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.