Weight Watchers and the Myth of the "Lifestyle Change"

You may have seen the news a few weeks ago that Weight Watchers is now targeting teenagers by offering them free 6-week memberships during the summer break.

Naturally there’s been a HUGE backlash by experts in disordered eating (including me and many, many of my colleagues), who are livid that this company is exposing kids at an incredibly vulnerable age to dieting and weight stigma—major risk factors for the development of lifelong struggles with food and their bodies.

Dieting has these risks for people of every age, and nobody deserves to have diets pushed on them, but peddling them to minors is beyond the pale.

In response to the backlash, Weight Watchers and their fans doubled down on claims that WW “isn’t really a diet,” and that their new program aimed at teens is just a “lifestyle change” designed to help them “get healthy.”

Sorry, but no.

“It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle!” is the rallying cry of every diet in the 2010s, including Weight Watchers.

That’s because people have gotten increasingly fed up with diets in the past several decades. The idea that diets don’t work started to take hold in the 1980s and gained momentum into the 2000s, when more and more people began looking for practices that *actually* work and lead to lasting well-being.

So the diet industry has rebranded itself in order to stay relevant.

It started denying that its products and programs are diets, because gross! No one diets anymore!

Instead, it markets itself as being about “wellness,” “healthy lifestyles,” and “flexible programs” that you can “stick to for life.”

These days, the diet industry even sometimes talks about healing your relationship with food.

But don’t be fooled by the shiny new packaging. If it’s applauding weight loss or telling you to count points/calories/macros, it’s a diet.

The same is true if it’s labeling certain foods and food groups as “bad,” “fake,” “damaging,” or “off-limits,” and other foods and food groups as “good,” “real,” “healing,” or “on-plan.”

No matter what this new breed of diets call themselves, they’re all part of diet CULTURE—a system of beliefs that:

  • Equates thinness to health & moral virtue
  • Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status
  • Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others

Diet culture isn’t The Truth—it’s just what we’ve been taught and raised in our whole lives. Even the researchers doing the “obesity” research and the doctors doing the doctoring.

Diet culture is pervasive and hard to see—it’s the water we’re all swimming in.

And yet in the grand scheme of history, diet culture is relatively new: It didn’t even come into being until the mid-1800s, for a whole bunch of interesting reasons that cultural historian Emily Contois explained in her episode of Food Psych last summer.

Over the past several decades, a lot of good research has shown that diet culture is NOT the path to health (not even A path to health) because it doesn’t lead to sustainable health-promoting behaviors. 

Instead, diet culture leads to disconnection from the body’s internal cues and instincts about food, disordered eating, and a yo-yo cycle that some people spend their *entire lives* in—robbing them of their time, money, mental energy, health, & happiness. That’s why I call it The Life Thief.

But there IS another way.

You don’t have to have your life stolen anymore, by Weight Watchers or “cleanses” or “resets” or any other form of diet culture.

You CAN break free and get back to the intuitive, easy relationship with food that we were all born with, and that we all deserve.

Granted, the process of extricating yourself from diet culture is no easy task.

It means doing a lot of unlearning of all the societal messages you’ve been taught.

It means taking that extra step in your day-to-day interactions and examining why eating a certain way seems necessary.

Or why you have a hard time letting go of the scale.

Or why your supposedly "woke” friend just made a fat joke, and how you’re going to respond.

As my guests in this week’s episode of Food Psych put it, “we have to actively question the things that our culture circulates every single day.” Ultimately, that’s our path to liberation.

Lindsay & Lexie Kite are researchers, speakers, and activists who promote “body image resilience”—a set of skills for making peace with your body while living in diet culture, with all the challenges it throws at you.

In the episode, they share how learning to question and reject the self-objectification that our society imposes on women/femmes helped them to heal their own relationships with food and their bodies—and to start helping others heal, too.

We also discuss the shape-shifting nature of diet culture, why weight loss doesn’t improve body image, how focusing on beauty ideals steals our power, and lots more.

Tune in right here to listen online, or subscribe to Food Psych on your favorite podcast platform (now including Spotify!).

Here’s to breaking free from diet culture in ALL its forms, 

PS: If you're ready to give up diets—including the ones masquerading as "lifestyles"—and you want some amazing support for doing it, come join my online course, Intuitive Eating Fundamentals. You'll get dozens of hours of guidance from me, PLUS access to an incredible community of people who are on the journey alongside you, so that you can ditch diet culture and get back to the stuff that really matters.

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