Is the Diet Industry Gaslighting Us All?

We know diets don’t work long term for 95% of us, so why do we believe that just trying harder at the next diet is the answer?

You may have heard the term gaslighting before and if you’ve read ‘The Girl on the Train’ by Paula Hawkins, then you will have seen a vivid example of how abusive it can be. It comes from the 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton called ‘Gas Light’. The play centres on a husband and wife living together in the era of gas powered lighting. The husband deliberately tries to drive his wife mad. He turns down the gas whilst insisting that his wife is imagining the dim lights and unexplained noises in the house. Eventually, she starts to doubt her sanity.

This form of manipulation, when someone deliberately denies the truth of your reality, can particularly affect anyone with a low sense of self-esteem. Which got me thinking about how the diet industry targets its message at those who feel unhappy with their eating and body image (generating US$20 Billion).

It’s an industry which capitalises on a western culture that worships the perfect body and face. Everywhere we look, we see images of beautiful, thin, usually young people selling us the dream.

Which is why we can wake up, look in the mirror and feel deeply unhappy. We might then head to the bathroom, climb on the scales and looking at the number staring back at us, know that our day is ruined.

For many women, the answer is to go on a diet, probably another diet. So why do we think that this diet will produce a sustainable weight loss? And why do we think that losing weight will make us feel better long term too?

We want diets to work because they offer us hope that we can live a better life. They promise a way out of the unhappy relationship with our bodies, so we don’t have to feel self-contempt when we try on a pair of skinny jeans. No one wants to feel like that, so along comes the diet industry offering a shiny new plan (always better than the last one) — and we jump at it.

We like being told what and how to eat, so there’s no more uncertainty about food when you feel you can’t trust yourself to be around it. We like feeling in control of food and our bodies, because when left to our own choices we feel scarily out of control.

But after the initial diet euphoria we eventually fall off the wagon or start to regain the lost weight. We feel that familiar feeling of self-contempt. We hate ourselves for failing again, on top of the returning negative thoughts about our body and self-worth. We tell ourselves we have no self-control. We are weak willed, even greedy. The diet industry stands back and agrees with us, insisting that we will lose weight if we just stick to the plan. In an instant, our reality of trying to live on that plan is erased. The plan works, they say, you just need to try again and try harder.

Yes, we agree (feeling low and despondent). That must be it.

And so the reality of our diet is rewritten. The diet industry has tapped into our desire to fit in with the cultural ideal and our need to escape negative thoughts and feelings. We’ve been gaslighted.

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Originally published at on February 21, 2017.