happiness’ that resides in losing a few pounds or fitting into a small pair of jeans. xx

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    1. Your last sentence in particular is so powerful. The weight loss industry sets up insecurity and shame within us, and then exploits those feelings for all they’re worth. It’s just so wrong and so easy to become victim to Diet Culture’s toxic messages. So lovely to hear from you, Caz. How are you doing?

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      1. You’re spot on about that exploitation. I wonder if the money this industry brings in every second allows them to justify what they do? It’s so sad. The effects on the public can be, in many cases, so deep and long-lasting.

        I’m okay, thank you for asking, Julie. Just hanging in there. Rubbish week last week so I’m glad for a fresh one! 😉 How are you holding up? xx

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