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Doctors and Diet Clubs are Dangerous Bedfellows

Original image by Kenjonbro - flickr creative commons.

By Amy Anderson, AnyBody team member

As the clocks chimed midnight on December 31st the grimly inevitable diet industry wheels – oiled by millions of pounds of profits – rolled into action. Forget focusing on spending time with the important people in your life, or your work, or your interests or what you’re really hungry for – people across the UK instead woke up on January 1st to the usual soul-sucking exhortations from adverts and magazine features about shifting those pounds, toning those thighs, flattening those stomachs. 

This year however these messages have not been restricted to magazines or weekend supplements. They have been screamed at us from the main media outlets: “Bulging Britain's fatness epidemic” shrieked the Daily Express; “Fat fighters” hollered The Sun; “Fat Britain: NHS can't cope, say doctors” was the ominous headline from the Daily Telegraph.

The source of these headlines is a report by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) entitled: “Action on Obesity: Comprehensive Care For All”.

The Royal College of Physicians, a registered charity, outlines its aim as “to ensure high-quality care for patients by promoting the highest standards of medical practice”. It also advises the government, public and the profession on healthcare issues.

However, the authors do not reference the report from the Body Confidence Parliamentary Inquiry held last year. Witnesses included eating disorder specialists, Weight Watchers and Slimming World, and Dr Susie Orbach, psychotherapist and the convenor of AnyBody/Endangered Bodies UK. This report’s recommendations include:

  • A review into the use of BMI as an indicator for health
  • A reframing of health message from a focus on weight-loss to health-enhancing behaviours and the adoption of weight-neutral language
  • A review of the evidence-base to support the long-term efficacy and safety of diets

But on closer inspection of the RCP report perhaps this glaring omission isn’t so peculiar.  I was shocked to see, as stated in the report’s conflict of interests section, that some of the members of the working group that produced the report – some of whom are medical doctors - have financial links to Weight Watchers UK, the Cambridge Weight Plan, Counterweight Plc and Rosemary Conley Diet and Fitness magazine.

Is it really any surprise then the report recommends "commissioning weight management services which have proven effectiveness”?

Much has been written about the ineffectiveness of dieting and the research that backs this up. 95% of people who lose weight on diets put it all back on and more within five years. This is one of the reasons we organised our Ditching Dieting campaign outside Parliament last year, timed to coincide with the diet clubs giving their evidence. Diets don’t work because diet clubs’ profits depend on us returning again and again

We are continually scolded that we’re getting bigger and that our bodies are not acceptable as they are and we’re also blamed if we go on diets and don’t lose the weight that an external authority has deemed we must get rid of. The diet industry has infiltrated the health sector and it would seem that, judging by the RCP’s report, doctors are not immune. Indeed it has been the aim of certain diet companies to influence commissioning groups within the NHS to buy in their services for their patients. No surprise really when they are being paid by the diet clubs.

The thrust towards dieting is backed up anecdotally too. I know women who have gone to see their doctors for anything from hearing problems to smear tests who get told that they’re too heavy, that they must lose weight. This is despite the evidence which shows that our weight is not an accurate gauge of our health. Please see the latest research from the Center for Disease Control at NIH which published a major review of mortality and size in JAMA ON January 2nd. This is a very different kind of post Christmas message than the diet industry would like us to hear.

We need open and transparent conversations in the health debate and it’s absolutely imperative that, in order for these to take place, our health professionals are not financially invested in the diet industry. They need to be on the side of their patients, fairly and objectively.


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