Fad Diets and Capitalism: The Dark Underbelly of the Weight Loss Industry

the weight loss industry and fad diets

While you might imagine the weight loss industry is a force for good in society, helping millions to shed excess weight and achieve better health, there is also a dark side to this industry. The global weight loss and weight management industry was valued at $192.2bn and is projected to be worth $295.3bn by 2027. As a result of this industry, it is true that many people do lose significant weight, but as I will describe in more detail, the weight loss industry has a deceptive and exploitative side to it. Many people pay large sums of money to those prescribing fad diets and promises of life transformation, and overall it is often the case that the customer is losing out.

How Capitalism Makes Us Fat 

The first point that should be addressed is that the very economic system that allows the weight loss industry to exploit customers is the same system that contributes to people becoming overweight in the first place. Capitalism thus feeds off the problems it creates.

Advertising, consumer capitalism, and mass consumption all go hand in hand, creating a vicious cycle in which the increasing wealth of industries dealing in unhealthy food and drinks means more advertising opportunities, leading to more wealth, and in turn, greater advertising efforts, and so on. Of course, these industries can grow so quickly and so massively because we are hardwired to crave – and overindulge in – the highly calorific and sugary products offered by the fast food, junk food, and fizzy drinks industries. Part of the reason there is such a high demand for weight loss regimens in the first place is that people get into habits of unhealthy consumption, which are driven by the unnoticeable but very real – and very potent – influences of consumer capitalism.

Then there’s the issue of crony capitalism, whereby the business class and political class work together in a mutually advantageous way. As a result of crony capitalism, industries that profit from overweight are in a financially viable position to lobby the government to make policy decisions that will benefit them. There are countless examples of the sugar and corn syrup industries trying to find sneaky ways of hiding the health impact of their products from customers. In the case of the sugar industry, lobbyists have paid researchers to conceal sugar’s role in heart disease, while in the case of high fructose corn syrup, lobbyists have worked to define the USDA dietary guidelines. Indeed, there is a long history of lobbyists influencing dietary guidelines, trying to shift the blame to products unrelated to their industry or through other misleading manoeuvres. All of these efforts reduce incentives for people to avoid patently unhealthy consumption habits.

Also part and parcel of crony capitalism are government subsidies. High fructose corn syrup, processed foods, and sugar receive large government subsidies, which make these products significantly cheaper than they otherwise would be, which in turn means two things: firstly, many more people will be in a position to purchase them and more often, and secondly, people will feel incentivised to buy these products over more expensive and healthier products.

The US government spends billions of dollars each year on subsidies to farmers, but these subsidies help to finance the production of processed meat, refined grains, high-fat and high-sodium processed food, high-calorie juices and fizzy drinks, and corn syrup. All of which contribute to weight gain, obesity, and associated health issues. While dietary guidelines in various countries may recommend we eat a certain portion of fruits and vegetables each day, because these products aren’t subsidised, people are simply less financially incentivised to meet these recommendations. A 10% subsidy on fruit and vegetables would save lives and would be a highly cost-effective decision, given the disease burden it would alleviate.

Capitalism makes us fat in other ways too. The experiences of social isolation, stress, depression, and anxiety – all driven by capitalist ideology – are also linked to weight gain, either through physical changes (e.g. increased cortisol levels resulting from anxiety and stress, which cause the build-up of abdominal fat) or lifestyle changes (e.g. overeating as a way to cope with being depressed or isolated). The late British writer and critic Mark Fisher wrote about the ways in which capitalist societies are to blame for rising rates of mental illness. In an article for The Occupied Times, Fisher critiqued the notion of ‘magical voluntarism’, which was coined by the therapist David Smail; it refers to “the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be”. He adds that it:

is the dominant ideology and unofficial religion of contemporary capitalist society, pushed by reality TV ‘experts’ and business gurus as much as by politicians…It is the flipside of depression – whose underlying conviction is that we are all uniquely responsible for our own misery and therefore deserve it.

Under the assumption of magical voluntarism, we can come to believe that our weight is entirely a result of our willpower and decision-making, and that no external influences are involved. Fisher also referred to Smail’s book The Origins of Unhappiness, where the author argues that those who are born thinking of themselves as lesser, by virtue of the class they’re born into, carry around a deep sense of worthlessness. Fisher talks of a “deliberately cultivated depression”, created by the ruling class, a “collective depression” that helps to keep us subordinated. Such a depression makes us feel inadequate, useless, inferior, good for nothing, hopeless, and unable to act – all of which impede efforts to combat austerity measures, stagnant wages, and an unfit-for-purpose welfare state. Magical voluntarism makes us feel that our poor mental health is our fault while the worthlessness instilled in us by capitalist ideology makes us less likely to demand the socioeconomic conditions that would improve our mental health.

The writer Oliver James has also highlighted how the growth of relative materialism in English-speaking countries has been correlated with worsening mental health, which he ties to issues such as increased inequality and Affluenza (the high cultural value we place on money, possessions, appearances, and fame). If Smail, Fisher, and James are right, then capitalism plays a major role in declining mental health, and the weight gain can that can result from that; after all, mental illness can lead to less physical activity, a more sedentary lifestyle, poorer food choices, overeating, and food addiction.

The weight loss industry, then, is profiting from systemic issues that are leading people to gain weight. If these underlying, systemic issues are not resolved, then the problem of widespread overweight and obesity is likely to remain. The weight loss industry is only as successful as it is because of these systemic issues; its success is unfortunately tied to some quite unpleasant forces in society.

Laziness: A Deadly Sin of Capitalism

The weight loss industry also thrives off the concept of laziness, one of the deadly sins of capitalism. We can view the relationship between laziness and capitalism through the lens of The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), the major work of the German sociologist Max Weber. In this work, Weber draws a link between the ethics of Protestant Christianity and the spirit of modern capitalism (which sees profit as an end in itself and the pursuit of profit as virtuous). He studied one branch of Protestantism in particular, Calvinism, which teaches predestination, the idea that God has predetermined who among us will be saved and those who will be damned.

Of course, any Calvinist would want to seek out clues for whether they were saved – and subsequently viewed worldly success as being such a clue. In this way, Calvinists widely recognised profit and material success as signs of God’s favour. Weber asserted that this paved the way for modern capitalism (being one of many contributing factors) and that, once this new economic system arose, the Protestant values underpinning it were no longer necessary; capitalism had a life of its own. Nevertheless, we can still see the quasi-religious character of capitalism in its sacralisation of profit and the Protestant work ethic (the values of hard work and discipline), as well as its denouncement of sloth, one of the seven deadly sins, which originate from Catholicism. These are sins that inspire further sins.

According to the Catholic Church, slothfulness encapsulates more than just laziness in the everyday sense we think of it. Laziness – or lack of work – is seen as a symptom of apathy towards God. Slothfulness means being unwilling to do what God decreed because it involves effort. Nonetheless, laziness is certainly a key aspect of the sin of sloth, and it is not too difficult to see how this religious proscription against inactivity – like the Protestant work ethic – fed into the emergence of capitalism. So now laziness is one of the deadly sins ­– perhaps the deadliest sin – of capitalism. We can find evidence of this in the immediate, nagging, and heavy feelings of shame and guilt that people experience when they are inactive, relaxing, recuperating, and enjoying themselves. Modern capitalist societies have fostered reverence for – and the worship of – productivity, hustle, busyness, overwork, efficiency, competitiveness, achievement, and material success. Laziness is anathema to the spirit of capitalism. As for Christians, it is a sin deserving of shame; it is a sin that invokes imagined judgement from one’s peers, parents, manager, colleagues, or society at large, replacing imagined judgement from God.

The weight loss industry, I argue, depends on – whether it acknowledges it or not – the ideologically-charged shame of being overweight. Fatphobia is the industry’s greatest ally. Gaining weight, being overweight or obese, and struggling to lose weight are all seen as signs that one has committed the deadly sin of laziness. As in Christian teachings, where laziness is seen as a symptom of indifference towards God, in capitalist societies, being overweight or obese is seen as a symptom of indifference towards the capitalist enterprise. To be lazy with respect to one’s weight is viewed by many as a sign of being a lazy person in general – and lazy people don’t help to maximise profit margins.

In modern capitalist societies, we find a kind of bodily capitalism, whereby individuals are trying to optimise their bodies as much as possible so that they can be as productive as possible. Losing weight, then, becomes a curious microcosm of capitalism, in which the loss of fat becomes an obsession like the gain of profit, with individual grit still being the sole determining factor of success. The weight loss industry is therefore somewhat based on this illusory notion of magical voluntarism that Fisher has alluded to.

Interestingly, the social psychologist Devon Price has written about how, in his mind, laziness doesn’t actually exist. Instead, he refers to psychological barriers that impede our progress, including fear of failure, anxiety, low self-esteem, self-sabotage, fatigue, and executive functioning challenges (being able to divide a large task into smaller discrete steps). These other explanations are both evidence-based and compassionate. In contrast, by judging someone as ‘lazy’ for not getting something done – be it work or losing weight – we don’t actually find the deeper reason for their procrastination and lack of progress. If there is a myth of laziness, it is certainly a very useful myth for the weight loss industry, as it means that any failure to lose weight must come down to individual irresponsibility and weakness of will. If someone can’t strictly follow a fad diet or weight loss regimen, then that’s entirely his or her fault. This of course ignores many identifiable factors – that aren’t to do with vice – that can make it difficult to lose weight.

Fad Diets Are Fuelled by Capitalism

Capitalism makes us fat and then exploits the incurrent shame and guilt, telling us we should be as thin as the models we see in advertising. We are then sold promises of quick and easy weight loss through fad diets, which people are willing to throw money at in order to achieve unrealistic ideals of thinness. These are diets that become extremely popular at a given time – like a fashion fad – and involve following a restrictive diet with few types of food or a unique combination of foods for a short amount of time. For example, Medical News Today gives an overview of the foods you can eat on the popular Noom diet (this diet involves dividing foods into different colour-coded groups and restricting calorie intake).

Fad diets don’t follow standard dietary recommendations and they often threaten the health of those who follow them. Meanwhile, the founders of these fad diets – and their disciples who sell the diet through books, coaching, and apps – are raking in some serious profits (fad dieting is a multi-million dollar industry).

I have written before about the problem with fad diets. For example, while the Atkins and Dukan diets can offer rapid weight loss, this isn’t necessarily healthy – rapid weight loss can ironically lead to rapid weight gain, due to the metabolic changes it causes (when your body experiences quick weight loss it goes into starvation mode to help you put on the pounds). Slower weight loss is thus associated with greater health benefits. Because fad diets are highly restrictive, when they are over, people will naturally want to reward themselves or indulge again, which can result in reverting back to old eating habits. This commonly leads to a ‘yo-yo effect’, also known as weight cycling, whereby you rapidly lose weight, gain weight, lose it, and so on. And this process can have harmful effects on your health, such as an increased risk of heart disease.

The restrictive nature of fad diets can impact your physical and mental health in many ways. Many of these diets severely restrict food groups or nutrients that you need to protect your health. For example, some diets involve extremely low amounts of carbohydrates (including whole foods like fruit and wholegrain carbohydrates), which can result in low energy and fatigue. Other diets, meanwhile, may be very low in fat and protein, which can result in a host of physical and mental health issues. A fad diet can be so heavily restricted that it creates a calorie deficit, which will simply make it difficult to function and feel well throughout the day. And with all of these risks and adverse health effects, research has shown that fad diets don’t help you lose weight in the long term.

All of this seems to me highly symptomatic of the spirit of consumer capitalism: selling a useless (and potentially harmful) product while exploiting our insecurities and making false promises to ensure that we’ll bite. Fad diets are engaged in strong competition with one another, with each company trying to market its diet as innovative and revolutionary. Fad diets focus on attracting the most short-term adherents, offering short-term results to enough people so that the diet stays successful and relevant. However, many of these diets lack a solid evidence base to justify them, they don’t have customers’ overall well-being in mind (due to their ascetic restrictiveness and nutritional deficiencies), they’re not sustainable in the long-term, and they’re not really focused on the goal of healthy weight maintenance. If fad diets did have the honest aim of helping customers to remain at a healthy weight, then they would also have to recommend regular exercise, good sleep hygiene, stress management, and the avoidance of a sedentary lifestyle.

Fad diets, in line with the capitalist spirit, sell products that promise quick results (capitalising on our instant gratification bias) and market big changes (goals) that we can achieve if we apply the virtues of hard work, grit, and monkish self-discipline. Fad diets, as we have seen, also often follow this ethos of capitalism at the expense of human interests. All of the problems with these diets form the dark underbelly of the weight loss industry. This is an industry that is highly exploitative; it thrives off of our insecurities about our body image, and its success depends upon a socioeconomic system that is fuelling unhealthy eating habits. This isn’t to say the weight loss industry and fad diets haven’t helped many people – I’m sure they have, to some degree. But it’s worth questioning if these industries are truly a net benefit and if there might not be a better way to promote weight loss and healthy weight in society.

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