Everyone who reads this blog has surely noticed the usual new-year barrage of self-improvement media stories, focusing largely on dieting. Most of the time we can see them coming from a mile (1.6 kilometers) away, so we can steer clear.
Here’s one that had me (and Samantha and guest blogger Rebecca) extremely annoyed. The Washington Post released a story entitled “If you want to lose weight, eat that cake in front of a mirror.
That’s right—the press is reporting on a new study that tested subjects eating both fruit and cake (separately) in front of mirrors, comparing them with subjects who ate the same foods with no mirror present. All subjects were asked to rate the tastiness of the food they ate after they finished. The fruit eating subjects reported no taste differences between the mirror and no-mirror cases. However, the cake eating subjects reported less tastiness of the cake when they ate it in front of a mirror.
Of course, the story is not that simple. It turns out that the effect happens only when the subjects perceive themselves to be eating something that is standardly considered unhealthy. And they themselves must be in general agreement with that standard. And they must see themselves as eating the perceived-as-unhealthy food by choice (also a complicated notion to unpack).
Nonetheless, both the researchers and the press coverage boldly conclude that maybe putting up mirrors in our houses (especially the kitchen) might keep us from eating unhealthy foods. And then we would lose weight.
There’s so much wrong with both the press story and the study that I could write a 2000-word op-ed piece on it without breaking a sweat. And maybe I will. But for now, here are two thoughts (for which I must credit guest blogger Rebecca and her equally irate FB friends for their comments and ideas):
Thought one: This is very badly done science, covered in an irresponsible and sensationalist way by the press. There’s no evidence provided that finding some food less tasty will mean that you will eat less of it. None. Zero. Nada. So the press headline and the scholarly speculation in the article are totally bogus.
Thought two: The very idea that we should do science to figure out how to provoke people to lose weight by putting them in situations where eating food makes them feel bad about the food and, worse, about themselves, is horrid. Some people might respond and say, “but this is just science—we’re not making value judgments, just finding out connections. Others can use our results how they will—that’s not our responsibility.”
To that, I say, “that’s some bullshit”.
There are clearly values and priorities underlying all scientific research. What seems to underlie this type of work is using shame to trigger negative views about foods, hoping (but not establishing) that it will result in eating less and losing weight. But, 1) we have no idea whether and to what extent any of this would happen; and 2) being in a negative state of food shame can and does have lots of bad effects on people which compromise their well-being.
So shame on you, researchers and press. Go sit in the corner. And no dessert for you!