Friday 15 December 2017

Tanya Sweeney: 'Fad diets don't address the reasons we overeat'

Tanya Sweeney
Tanya Sweeney

Last week, I had a moment of proper irony. Sheer ‘rain on your wedding day’ stuff.

A friend threw a dinner party, cooking up a Middle Eastern feast with such affection and attention that every time she laid a dish on the table, it was greeted with gasps and whoops of delight.

Delicious food, lovingly prepared: the very elixir of life. Intertwined with great memories, fun and friendship.

After four courses, we sat back, steeped in a gorgeous, sleepy calm.

But then, as the conversation sometimes tends to do when several women are sitting around a table, we started talking about dieting.

One guest, despite being a perfectly acceptable weight, wanted to lose a stone. Our hostess soon started touting the virtues of the Dukan Diet, a regime that demands its followers to forego carbs and focus on lean proteins.

With the rhythm of a learned scholar, she raced through the rudiments (‘attack phases’ and so on) of the diet, revealing that Dukan disciples need to have one ‘protein only’ day a week for life if they want the results of their hard work to stick.

“There’s a load of oat bran and crème fraîche involved,” she revealed glumly. That she had just served up a smorgasbord of decidedly non-Dukan delights was an irony not lost on me.

Elsewhere, another friend is on the Atkins diet, and life appears to be an unending carnival of misery and woe for her. She is constantly irritated and dreaming of a life without bacon, eggs and salmon. Mention ice-cream and she’s likely to come at you with a pork chop.

Herein, essentially, lies the problem with all fad diets. The emphasis is very rarely on ‘everything in moderation’, and more on ‘some science says if you try this very weird eating habit for a short amount of time, you will lose weight quickly’.

Often, fad diets involve eliminating whole food groups or, in the case of the famous Master Cleanse, ingesting just about enough of something to not faint on public transport.

Most fad diets are deprivation diets, focusing on taking something out of the equation. Basic human psychology decrees that if you are overweight, you might just have a slight issue with discipline and self-regulation.

I know that I do: if someone was to tell me that I simply cannot have oranges, even if it was for the betterment of my own body, there’s a very good chance I’ll think about them all day. And I don’t even eat oranges.

The sad truth is this: the diet industry, worth an estimated $580bn worldwide, is not in the business of making you slim. Its modus operandi is to create repeat customers, not to ‘cure’ obesity.

The diet industry isn’t quite designed to make you a better, thinner person. It’s designed to set you up to fail, so that you continue to buy its products and buy into its disempowering mantras on an ongoing basis.

Yet the slimming industry’s language — stuff like ‘the no-diet diet’ or ‘lose 10 pounds in two weeks’ — saddles us with a disturbing idea. It suggests that the only kind of dieting worth doing is the effortless kind, the one that gives you results while you sit on your backside and wait for lean arms and nice abs to materialise.

Rarely a day goes by when some folks in white coats have completed a seismic study, concluding that broccoli burns calories, while mangoes boost metabolism.

It’s as though science is devoted to solving this one issue: getting people slimmer via lazy shortcuts.


Very rarely is the emphasis on increasing the good stuff we need to put into our bodies, unless it’s fetishised as a this-season, must-have lifestyle accessory like acai berries, coconut water or kale. No wonder so many of us are doomed to fail.

The truth is that weight loss is a long-haul slog that literally requires a pound of flesh. It also requires a shift in mindset that is actually a good country mile from the mindset encouraged by fad diets.

Dieting and fad eating rarely address the psychological reasons as to why people overeat, or don’t engage in self-care. It’s a highly complex issue, and likely to be different for everyone.

Some people eat because they are miserable; others because they are bored. Others again crave the balm of a binge without their lives going off the rails as it might with drugs or alcohol. Like I said, complicated. And nothing that your typical Dukan peddler will know anything about.

The most disheartening thing of all, however, is the reason why so many women glumly sign up to the grim treadmill of dieting. It’s not because they want to be healthy, or preserve their wellbeing… it’s because there’s an unspoken sentiment that this is simply what grown-up women do.

Is it about staying healthy, or staying as close to the societal version of the feminine ideal as possible? If most women were being honest, getting to fit into size 12 jeans is more likely to trump having good cholesterol as their impetus for slimming.

While men look after their health, and no one thinks anything of it, women are invariably in a tug-of-war with their own bodies. In other words, men eat sensibly, while women diet.

Happily, a sea change is afoot. In a more real and meaningful sense, health and wellbeing is edging ever closer to the heart of the matter.

But until we start seeing eating well as a long-term way of living, rather than a quick-fix solution, the dreaded ‘D’ word will always feel a little bit like… well, being in lifestyle jail.

Trying to outwit your own body is a losing game.

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