We live in a world where being thin is more than just fashionable, it’s coveted, it’s sold as the ideal, it’s worshipped. And with the ideal of being thin being held in such high regard it’s a prime target to promote the weight loss dream; do nothing, don’t change your diet, don’t exercise, but still lose weight. You too can look like the fitness influencers on Instagram if you replace your meals with this shake or burn more calories with this tea or take these pills. People want so much to be thin that they are willing to be sold the lie and they are paying for it with so much more than their bank balance.
Firstly, let’s look at how these products are promoted. Usually they are advertised showing a ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture where the before picture shows a woman (or man) slouching, looking unhappy, in bright lighting. The after picture shows the same woman (or man) smiling, standing upright, wearing different (arguably) more flattering underwear and in slightly dimmed lighting. That’s the cynic in me. So cynical in fact that I recreated ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures with a whole 5 seconds in between. I wanted to show that you can’t believe everything you see on the internet and if what you see looks too good to be true, then it probably is.
So what if those pictures are genuine? The shakes work and people are losing weight. Brilliant! You’ve lost the weight, now what? Do you continue to consume shakes instead of lunch for the rest of your life? The reason a meal replacement shake works is because it puts you in a calorie deficit, which is, in fact, the ONLY way to lose weight. Each shake is 200 calories, so one for breakfast and one for lunch every day, of course you’re going to be under consuming calories and you’ll lose weight. But not every body is the same. Registered nutritionist Laura Thomas admitted on The Food Medic podcast back in January that we don’t really know how many calories we should be consuming; we can estimate, but can’t provide an exact number for each individual person. What we do know though, is that Michelle who is a 5ft1 landscape gardener and swims 5 nights a week is going to have different calorie/fuel needs than Robert who is a 6ft4 office worker with a far more sedentary lifestyle. If both Robert and Michelle went to the same meal replacement shake company they’d be put on the same shake plan with the same calorie intake. Surely that can’t be healthy…
Okay, so anyway, you’ve lost the weight. You’re over the moon that you’re fitting in to your favourite jeans again and now that you’ve cracked it you’re going to stop the shakes and start chewing your meals again. So you go straight back to the diet you had before the shakes, but you haven’t learned anything about diet and nutrition because you’ve been forced into a calorie deficit on the shakes. The weight slowly creeps back on. That is my second biggest bugbear with meal replacements. They’re not sustainable and as soon as you start eating normal food again the weight comes back. Of course these companies want you to stay on their plans forever because they’re making money out of your weightloss.
My next bugbear about these products is how they affect our relationships with food. With eating disorders on the rise with between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK suffering from some form of disordered eating. We’ve all heard of anorexia (which has the largest mortality rate than any other mental health issue) and bulimia, but the new kid on the block is Orthorexia which is the obsession with eating healthily. I can’t say for certain that these products are to blame for the rise of these types of disordered eating, but it surely can’t help when they are constantly demonising food. Labelling one food as bad and another as good; we are being taught to punish ourselves for eating the pre-defined ‘bad’ food with the narrative following something along the lines of ‘I was so bad at the weekend, I had takeaway for dinner on Saturday night and ALL the chocolate on Sunday. I’ve been so busy too that I haven’t been able to workout. Thank goodness for [generic meal replacement company shake], back on the wagon with it this week and I promise to be good!’ No food is intrinsically bad. Even eating food that is low in nutrients can be good for you. If nothing else, it’s good for the soul. A life of deprivation and constantly imposing food rules is hard and leads to feelings of guilt when inevitably you fall off the ‘wagon’.
What about weight-loss teas? I’m primarily picking on the ones that contain senna, which if you Google you’ll learn is actually used to aid constipation. How do you feel about taking laxatives to help you lose weight? Yeah, didn’t think so. If someone offered them to you or you saw your friend was taking them you’d be concerned, right? Well why is it then acceptable to drink them in your skinny tea? What actually happens is that you’ll spend all your time on the toilet and become severely dehydrated. But you’ll be skinny so that’s fine, yeah?
Let’s take a step away from all the methods you can employ to ‘cheat the system’ for a minute and look at diet culture in general. We are constantly bombarded with images of thin women living their best life. It propagates the ideal that if you’re thin all of your problems will be solved. There’s a meme floating about online that shows on ‘overweight’ women thinking to herself ‘I’ll be happy once I’m thin’ and then it shows the same women once she’s lost the weight and her thought now is ‘nope, that wasn’t it.’ It really resonated with me because I think it’s so indicative of the society we now live in. Those extra pounds, the love handles and saddle bags aren’t the cause of all of your problems and losing them won’t suddenly change your life. Actually, as a woman if you’re pursuing the ideal of 20% body fat and a serious 6-pack then chances are you’ll be miserable. The lifestyle you have to live to achieve that is one of restriction. You can kiss goodbye to Saturday night pints and a Sunday morning fry-up. You’ll have to count every calorie and macro and spend all of your spare time in the gym instead of just living life. And you know that if you lose too much bodyweight as a woman you’re at risk of losing your period; it’s called Amenorrhea. Your body goes into starvation mode so shuts down all non-essential functions, like menstruating. So you’ll be miserable and ill.
Of course obesity isn’t healthy either and if you’re overweight then maybe you should be trying to do something about it. But losing weight is, and should be, a long process. Learn about nutrition and move a bit more. The NHS suggests that a safe rate of weightloss is between 1-2lbs per week. By doing it slowly and properly it’s more likely to just become ingrained as a habit. You should be looking for a lifestyle, not a diet.
Finally, and I really wanted to make this point, stop idealising the thin fitness inspo influencers. All bodies are different and you can still celebrate your curves. Those before and after pictures we see and celebrate, posting comments such as ‘well done babe, you look great!’ is further propagating the idea that bigger bodies have to be fixed so those consuming these images are being taught that their bigger bodies are not good enough. The important thing is that you are healthy and happy, both mentally and physically. How do we change this? Stop buying into weightloss quick fixes, it’s not good for your mind or body. Stop idolising the ‘fitspo’ images on your Instagram, you don’t have to look like them to be happy. Stop following the accounts online that try to sell you the appetite suppressants or meal replacements, they don’t work long term and they’re selling you a dangerous lie. Stop taking advice from people calling themselves ‘nutritionist’, it’s not a legally protected term meaning you don’t actually have to have a qualification to call yourself one. Is that influencer with ‘nutritionist’ in her bio actually qualified as one? Finally, stop paying for your weightloss with your mental health.
Disclaimer: I’m not a weightloss expert, a PT or a dietician. I’m a woman with an interest in exercise, nutrition and body confidence.