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Let’s not go back to the diet dark ages

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We know crash diets are joyless and don’t work, so why do some TV channels still insist on peddling them, asks Lucy Dunn

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By Lucy Dunn on

At the beginning of this year did we hop into our DeLorean sports cars and zoom back to 2004? I say 2004, because that was the height of no-carb mania, when half the world seemed to be smugly extolling the virtues of their bacon and eggs diet. Surely, 12 years on, we’ve moved on, right? Well judging by one channel’s latest diet programme, that may not be the case.

How To Lose Weight Well is one of Channel 4’s offerings for 2017. The premise of the programme is to “test the most popular weight loss plans out there” but as far as I am concerned it’s to dredge up some extreme and rather joyless diets and get a few guinea pigs to test them out. So which diet is going to “win" this week? Will it be the peanut butter diet (“eat four teaspoons a day to curb your appetite”) or the flaxseed oil diet (“ignore your gag reflex and swallow a spoonful before you eat and those pesky pounds will drop off”)? Hop on the scales people, and drum roll...Ta-dah, you’ve lost (insert number) pounds in (insert number) weeks!

Programmes like these are lazy and irresponsible; the TV version of clickbait cynically aimed at boosting viewing figures and cashing in on the January diet frenzy. This one doesn't even live up to its title, which is what made me start watching it in the first place. It is not about losing weight *well*, it’s about losing weight quickly, miserably and ineffectually.

Every decent dietitian and expert worth his/her salt will tell you quick-fix weight loss plans are not sustainable, healthy eating is key, and success starts with fostering a healthy, balanced mindset. Yet, intentionally or not, the focus of this programme seems to be less about changing perspectives for the long term and more about how much weight you lose and how quickly. The viewer is encouraged to “shop” for the diet that suits them. And, as the volunteers line up to step on the scales, you can't help as a bystander but to mentally calculate and compare: why lose one pound a week on something sensible and slow when you can shift 11 on the Hay diet? Why do the Sirtfood when the Military Diet helps you lose weight more quickly?

Every decent dietician and expert worth his/her salt will tell you quick-fix weight loss plans do not work long-term and healthy eating starts with a healthy, balanced mindset

Of course we don't need experts to tell us that crash diets don’t work (many of us have attempted mad regimes in the past, myself included.) But what I find uncomfortable is that everywhere you look this time of year there are cynical attempts to subconsciously press our self-esteem buttons; to chip away and play on those "I put on a few pounds at Christmas maybe I need to do something about it" niggles that pop up involuntarily, whether we're actually thinking about losing weight or not.

Diets "sell", they’re big business, it’s January. Many people have maxed out on Quality Street at Christmas and now want to lose weight. All facts. Also fact: it takes determination (and a robust self-worth) not to even sense one ripple of the January diet panic currently reverberating around the land. Everywhere you look there's someone on a diet (or at least talking about them).

I thought we'd made progress last year. The message – “don’t restrict food groups, eat everything in moderation, follow the Public Health England Eatwell Guide, watch portion sizes, move more” – seemed to be getting through. 2016 was also the year that clean eating’s saintly halo finally slipped. Whether it was “misinterpreted” as its defenders maintain, it’s clear that some people have taken this “lifestyle plan” to the extreme and morphed it into a no-wheat, no-dairy, no-meat, no-fun regime. No wonder even disciples Deliciously Ella and The Hemsleys have all tried to distance themselves from it this week.

Of course, a quick Google and you will find much faddier diets alive and well on the internet, but I’d argue, TV adds a veneer of validation to a quick-fix weight loss mindset that can be potentially harmful.

Talking about any diet needs to be approached carefully, and with responsibility. After all, anything that preys on people's vulnerabilities and encourages a flawed and confused relationship with food is wrong. Any eating plan that stops you from eating certain foods or food groups (unless you are diagnosed as intolerant) is also ill-advised. Food should not be seen as the enemy, or even something to wrestle with. It is a message that everyone, including Channel 4, needs to be taking on board and forging ahead with in 2017.


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