Dieting and magical thinking

Image description: cartoonish drawing of stars and a wand with the word "Magic!" in the middle.
Image description: cartoonish drawing of stars and a wand with the word “Magic!” in the middle.

Yesterday Sam posted that giving free Weight Watchers memberships to kids, though possibly well-intentioned (at least in the optics, but perhaps not if you closely examine the WW longterm stats), is a bad idea. Why is it a bad idea? Because it gets kids thinking way too early about their weight. As she puts it, here’s what we know (from actual research!):

We know diets don’t work. We know body shaming doesn’t work. It turns out that even naming the problem makes it worse. Children who are told they are fat by friends, family, doctors are more likely to gain weight.

I repeat: that is what we know. And yet, as Sam said to me, “Do people not read research? Not believe it?” My take on it is that a lot of people don’t read research as such. But who needs to read the research to know that diets don’t work? Almost everyone who lives in a part of the world where dieting for weight loss is a thing is no more than one degree of separation from more than one person who has dieted, lost weight, and gained most, all or more of it back.

The facts about children are so sad and disturbing that we need to pay attention. Shaming them does not work. Telling them they are fat and need to do something about it does not make them lose weight. And there is no more in your face way of telling a person they’re fat and need to do something about it than dragging them to Weight Watchers. The entire point of it is to watch your weight and keep it within two pounds of your “goal weight.” That often means living your life on a perpetual diet (though they will tell you differently).

We ignore the overwhelming evidence, believing this time it will be different, because diets draw us into a kind of magical thinking. The messages about obesity, the equation of fitness with weight loss and thinness, the cultural aesthetic towards a lean and thin body ideal, the social pressure to conform — all of these and more make us kind of desperate to “get it right.”  A new diet or program holds so much promise. “This time! This is the time that what has worked in the past will finally work.”

Magical thinking is what makes everyone cover their ears and go “la la la” when they hear the facts about dieting, weight loss.  The long term ramifications of shaming children, being preoccupied with their weight, and putting them on diets are documented and grim.

Still and all, there are things we can do. As Sam pointed out, where the kids are concerned, get them focused on activity and decouple that from weight loss goals. It’s a good thing to get away from screens and spend time moving for those who are able. It has all sorts of mental and physical health benefits. Also, teach kids to cook.

But we can do these things for ourselves, too. Sam and I sound like broken records, but our number one piece of advice for anyone is to find activities that you enjoy. Do those, not the stuff you hate but supposedly has better fat-burning potential. Cook, at least sometimes. I understand there are people who despise cooking. Personally, I love it and find it a relaxing stress-reliever when I’ve got time for it. Being in charge of what goes into the things you make is a huge advantage of cooking over eating out.

None of that requires magical thinking. Diets are not a magic solution to anything. More often than not, they set us up to fail. And then we blame ourselves when actually the formula is broken.  On a cynical day, I think the main reason Weight Watchers wants to work with children is to secure them early, as clients for life. For most people at a WW meeting, it’s not their first rodeo. If you read the fine print on every WW “Success Story,” you will see “results not typical.”

We all hope our kids won’t have to make the same mistakes we did. Starting them early on the magical thinking track of dieting and equating fitness with weight loss will set them up to make exactly the same mistakes we did. This time it will not be different.

Do you have a different explanation than magical thinking to explain why people seem so resistant to the research where dieting for weight loss is concerned?


2 thoughts on “Dieting and magical thinking

  1. I’m quite skeptical in regards of company’s such as Weight Watchers and I would be rather surprised if the don’t follow the latest publications on weight loss (and other subjects around weight loss).
    The thing is, they don’t really care about your health, they care about your money and how much profit they going to do in your efforts to lose weight. Most people by it though, the strive to lose weight and be thin is far more important then listen to one owns body or listening to what science has to say.

    I’m not in the slightest surprised that Weight Watchers now turn to children under the pretense that it is for the children’s welfare. They se a new market for profit, simple as that but the sugarcoat it to sound like they care.
    Child obesity is a growing concern for sure. The topic is debated in most, if not all, industrialized countrys – my home country Sweden included. I’m not sure what the ministry’s standpoint is concerning dieting for children but if not already debated it’s just a matter of time before they will.
    Diets are never the answer, not for adults nor children.

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