Pegaso de Sol

Evidence-Free Zone: Body Weight in Pop Culture

It’s either depressing or enlightening. When the subject of body weight comes up in pop culture, it brings us into an evidence-free zone. Pop diets compete with anti-diets. Obsessive diet regimens compete with people telling us that we should fuggedaboutit and move on to intuitive eating. Eat whatever your body tells you it wants in the moment. Impulse control gives way to impulse obedience.

Embodying all of this confusion is a new seven-part podcast series exploring the pop landscape of diet and body weight. Emma Court leads us on a dizzying journey through failed ideas about body weight, diet, and health that don’t line up with the available evidence. However, she seems to bend to the nihilistic zeitgeist of our time –  leaving listeners with an information vacuum. Lots of perspective on what’s false, not much on what’s true.

Calories Are Fiction

Court starts out by telling us that calories counts are not trustworthy:

“A banana has about 100 calories. A slice of bacon has 43 – if you can eat just one. These numbers are treated like gospel. But have you ever stopped to think about where they come from?”

The first episode in this series explains the variability in energy from food that these calorie counts represent. People can mislead themselves with slavish devotion to calories, because the numbers are simply not infallible.

The Origin of Bogus Ideas About Dieting

So then, Court serves up a historical perspective on dieting through the ages. Lots of people have stupidly fallen for some pretty absurd schemes over the years. This is the history of “diet culture.”

The Diet Industry Is Out to Get You

Using the South Beach Diet as a case study, the next step is to explain how pop diets exploded in the late 90s and early 2000s. Especially low-carb diet schemes. The Biggest Loser became a hit. “I’m gonna break it down and reveal the formula for viral diet success,” says Court.

Science Says Weight Loss Is Impossible

The next stop on this tour is Pennington Biomedical Research Center. But the podcast manages to reduce the work of this vast research center to a simple, unsatisfying proposition. It’s all about dieting and weight loss and none of it works:

“For all the newfangled machinery and fancy gadgets we toured [at Pennington], the answer is that we still don’t have an answer.”

Perhaps this is the most disappointing distortion of this whole series. It omits any real consideration of obesity science and research.

Trust No One

Dieting has a bad reputation these days. So the podcast explains how the diet industry is selling diets while trying to shed the baggage that comes with the D-word. It uses WW (formerly Weight Watchers) and Noom as case studies for this. They’re trying to focus on a more holistic approach to health. But, “it feels like gaslighting,” says Court.

Weight Is Irrelevant to Health

As this series closes in on its conclusion, the penultimate episode serves up a foundational tenet of the Health At Every Size movement. It is that obesity is not really so harmful to a person’s health. It’s all a big scam, as Ani Janzen of ASDAH explains:

“What we see in the research is that efforts to make fat people thin are failing. They fail over and over again.”

This is more of an article of faith than a serious consideration of the relationship between health and weight.

Is Intuitive Eating Our Best Bet?

In the spirit of providing an alternative, Court offers up the concept of intuitive eating, “which is all about healing people’s relationships with food.” She concedes that it’s not a simple answer to the complex problems of “messed up ideas” about food, health, and body weight, but tells us nonetheless that we could all benefit from “that freedom that intuitive eating tries bring to the process of eating.”

An Alternative to Nihilism

Our hope is that nihilism will not carry the day. Plenty of evidence points to people selling many bogus ideas about health, food, and body weight. Human history is full of it.

But those flawed ideas should not keep us from finding our way to good and healthy lives. Food and physical activity are part of it. Plenty of sound ideas are circulating to help us with living healthy active lives. Research on nutrition, health, and obesity offers insights to inform us about far more than stale ideas about dieting.

So we can each find a path that leads us to our best, healthiest lives. One size does not fit all. But nihilism is not the answer.

Click here for this podcast and here for an interview with Court and her editor, Kristen Brown. For perspective on nihilism messing with our mental health, click here.

Pegaso de Sol, surrealist painting by Xul Solar / WikiArt

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August 28, 2022

One Response to “Evidence-Free Zone: Body Weight in Pop Culture”

  1. August 28, 2022 at 6:18 pm, Michael said:

    These two quotes sum things up for me:

    “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Michael Pollan

    “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” Henry Mencken