Dr Andrew Dickson Dr Andrew Dickson CREDIT: Massey University

The healthy eating paradox

Tuesday 9 October 2012, 3:28PM
By Massey University

Opinion: Dr Andrew Dickson

I have been watching the media’s engagement with the Healthy at Every Size movement – and it has been a frustrating and perplexing experience.

Take the Healthy Food Guide. In its August 2012 issue, it ran a feature titled ‘Overweight and still healthy?’, which asked if measurements like BMI, waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratio have any real bearing on an individual’s actual health.

But, then, in its current issue the cover story is ‘How to break the diet cycle!’ – and it comes with a 32-page free booklet called ‘The HFG Weight-loss Challenge! Change your life in 12 weeks’.

In the words of editor Niki Bezzant: “You might think, isn’t our 32-page booklet with this issue just another diet plan? The answer is yes and no… If we wanted to, we could create something short, sharp and strict that would certainly have you losing weight. But it wouldn’t be sustainable… While our booklet does have a timeline – a 12-week kick-start – we hope this will be just the beginning of a new way of living.”

I find this perplexing, paradoxical, and disingenuous. You can’t say you won’t provide something “short, sharp and strict”, and then produce a “12-week kick-start”. I think the problem for publications like the Healthy Food Guide is they want to acknowledge the science, but they also want to make money.

Whether they admit it or not, they are part of the weight-loss industry that they sometimes claim to have a problem with. The Healthy Food Guide’s 32-page booklet is a case in point. Its standard weight-loss content feeds on people’s weight anxiety, rather than helping to deal with it.

For example, there is only one very brief paragraph on anxiety, under the heading of ‘Sadness/Anxiety’. It says: “Beat it by working out why you have these feelings and trying to make some changes to rectify the situation. Even something as simple as talking it over with a friend may be enough to help.”

Firstly, sadness and anxiety are not in any way related. Sadness is how you feel if someone you love dies, when you remember something painful from your past, or when someone betrays your trust. Sadness is fixed by time. Anxiety is entirely different. It can be exhilarating; it resides on the border between pleasure and pain. And it is definitely not fixed by time.

Life changes all the time, mostly by things happening to us, not by what we choose to do – just ask the people of Christchurch. A booklet that asks people to change their lives in 12 weeks is only going to exacerbate weight anxiety by locating the solution to “weight problems” solely at the hands of the individual. This is exactly what the multi-billion dollar weight-loss industry does every day.

To give credit where it is due, the Healthy Food Guide’s booklet does attempt to engage with the Healthy at Every Size literature. The problem is that it’s done within the weigh-loss genre. This is most easily seen in the ‘Make peace with food’ section, where the concept of an intuitive, “non-diet” approach is discussed. But then the booklet concludes, “As these results show, weight management is a strategy for life.”

In fact, the Healthy at Every Size studies demonstrate that attempts at weight management can be counter-productive. The movement wants to break the diet cycle by not focusing on weight. Full stop.

It’s time the Healthy Food Guide, and other media outlets like it, started to think seriously about what they are trying to achieve. There is clearly a conflict between a desire to follow the science, and a desire to sustain readership. They face this fundamental paradox because they are smack, bang in the middle of the multi-billion weight-loss industry. And I really hope it itches.

Dr Andrew Dickson is a lecturer with Massey University’s School of Management. His PhD thesis, ‘The Other Side of Weight Loss’ used a psychoanalytical framework to explain how the weight-loss industry profits from consumer’s “weight anxiety”.