A continuation from last week’s paper…
Women’s magazines gain a significant portion of their advertising revenue from the makers of diet products, and their content is carefully structured to support those who fund them. This is especially true of magazines that focus on beauty and/or fitness. To understand why this situation can lead to magazines providing inaccurate health and diet information, consider, for a moment, how magazines sell their space to new advertisers. Demographics are sent to companies showing what kind of people read the magazine, how many people read each copy, and why these readers would be good potential customers for the advertiser’s products. Women’s magazines, in order to profit, must convince the manufacturers of diet products that their readers are body-conscious, and likely to be long-term users of diet aids. In order to ensure this, these magazines must create an atmosphere of body-image anxiety and intense weight consciousness. The methods they use to do this are subtle, pervasive, and apparently quite effective.
Scan through any popular women’s magazine – especially one of the big sellers like Good Housekeeping or Women’s World. Notice how each and every issue promises a new diet that is “the one you’ve been waiting for!” Women’s World is possibly the worst offender for this – they usually have a diet of the week prominently displayed on the cover of every issue). Notice, too, how every issue contains reams of recipes for fatty treats, and sometimes juxtaposes these against pictorials of svelte women demonstrating exercises to banish your ‘thunder thighs’ or your “tummy pooch.” They often use terms like this – just to remind you that fat is unpleasant.
Fitness magazines might appear better on the surface, but they too are filled with ads for diet products, albeit ones that are geared toward the muscular crowd. These products not only claim to reduce fat, but also harden and maximize muscle. Regardless of the focus of the magazine, the combination of diet information and food-related articles can have a startling effect. Steven Thomsen, et al (http://www.ae.jmc.org/convention/abstracts/2000/mag.html) examined the relationship between women’s eating habits and the use of fitness magazines. They found that among 498 high school girls, “the use of eating-disordered diet methods (laxatives, appetite suppressants/diet pills, skipping two meals a day, intentional vomiting, excessive exercising, and restricting calories to 1,200 a day or less)” was positively correlated with the frequency at which girls read these magazines.
What is worse is that the recommended diets are clearly set up to fail. This month’s Ladies Home Journal (http://www.lhj.com/lhj/food/index.jhtml) has several diets offered (if any of them worked, why would there be more than one?), as well as recipes for tempting treats like Double Crust Pie, Frosted Layer Cake, and a Fondant Rose (“it’s French for ‘to melt'”). Good Housekeeping (http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/) really takes the cake (pun intended), however. Their website has a section devoted entirely to dieting called Diet Central. This month it offers 10 different diets:
“¢ The All-You-Can-Eat Soup Diet
“¢ The New and Improved All-You-Can-Eat Soup Diet [if urging dieters to eat all they can is not setting them up for future weight gain, I don’t know what is.]
“¢ The Third Annual All-New Soup Diet [what is with the soup!]
“¢ The Best of the Fad Diets [unabashed recognition that diets are fads, not a sensible health practice!]
“¢ The Frozen-Food Diet
“¢ The No-Cook Diet
“¢ 15 Pounds — Gone! [Was David Copperfield consulted for this magical diet?]
“¢ America’s Top 6 Fad Diets [No claim is made that they work]
“¢ The Take-Out Diet
“¢ The Town on Our Soup Diet [Again with the soup. Must be this year’s top fad]
All of these diets lower overall calorie intake by scrimping on breakfast (a bowl of bran cereal with skim milk is a common recommendation), despite the fact that research has shown that for successful weight control, breakfast should be the biggest meal of the day. These also tend to suggest ridiculously large portions of very low fat foods to accompany higher fat treats: the Frozen Food diet offsets a higher calorie lunch by prescribing a dinner of 2 cups of frozen, fat-free hash browns and a cup of sliced zucchini with plain baked fish. Nutrients, clearly, are not a concern. This lean, carbohydrate-rich dinner is also likely to leave you starving and binge-prone in the evening once the body comes down from the carb rush.
Notice, also, the insanely large servings of the low fat foods. These diets are low in calories, but they are also teaching you to eat big and to incorporate junk food into your regular eating habits. Each day on the Frozen Food Diet you are to eat a different frozen convenience food (burritos, lean pockets, frozen waffles, etc). Every item is explicitly listed by brand name. Once you get off the diet plan, you are eating more, and you have developed a taste for salty, sugary, frozen junk. Once the diet is over, it would be a miracle if your weight did not balloon.
Leaving nothing to change, however, the magazines provide plenty of recipes for those fattening treats that you promised yourself once the diet is over. Notice how all the advertisements for chocolaty, puddingy, milk-shakey diet supplements always stress that “you’ve earned it,” or “you deserve it.” Once the notion of working to deserve food (doesn’t this sound like a situation you might encounter in a prison camp?) is entrenched in our minds how could we not think, after getting off a 2 week diet of frozen snacks and calorie-bereft side dishes, that we deserve a chocolate layer cake with fudge sauce? There’s nothing like starvation to get the appetite going, or to slow your metabolism to a snail’s pace.
While many magazine diets will result in a small amount of lost weight, they also work to slow the metabolism, increase portions, and promote bingeing by making some meals far too low in calories. This leads to an uneven metabolism, and bingeing can occur when the metabolism drops sharply after a spike. Even if this were not the case, these diets would have little effect in the long term, because our weight is determined by how we eat over the long term. John McGran, Editor-in-Chief for eDiets, put it very well in Eating: On The Road Again (http://www.ediets.com/news/article.cfm?article_id=5685): “Dieting isn’t about deprivation. It’s about making good choices and enjoying life.” The diets in women’s magazines, on the other hand, promote a guilt/reward cycle that can only end in eventual weight gain and dissatisfaction. Because women’s magazines are also widely regarded as the best sources for diet information [see my last article], women often return to them for help when their weight increases, thus perpetuating the cycle.
There are alternatives to this cycle, however. Next week I will discuss ways that we can raise and stabilize the metabolism. This not only helps to stabilize the body at a healthy weight, but can also increase energy, and reduce stress and anxiety.