UW Tacoma Professor Kima Cargill's third book takes a skeptical look at evolving marketing hype used to promote weight loss plans.
Diets and dieting are everywhere. From books to television to social media, we are constantly bombarded with the concept of losing weight. Dieting is a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States and an estimated 45 million Americans diet every year. Fad diets — Atkins, Keto, South Beach — are especially popular.
The answer, as one might suspect, is complicated. “Dieting behavior is more common in the United States because of the value our culture places on self-transformation and on manipulating the body,” said Cargill. “We see this in ‘rags to riches’ narratives, reality shows like ‘The Swan’ and in the rugged self-made individual narratives of the American West.”
Cargill says these beliefs combined with consumerism and the notion that money solves problems help fuel the fad diet industry in the United States. “Additionally, for a great many people pseudoscientific explanations and fantastical solutions are often more appealing than the truth,” added Cargill.
Marketing and advertising play an important role in the popularity of fad diets. The “ideal” body type is often shown to be someone who is thin, maybe even muscular. For those struggling with weight issues (and even those who are at a clinically healthy weight) a fad diet is presented as an easy solution.
In “Anxious Eaters,” Cargill and Chrzan use the Pennington Biomedical Research Group definition of fad diets. This definition classifies a fad diet as one that, among other things, promises quick results, uses only certain foods, is endorsed or advertised by a celebrity and recommends supplements or pills. “All fad diets are consumer products,” said Cargill. “There’s an enormous amount of marketing and advertising of fad diets — this used to be just infomercials and books but is increasingly through membership fees for apps and the presence of influencers on social media.”
The marketing for fad diets tends to focus on particular demographic groups. “Most of the imagery surrounding Clean Eating depicts very slender white women,” said Cargill. “Similarly, the imagery around Paleo/Primal diets tends to depict muscular white men. Interestingly, we found a number of alt-right forums online glorying male power and control which also advocated for the practice of Paleo diets.”
Although there are a multitude of issues associated with fad diets, arguably one of the most important comes down to effectiveness. “The research shows that fad diets don’t work mostly because the restrictions prevent people from living normal social lives which makes adherence low,” said Cargill.
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