A repeated profile shot of a woman's stomach, alternating fat, thin, fat, thinBBC Three / iStock

I was on a diet for 18 years. Here's what I learned...

Diet culture is dead. Long live diet culture

Alexandra Jones

I’ve been on a diet since I was 12. I was fat, with a round face and soft, thick thighs which spread and spilled over the sides of chairs when I sat down. From the moment I became fully aware of it, my body – like most fat bodies at the time – was a problem.

It was the Nineties and my mum, very much a woman of the time, was well-versed in diets; we had bookshelves heaving with guides on everything from Slimming World to Atkins, Beverly Hills and cabbage soup. Thinness seemed to me a prerequisite of womanhood. And back then, fat seemed a simple problem to solve. You went on a diet, you controlled your appetite, you ate less, did some sit-ups and you got thin. Simple!

Somewhere between then and now, that idea has become deeply unfashionable. No one ‘diets’ anymore. Dieting is not cool. Instead, we get #strongnotskinny, do a detox or go 'plant-based'. We eat clean, get lean and follow ancient Ayurvedic principles which realign our chakras (and give us, like, amazing skin). Even Weight Watchers, once a regimented weight-loss programme, has rebranded. The company will now be called WW, and feature the very millennial-friendly tagline 'Wellness that Works'.

“This is just a next step, a point of validation,” said the company’s CEO, Mindy Grossman. “Like any brand we have to stay relevant...” Which seems to mean eschewing ‘weight loss’ in favour of the more nebulous concept of 'wellness'.

As she told the TODAY show, WW will aim to be the “global marque of wellness for everyone, beyond just weight...”

It’s a savvy move; wellness, as an industry, has a global worth of $3.7 trillion (£2.8 trillion). 

It’s hard to say exactly how ‘dieting’ fell out of fashion. As a new generation - my generation - grew up, they began to reject the exploitative, cruel and, often, anti-feminist chatter that pumped out of the industry. We began to reject thinness as the only beauty ideal. From the mid-Noughties onward, we stopped accepting size zero as the norm, and scientists made global headlines by debunking the idea that dieting would lead to sustainable weight-loss. The culmination of all this progress, it would seem, came just a few weeks ago when plus-sized model Tess Holliday graced the cover of a glossy magazine. 

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On the surface, it looks like progress. But the torrent of fat-phobic comments the cover elicited hints at our society's deep-rooted and persistent disdain for fat bodies. More on this later.

When I attended my first Weight Watchers meeting, aged 16 (2004), all I had wanted was to be thin. I was obese, according to my BMI (at 5 foot 5 inches, I weighed around 14st) but I didn’t care about ‘health’, or how my body felt on the inside. I just wanted the big reveal, like in films, where a curtain would be pulled back and I’d be there in my new – thin, beautiful, acceptable – body.

In Weight Watchers, each food is assigned a number of points, and you ‘spend’ those points throughout the day. In practical terms, totting-up the points and attending weekly weigh-ins with a group of fellow dieters taught me that eating a family-sized pasta bake and two Mars Bars for dinner was somewhat excessive. Especially for a person who spent eight hours a day sitting down (as I told my PE teacher, “I don’t run unless I’m being chased”). I’d been wearing adult-size 14 and 16 clothes since I was a child and had spent my teen years crashing through weird diets. As the number on the scales went down, I felt in control for the first time in my life. I lost about two stone in total and for a while, I felt like I’d ‘cracked’ it. 

In the 10 years that followed, I gained that weight back (and an additional 3lbs), then lost most of it again through a strict programme of 'super-healthy' sugar and refined-carb-free 'clean eating'. Of course, I spectacularly fell off that bandwagon too, and in the process became ever more obsessed with the food I was putting into my body. In 2015, aged 27, I was thinner by about 3 stone than I had been at 16, but by this point, I was convinced that I was not thin enough.

I was still chasing the ‘reveal’ when I signed up to an online 90-day ‘transformation’ programme run by Joe Wicks, aka The Body Coach. At the time he was a personal trainer with a moderate online following. And he promised results.

The clean eating revolution was at its height, and rather than hate our bodies, we were hating the toxic ingredients that appeared in almost every food. Toxic sugar, toxic gluten, toxic refined rubbish; reports (that turned out to be false) were coming out of Australia that one girl had helped cured her brain cancer by cutting it all out. And so many of us were following suit.

An illustration showing the words 'clean eating detox' being whizzed in a blenderBBC Three / David Weller

The conversation around food had shifted; ‘clean’ was not a diet, but a lifestyle choice, and that choice had more to do with ‘health’ than weight or looks. Of course, the desire for ‘thinness’ hadn’t gone away, but like everyone else, I’d learned to talk about it in terms that were more in keeping with the time.

When I stumbled across this 'transformation' plan, I felt a small thrill of excitement. The marketing, those bleary before/after shots, was so compelling; I could sit for hours and scroll through pictures of semi-nude bodies – bigger on the left, smaller on the right. Their visible progress was accompanied by earnest testimonials (complete with ecstatic emojis and misspellings) about how much better they felt, how much stronger and healthier. These were people just like me, I thought. And they’d been liberated from their unhealthy bodies by Joe Wicks’ plan.

I had to try. I signed up and paid my money (which at that time was the ruinous sum of £149), then did the prerequisite ‘before’ photo, standing in the mirror in my sports bra and pants. Like that first Weight Watchers meeting, it felt like I was taking a positive step. I weighed and measured myself, then put the numbers into the online platform. When phase one of the plan pinged into my inbox, I sat down to read through the reams of information about calories and macro-nutrients. I was supposed to eat tonnes of protein and more calories; everything was prescribed – from the first pre-workout vitamin drink in the morning, to the final, single, plain boiled egg at night.

What’s funny is that I was convinced by then that dieting and body fascism were over. This new way of eating, and of working out, which focused on ‘health’, ‘getting lean’, ‘eating whole foods’ and ‘staying strong’, seemed somehow friendlier and more holistic than the years of Slimming World and cabbage soup and Atkins that my mum had endured. And that friendly veneer has proved lucrative. Three years later, in 2018, Joe Wicks is worth an estimated £14.5 million

“Ostensibly, [diet culture] is on the retreat,” psychotherapist and author Dr Susie Orbach tells me. She’s been investigating the mental-health impact of diets since her bestselling book Fat is a Feminist Issue published 40 years ago, in 1978. “Because we feel a lot of shame and embarrassment around dieting. But companies are still making huge sums of money by telling us that our bodies are a problem; and offering us solutions in the form of diets, pills and powders.”

An illustration of someone standing on a set of scales and the scales telling them 'you're fine'BBC Three / David Weller

The difference, Dr Orbach points out, between 1978 and now, is the words that we use to describe our diets. “Instead of saying ‘this is going to make me thin,’ the language takes on an almost moral quality. We talk about purity, about ‘healthy,’ ‘natural’ and ‘clean’ foods. We use euphemisms (like saying we’re undertaking a ‘transformation’) to signify that we’re going on a diet. But the effect, and the impact on us, is much the same.”

In fact, intensively obsessing over what we eat for ‘health reasons’ has become such a common phenomenon that it has been given a name: ‘orthorexia'. As dietitian Emer Delaney told the BBC: “It tends to start out as a true intention to eat healthy foods, but is then taken to the extreme... It also includes underlying motivations, such as the compulsion for complete control, the desire to be thin, improving self-esteem and using food to create an identity.”

My Body Coach ‘transformation’ went about as well as my Weight Watchers one had. That is, not very well at all. Any weight I did lose I gained back even more quickly than I had after Weight Watchers. I salute all the people who manage to make it work, but I found the sheer amount of food – and the hours of food prep – prohibitive.

Each Sunday, I’d spend hours packing kilos of boiled mince meat into plastic boxes and boiling dozens of eggs. Which wouldn’t have been so bad, but that was only ever half a week's worth. Food prep became the main event of my Wednesday and Thursday evenings too. I thought about food constantly: about which foods were 'ok,' about whether I was hitting all the right targets. 

If I was out, with no food packed, I’d panic about what I was going to eat. Better to not go out for a while, I decided. I realised enough was enough when I found myself insisting that I bring my own food to a friend's house for dinner. She made paella for everyone else; I microwaved myself a watery cashew curry. "So do you think it's working?" she asked encouragingly. I realised that even if it was, it wasn't worth the pain.

But after weeks of the plan, and of eating to the exacting standards that it demands, when I tried to stop, I also realised that I had lost all sense of when and what I should eat.

An illustration of a tape measure wrapped around a fork as though it were spaghettiBBC Three / David Weller

As Dr Orbach explains, this is one of the fundamental truths about all diets – or, indeed, ‘transformation’ plans. “The more we rely on advice from others, the more we lose touch with our own appetite and eating instincts. Then it becomes a cycle. Our bodies no longer know how to regulate their own mealtimes. We don’t get the normal hunger signals or fullness signals. And we don’t trust them when we do.” Basically, we become reliant on diets, and dieting becomes another coded habit we can’t quite kick.

From this complicated mindset – where we search for someone to tell us how to eat and what to eat, but at the same time reject the idea of diets as faddy and impossible to maintain – new online industries have emerged. Health and fitness influencers. #TransformationTuesday. Accounts dedicated to vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free, lacto-free cooking. They all offer up an example for us to follow. Just don’t call it a diet.

In that same vein, ‘What I eat in day’ videos have mushroomed out of the vlogosphere over the past five years, a wildly popular sub-genre that seems, on the surface, innocuous enough.

They follow a pattern: on screen the person, often a model or fitness professional, looks fresh. They have scrubbed, dewy skin and a rosy flush which spreads across the apples of their cheeks. “I’m going to show you what I eat in a day…” they beam. “This is a very requested subject,” they glance down, almost bashful. “A lot of people have been asking me about my diet. But I wouldn’t even call it a diet, it’s more a lifestyle. I really just enjoy healthy eating.”

These videos are nice to watch. Highly stylised, hosted by friendly, beautiful people, talking directly to camera – directly to us – about a topic we’re all, despite our public protestations, quite obviously obsessed with. “It’s understandable in a way,” agrees dietician Rosie Saunt. She recently posted a thread on Twitter exploring why these videos are damaging...

As she tells me, “It’s really not cool to say that you’re on a diet anymore. So for many people, these videos represent another avenue to becoming thin; they aren’t diets in the traditional sense. But the subtext is, ‘If you eat like me, you’ll look like me,’ so I’ll bet plenty of the people who watch them go away and copy what they see. It can easily lead to obsessive or disordered thoughts about food.”

Of course, it’s not like ‘what I eat in a day’ has never existed before; we’ve been fetishizing the diets of celebrities in magazines for years. What’s different, as Dr Orbach explains, is just the language we’re using to do the fetishizing. We now call it ‘health'. But as Rosie points out, ‘healthy’ has become just a euphemism for 'thin'.

"Basically, when we use the word ‘healthy,’ we’re no longer really talking about good health behaviours. We’re generally referring to a certain body type; and that body type is thin and toned.” What’s more, she continues, "the link between ‘health’ and ‘diet’ is being used to promote toxic and fat-phobic attitudes."

It’s a fact that became particularly apparent when Cosmopolitan recently put model Tess Holliday on its October cover.

Immediately the magazine faced a backlash - particularly from broadcaster and social media provocateur Piers Morgan.

“As Britain battles an ever-worsening obesity crisis, this is the new cover of Cosmo. Apparently we’re supposed to view it as a ‘huge step forward for body positivity.’ What a load of old baloney. This cover is just as dangerous & misguided as celebrating size zero models,” he wrote on Instagram. The danger, he contended, rested on the fact that Holliday’s ‘unhealthy’ body size was being celebrated.

As dietician Helen West pointed out in a Twitter thread that got over 1,000 retweets, despite what we might believe, a person’s health status and their body size are not necessarily related.

“I was expecting some push-back to my Tweets,” she tells me. “But the reaction was very mixed and very polarised.”

As she explains, “When you’re thinking about body weight, it’s true that from a medical perspective, overweight bodies have a higher risk of some diseases. But we’re often talking about relative risk, which means compared to a lower-weight person, not absolute risk. You cannot know how healthy someone is just by looking at them. You don’t know whether they move every day, what foods they eat, whether they smoke. These are all predictors of someone’s overall health and can't be judged by appearance.” 

Our culture promotes the false assumption that everyone can be thin if they try hard enough. It’s an assumption that I’ve lived with throughout my life. “But that’s just not the case," Helen says. "And then we attack people because their fat makes them ‘unhealthy,’ but that’s not necessarily the case either. We cannot know a person’s health status. It’s just fat-phobia, pure and simple.”

Genetics, your aerobic capabilities and whether you spend all day sitting down are all better signifiers of internal health than what you look like on the outside. This, out of all of them, feels to me like the only truly radical idea to come out of any modern conversation about diet, bodyweight and health.

Helen, Rosie and Dr Orbach all argue that we need to take a more measured approach towards our bodies and our diets alike - to turn away from the #wellness industry and instead focus on our daily behaviours: “We should try and move every day – anything we can manage, count steps, go for a run, just as long as we’re moving – and eat a balanced diet with plenty of vegetables,” says Rosie. “Equally, though, we should consider our mentality around food.” She argues that restricting our eating and then feeling guilty or ashamed when we binge (“which will happen if you get into that cycle of restriction”), will only cause more damage. “We need to feel free to enjoy the food we have.”

And, as Helen adds, “People who accept their bodies are more likely to take care of themselves. People who feel shame and stigma are more likely to engage in risky behaviours like excessive smoking, eating and drinking.”

I’ve been on a diet since I was 12. Which is funny and tragic because I now live in a body that most people would consider ‘normal'. It is normal. I weigh 10st, I wear size 10-12 clothes, my BMI is 23.

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I’m probably the thinnest I’ve ever been. And ironically, the weight came off not at times when I was obsessing over what I was eating, but at times when I became lost in my work, or in a relationship, and just stopped thinking about it. Still, I’d love to say that this means I’m now at peace - that all that time fretting about how I look has culminated in some big epiphany. But that’s not really the case. The fact is, spending years being laser-focused on what you eat, how your body looks, on the numbers on the scales and the size of your clothes, will permanently impact your relationship with your body. I will always feel like it needs work.

Originally published 28 September 2018.