Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Mixed Messages

Going to visit family over the holidays always seems to provide fodder for my blog.  This year, it's gotten me thinking about mixed messages.  The diet industry thrives on mixed messages; anything that is both so widespread and so incredibly unsuccessful would have to.  If we spend $60 billion dollars a year (and we do) on something that has a 5% success rate (and it does), there has to be a lot of cognitive dissonance going on here.

While visiting Mr. Sprat's extended family over New Year's, a lot of food was offered to us.  This year we committed ourselves ahead of time to follow the basic tenets of intuitive eating:  Eat only when you are hungry, only the foods you want to eat, and stop when you are full.  It was difficult to say the least.  Guilt was liberally heaped onto most meals.  Grandma would try to push the last piece on us (mostly on Mr. Sprat, to be fair, which is a whole other problem.)  She would tell him how it would go to waste, and say "just one more, just one more."  When we suggested refrigerating leftovers, we were met with frustration and eventually surrender.

During the same trip, we were also met with the most diet talk we had encountered during the holidays.  Mostly, everyone was surprisingly well-behaved when it came to the subject of dieting, which was quite a relief.  However, minutes after being told that our food would go to the birds if we did not eat it (more guilt), we would hear stories about different diets that they had tried, people they know who lost weight and looked "so much better," and how "good" they had been during or after the very same meal that we were pressured to finish for them.

When we are children we are taught that certain foods are bad, they are junk.  Then when we get an A on a report card or celebrate a birthday, those "bad" foods are give to us as a reward.  How confusing is that?  We are told to clear our plate because of starving children, but if we want seconds or a snack later, we are told that we are bad.

Diet commercials use the same mixed messages.  In a Weight Watchers commercial this year (which played every single commercial break on New Years Eve, and I believe sponsored whatever it was that we were watching as well) Jennifer Hudson sings about freedom.  Weight Watchers brings freedom?  Having to go to weekly meetings, count out all your food, keep track of everything you eat online, looking up menus before going to restaurants to make sure there is something you can eat?  How is that freedom?  Are we becoming free from stigma by going on diets?  Diets don't work, chances are you will be fatter and even more oppressed when you finish this round of dieting. And even if you do manage to lose weight, are you free then?  What happens if you aren't thin enough?  What if you stop going to meetings?  What if people find out you used to be fat?  Does the stigma ever really end?  What freedom are they promising us?

These double messages are so harmful.  Being told that certain foods are "bad" and then being given them as rewards leads to confusion, guilt and shame.  Being commanded to "clear your plate" to the point of feeling stuffed or sick, and then being criticized for your size has the same effect and can also cause you to lose the ability to know when you are full.  If we stop giving these messages at home, then they will seem more obviously ridiculous when coming from Weight Watchers or some other diet company.  We need to let our family and friends eat in a way that works for them, a way that comes from within.  If we can do that, then the cycle of guilt and shame surrounding food can finally end.


  1. I hadn't thought about the bad food/celebration dynamic before. An interesting point. Families are always something special.

    Happy New Year! I hope things are going well for you in school.

  2. I always encountered this dynamic when eating over at households where the members grew up in the Great Depression. I remember, thankfully, refusing more food when I was full. It may not have won me many family points, but at least I didn't feel sick afterwards. You have to remember that it's your body and no one has the right to tell you what to do to it. The decision is ultimately yours and yours alone.