The Diet Myth by Paul Campos

cejensen's picture

    In The Diet Myth, Paul Campos dissects the myth that losing weight is good for your health. Our government and even many of our medical professionals would have us believe that losing weight is good for you. He demonstrates that losing weight is, in fact, not good for your health, although eating well and maintaining an active lifestyle are. At a number of points in the book he says that a thin person who is sedentary has a higher mortality rate than a person who would be considered “overweight” who is active. It is not the weight that is unhealthy, Campos argues, but rather a sedentary lifestyle and bad eating habits that are unhealthy. Therefore, the focus on weight-loss as a way to get healthy is bogus. Why, then, do we always hear about weight-loss as healthy? Why is this myth maintained? Was this myth born of biology? Culture? Environment? And how does it affect those things?
    From what I gather from the book, the answer to why the diet myth is maintained may have something to do with the multibillion-dollar diet industry! Campos demonstrates that this industry plays an enormous role in the weight rhetoric in America (and I suppose many other parts of the world as well). Scientific studies regarding weight often receive funding from the weight-loss industry or related industries. This means that these studies (which many people take as “truth,” as they are conducted by scientists and intellectuals) are biased, and the data skewed. Another occurrence is that scientists who study weight, in order to receive funding, purposefully present their data in a way that makes it look as though weight is the problem, and that losing weight can make you healthier. The truth, as demonstrated in Campos’ book, is that many studies, if you just look at the data, don’t demonstrate that losing weight is good for you health. In a study where nurses were asked to exercise on a regular basis, some lost weight and some didn’t, but the data showed that all of their health improved. Was that what the study presented? No. The authors of the study asserted, by highlighting certain parts of the data and ignoring others, that even losing a little bit of weight is good for your health. The wealth and power of the weight-loss industry influences the way that scientists and researchers do their job. This in turn influences the way that the public, and even the government, view weight – as a problem, nay, an epidemic.
    This myth runs even deeper. It is ingrained in our culture; in the minds of every girl over the age of 10. The weight-loss industry continues to profit from making people feel bad about themselves, not just about their health, but also about their appearance. It’s not just the weight-loss industry that makes people feel bad about themselves, everywhere you look, (movies, clothing stores) the image of beauty is thin. I think this is a key factor in the success of the weight-loss industry, and therefore the endurance of the diet/obesity myth. When you’re listening to the radio or surfing the Internet, you’re bound to see/hear an advertisement for some weight-loss product or program. While the critical Internet surfer most likely understands that the weight-loss methods advertised on the Internet are bogus, these ads still contribute to a culture which places extreme importance on weight. When you hear about it all the time, you think there must be some truth to it.
    However, there is more to it than that – a deeply rooted social construction that explains America’s disgust with fat. An interesting explanation in The Diet Myth was that discrimination against “overweight” people is seen as an acceptable alternative to other forms of discrimination such as racism, because supposedly being “overweight” is the fault of the individual. The Diet Myth proves that this is not so. Inheritance and genetics have a lot more to do with weight than the weight-loss industry would have us believe; therefore it’s just blatant discrimination.
    Biology, environment, or culture? Which caused this myth to arise, and which does it affect the most? Campos certainly makes the argument that this myth is socially constructed, meaning that our environment and culture gave rise to this myth. But isn’t everything biologically based? One might think that what traits one finds attractive has its base in biology, which it probably does to some extent. But what about an entire nation? An entire nation (seemingly) finds slimness to be attractive. Well then, it must be biologically based then, right? I would believe it if the idea of what is considered attractive hasn’t changed so much over the years. In the 1920s, for women, thin was in, but not the same kind of thin we like now – a boyish, skeletal look was fashionable. The iconic Marilyn Monroe might be considered “too curvy” or even “fat” by today’s “standards.” Over the years, what is considered attractive changes, like a trend. While attraction is certainly biologically based to a certain extent, this demonstrates that society, environment, and culture play an enormous role in what we find attractive. If so many institutions have a stake in this myth (the weight-loss industry, our government, medical professionals, academics, the movie industry, the clothing industry, magazines, advertisers etc), it surrounds us, and changes the way we think about ourselves, the way we view others, and the choices we make in our daily lives.
    This mostly cultural influence impacts how we live our lives and how we view ourselves. At one extreme, some people become so concerned with weight that they develop eating disorders, which are detrimental to their health. At another, people (particularly women) pick up smoking in order to lose weight, putting aside the known dangers of smoking in favor of a slimmer figure. Others simply think about food not in terms of how healthy it is or whether it makes a balanced meal, but how many calories it has. A person who may be perfectly healthy, but is considered “overweight” by the BMI scale (which is also bogus), may be discriminated against, or constantly feel badly about themselves, leading them to have mental health issues such as depression that they otherwise would not have had. These are examples of ways that I feel the culture surrounding weight affect our biology.
    Therefore, as demonstrated by Campos’ book, the idea that losing weight is good for your health is merely a social construction. Our national obsession with slimming down is put forth by institutions that can profit from it or have a stake in it. It shows that, when something is so completely ingrained in our culture, it affects how we think and the choices we make about our bodies, and therefore our biology. In addition, the power held by those who put forth this myth, such as the diet industry, influences the results of scientific studies, which in turn allow this myth to endure. This book reminded me that there is no “truth” in science. As we concluded in the class, biology is influenced by environment/culture, and environment/culture is influenced by biology.

Campos, Paul. The Diet Myth. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2004. Print.



Paul Grobstein's picture

health/weight/dieting and the biology/culture loop

"biology is influenced by environment/culture, and environment/culture is influenced by biology."

Indeed.  And the complex issue of health/weight/dieting is a wonderful illustration.  Certainly it is worth challenging pervasive cultural myths as Campos is doing.  Another book doing so in this realm is Gina Kolata's Rethinking Thin.  Another, focused more on food choice, is Michael Pollen's Omnivores' Dilemma

An intriguing response to Campos' book is a review in the International Journal of Epidemiology.  Some excerpts  ...

"study results are reinterpreted for the reader and presented to show that excess body weight is minimally associated with health risks ...

The message is that, in this era of political correctness, when racial and ethnic discrimination is no longer tolerated, discrimination toward obese people has taken its place and somehow fills a societal need to have a group to ostracize ...  

One strength of the book was the glimpse it gave into how the discussion and focus on the obesity problem has permeated nearly every aspect of life in America. Another is that it provided a reminder that obesity in America is also a marker for many other factors that put people at risk of poor health, such as having a lower level of education, being poor, and being non-white. However, the author's oversimplification and subsequent reinterpretation of results from scientific studies created a false impression."

One might call this a "balanced" review, but it is interesting unclear exactly what the "false impression" is, perhaps because epidemiologists too are affected, for better and for worse, by both biology and culture?

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