Impacts of the Dieting Industry on Physical and Mental Health

Exploring the toxic impact of the dieting industry on people's physical and mental health

May 2022
Fateha Khawaja
UCL - 1st Year Medical Student

The impacts of the dieting industry on physical and mental health

This article is going to be outlining some of the detrimental impacts the ever-growing dieting industry has on both physical and mental health. It will be discussing the origins of the dieting industry, the audience it has been targeting, the future of the industry and the impacts it has on physical and mental health.

What is dieting and how does it differ from healthy eating?

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines dieting as: ‘to limit the food and/or drink that you have, especially in order to lose weight’.

From the definition we can see that this verb encompasses something quite restrictive and it does not seem as being a long term plan. Beyond restricting food intake, it can also impact the mental wellbeing and mindset that a person may adopt when following diets. The National Eating Disorder Association found that 35% of diets will become obsessive which can become detrimental for both the physical and mental health of the individual. 

Healthy eating is a term that is also commonly used when discussing diets and weight loss. It is difficult to pinpoint the definition of this term as ‘healthy’ will look different for everyone but essentially, healthy eating includes eating foods that are rich in nutrients and that will fill you with energy. These would typically include fruits, vegetables, lean protein and starchy carbohydrates. 

The difference between dieting and healthy eating is usually the mindset they are approached with. Dieting can lead to individuals having a very restrictive mindset. It is also usually seen as a short term plan and can lead to extreme weight fluctuations between periods where people are dieting, also known as ‘yo-yo dieting’. However, when looking at losing weight through healthy eating, it can be approached with the mindset of this being a lifestyle change and making it sustainable by eating everything in moderation. By not restricting, it is more likely the weight that is lost will not be regained, although the weight loss will be gradual. Listening to your body and honouring hunger cues and cravings within reason will ensure that the lifestyle change you have made is sustainable.

How did the dieting industry originate?

The dieting industry began in Britain with a man called William Banding. In 1862, he recognised that carrying more weight was an indicator of affluence and high status in society because it demonstrated they could afford to live comfortably. However, Banding believed carrying this ‘excess’ weight was not healthy and published a paper in 1864 titled ‘Letter on Corpulence: Address to the Public’. This was widely popular and led to people becoming more conscious of their body shape and size.

In the 1900s, the dieting industry grew, and each decade came with a new fad diet that the public were trying. In the 1900s, Horace Fletcher suggested that chewing 100 times would help improve digestion. In the 1920s, cigarettes were used as appetite suppressants and people would smoke excessively to lose weight. In the 1960s, Weight Watchers was created, using a strict calorie counting system to promote weight loss. It is still being used nationwide today. In the 1990s, the low carbohydrate high protein diet known as the Atkins diet was founded, aiming to force the body into a state of ketosis to use any stored fat for energy. The 2000s bought about cleanses and diet teas which were essentially laxatives but boasted fast and effective weight loss. All of these fad diets came with a whole host of risks which were widely known about, so why is it they were still being tried and consumed by the general public?

What audience has the diet industry been targeting?

The diet industry impacts every individual in different ways but there are specific demographics it targets their products at. When watching adverts for diet shakes and supplements or seeing paid posts on Instagram from celebrities, such as Kim Kardashian who advertised appetite suppressant lollipops, it seems these products are mainly targeted towards teenagers and young women. Society in general pushes the notion that women should have a certain body type, and this is perpetuated through the dieting industry. The industry creates and exacerbates insecurities that women may have and presents products that can act as a solution for the ‘problem’ they may be facing.

Although the market size for male targeted weight loss products is smaller, it is still present and puts the same pressure on men to try and achieve this muscular body type as advertised through weight loss and diet supplements.

These targeted adverts can have serious impacts on the mental and physical health of young men and women.

What is the future of the dieting industry?

Despite the dieting industry not being as actively present in advertisement and over social media, the wellness industry has taken its place. Although the wellness industry does not present itself as being a ‘diet’, in many cases it can promote excessively clean eating and exercise routines, juice cleanses and dangerous lifestyles. Gluten free, keto and paleo diets are rising in popularity as they are being advertised as a lifestyle change for better health but the main focus of these is weight loss. [5] Many things that are promoted in the wellness industry, such as detoxing, are processes that already occur in our bodies and when performed unsafely they can cause more harm than good. Therefore, although we are moving away from the idea of the "dieting" industry, it is important to consider the new markets and industries that are coming forward in a way that reframes the narrative and being advertised as they could have the same negative impacts on the health of individuals.

The negative impact of social media on dieting and body image

We live in a society where the idea of a ‘perfect’ body image is plastered over our social media feeds. Everyday, the societal beauty standards change and a different aspect of the body is thought to be attractive; it seems almost unachievable to tick off all these boxes. This lifestyle is promoted daily by actors, actresses, musicians, models and social media influencers and because they are role models to some, people will aspire to achieve and follow what they promote. Social media is integral to the dieting industry for these very reasons.

Filters and photoshop have become a key part of pictures posted on social media- almost every post seems to be edited or retouched in some shape or form. A study conducted by the Florida House Experience found that 87% of women and 65% of men compare their bodies to images they see in the media. Being inundated with so many images that promote ‘perfect’ bodies is damaging and can lead to further unhappiness about your own body.  In a survey conducted in the United Kingdom, it was found that 71% of people edit their selfies which demonstrates how much of what we see on social media is quite literally a ‘beautified’ version of people’s lives. In another study conducted by City University in 2020, it was found that 90% of young women retouch or edit their photos before posting them on social media. This shows that by being surrounded by retouched images with unattainable beauty standards on social media, young and impressionable people will believe that this is what they should also look like and may strive to achieve this body with whatever means they have. It creates insecurities that should not exist, and promotes a toxic diet culture that can potentially develop into an eating disorder for some.

One of the most popular social media platforms in 2022 is Tiktok with around 1 billion people using it currently worldwide. The app works using an algorithm which essentially means it will automatically recommend content based on content you have watched in the past. This automatic algorithm means that many harmful videos can also appear on your Tiktok feed, particularly those promoting unsustainable daily diets through one very popular trend on Tiktok under the hashtag ‘What I Eat in a Day’. This hashtag has around 6.8 billion views and is full of people eating too little and promoting different weight loss diets and techniques. As anybody can post on Tiktok, it is quite easy for this misinformation to spread and become viral leading to people being misled if they are trying to lose weight. There have been many trends that have become popular on Tiktok in the past promoting toxic diet culture such as substituting slices of bread for bell peppers and substituting cereal for fruit, ice cubes and coconut water. Although these substitutions may be fun to try, they promote harmful ways to ‘become healthier’ and lose weight because they forgo the nutritional content of what is being consumed and the long term impacts of this. 

Can social media be used to promote healthy eating?

Social media can be a beneficial tool when trying to lose weight and change your lifestyle. There are many influencers and dieticians present on social media who post about how to make small changes to your lifestyle, such as increasing your step count or reducing the amount of sugar you eat, and how these small changes will help you lose weight gradually and in a healthy manner. They may offer informative information on nutrition as well as healthy mechanisms for those with unhealthy eating habits (e.g. binge eating). It can also serve as motivational content for people aspiring to be the healthiest versions of themselves.

By posting this helpful content, losing weight and changing your lifestyle becomes more accessible for people as they can access this content for free, whenever they wish.  Furthermore, for many who are trying to lead a healthy lifestyle, social media can act as a form of social support and people can connect with others in similar situations to support them and motivate them. 

How has the dieting industry affected physical and mental health?

The dieting industry set out to tackle obesity and in the last 20-30 years has been attempting to try and combat the obesity epidemic. However, has it been helpful, or has it had the opposite effect of what it intended to do? A study conducted in 2015 suggests that the increase in dieting and fad diets has been counter-productive to the ultimate goal of dieting. This study discusses how when the body goes into ‘starvation mode’, rather than losing weight, you gain weight. This is due to long term calorie restrictions which means the body must adapt the way in which it receives its energy and conserve it [1].

Not only does dieting have virtually no positive impacts, but there are also damaging negative impacts both physiologically and on mental health. A study conducted by Keys et al. explored the impacts of semi-starvation using dieting. It found that the subjects became increasingly irritable and there was an increase in depression symptoms. As time went on, the subjects became fixated around food and when presented with it they could not control their urge to gorge on food. [2]

Beyond this, dieting is associated with the development of eating disorders. The National Eating Disorder Association found 20-25% of diets will develop into eating disorders [3]. There are many adverse effects of eating disorders on both physical and mental health. 50-75%of those who suffer with eating disorders may also find themselves experiencing symptoms of depression alongside their eating disorder. Not only that, but those who suffer with eating disorders may find themselves dealing with intrusive and negative thoughts which diminish their self-worth. Restrictive eating disorders such as anorexia are associated with heart problems, bone problems, bowel changes and can make it harder to conceive. There are also consequences on a person's outer appearance as their skin can become very dry, nails brittle, and hair may start falling out.

How should doctors promote healthy living with their patients? 

Many times, people who want to change their lifestyle may avoid going to their GP because they feel they should be able to manage this themselves. However, the GP can offer support and guidance for those really struggling with this.

One of the ways doctors should promote healthy living is by promoting sustainable lifestyle changes. They can do this by discussing with patients their current lifestyle and then formulating a plan on some gradual but effective changes to make to their lifestyle. By doing this for each individual, not only does the lifestyle become personalised for them and works around their daily activities but it also means that the GP is able to monitor these lifestyle changes and ensure that the patient is not trying to lose weight through excessive dieting or unhealthy means.

It is important as well for a GP to discuss nutrition with the patient. Although they should be eating a wide variety of foods to ensure they ingest the essential vitamins and minerals needed in a healthy diet, the GP can also discuss where this is not enough after conducting a blood test and then discussing if some dietary supplements are needed. By recommending some supplements to the patient, this will ensure that they are not deficient in any essential vitamins which can sometimes hinder weight loss.

It is important for the GP to also recommend ways of exercising to the patient, whether it be through incorporating daily walks into their lifestyle or suggesting exercise groups or gym classes within their local community. Sometimes connecting the individual with others who are wanting to change their lifestyle can mean that it is easier for them to stay motivated and active as it can also become a social activity.

Conclusion

As seen in this article, these are just some of the negative impacts that the dieting industry has had on the mental and physical health of society. It may have had some benefits at some point but currently, it acts as a marketing scheme with the sole purpose of making money. Hopefully in the future with more education, this market will become less profitable as people become more aware of the detrimental impacts of this industry.

References

1.    Macpherson-Sánchez A. E. (2015). Integrating fundamental concepts of obesity and eating disorders: implications for the obesity epidemic. American journal of public health, 105(4), e71–e85

2.    Keys A, Brozek J, Henschel A, et al. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press; 1950. The biology of human starvation: volume II.

3.    “Eating Disorders on the College Campus.” National Eating Disorders Association, Feb. 2013.

 

Author: Fateha Khawaja

Editor: Dr Latifa Haque

 

 

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