‘Health’ Publications Are Quietly Killing People Over The Holidays

flickr / Ray Sawhill
Tips that rely on body-shaming and food demonization are dangerous — and rampant during the holiday season.

Content warning: descriptions of disordered eating behaviors and publications using problematic language surrounding eating disorders

I t’s the holiday season, and I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty into it this year. Maybe after the abject horror of over 10 months of President Trump, I’m in need of some cheer. Warm hats and fuzzy socks. Pretty lights.

This year I don’t even mind the constant barrage of the same Christmas music everywhere I go. (Although I still don’t know why they can’t play one song from one of the other December holidays.)

But there’s one thing that does rain on my parade: the inevitable articles from every website claiming to be about “health,” popping up to shame me about what I eat during this food-focused season. The holiday—“Holy Crap You’re Eating More Food Than Usual, Fret and Panic”—articles come out around the same time as the Peppermint Lattes.

Every year it’s “5 Ways to Have a Healthier Thanksgiving” and “Burn Off Those Holiday Splurges.” It bums me out, not just because I’m trying to have a healthy body image and you are not helping, but because I worry about all the people I know who have eating disorders.

In recent years “health” publications have become a little more sensitive about how they approach the topic of weight and dieting thanks to body positive movements and the efforts of those struggling with/recovering from eating disorders, but we’re far from where we need to be.

There is a more than slight chance that this has something to do with how lucrative the business of telling people to lose weight has been. Three of the five most-circulated health magazines — Prevention, Men’s Health, and Women’s Health — are owned by Rodale, Inc.

This October, it was announced that the book and magazines owned by Rodale will be bought by the mass media conglomerate Hearst Communications for close to $225 million. This might seem like quite a hefty chunk of change to us normal human beings, but Hearst saw a revenue of $10.8 billion in 2016. According to U.S. News (which, ironically, has its own health section with annoying and potentially harmful headlines), the diet industry rakes in $60 billion every year.

That’s a lot of influence in the hands of publications that claim to be relevant at least, and imperative at best, to your entire life. Remedy’s Healthy Living, with over three million active subscriptions, is all about “Your Way of Life.” The second most popular is “Prevention Magazine: Love Your Whole Life.” “Shape Magazine: Shape Your Life.”

Is there something more to life than the physical shape of my body? I can’t seem to remember.

In truth, however, I didn’t realize just how bad it was until I learned about “pro-ana” communities and began studying them.

Pro-ana is short for “pro-anorexia.” As in: “We at Anorexic Diet tips blog publish the best pro ana diet plans and pro ana tips and tricks to lose weight fast and become anorexic,” explains AnorexicDietTips.com.

Groups like this have received little media attention—despite them being egregiously dangerous—but what’s just as horrifying is the fact that tips commonly found on the most popular pro-ana sites and forums are not so different from those found on Health.com, or any number of other “health” sites.

One Health.com article from earlier this year is titled “49 Ways to Trick Yourself Into Feeling Full.” It’s full of fun little tips like drinking water before a meal and chewing gum instead of eating. These are frighteningly similar to the tips found on popular threads from MyProAna.com, a pro-ana forum and one of the first websites that comes up when you google the term “pro-ana.”

“Drinking an entire glass of water before every meal fills your belly, so you’ll likely end up eating less than you otherwise would have. During your meal, taking sips in between bites will help slow your pace and eat less overall.” — Health.com
“I guess you all know water is your bestie. Drink AT LEAST 8 glasses of water, or a glass per hour … Have a sip of water between each bite, It will help you to fill up faster and won’t make you overeat.” —MyProAna.com

Even more alarming are the tips that rely directly on shaming yourself for eating.

“Watching yourself eat junk food triggers discomfort, since you’re suddenly very aware of the unhealthy choice. So if you’re seeking an easy way to boost your weight-loss goals, consider picking up a new decorative mirror for your dining room or kitchen.” —Health.com
“Eat while watching yourself in the mirror naked. How much are you able to eat now?” —MyProAna.com

A big part of the pro-ana “movement” is keeping strict track of everything you eat. Sound familiar? What “health” publication these days doesn’t advocate for keeping a food journal? Not that having a food journal is going to make you anorexic or is necessarily negative or predicated on self-harm, but the language these publications use is, again, alarming.

“The power of the food journal is that it keeps you accountable and makes you more aware. You are less likely to grab that piece of chocolate cake if you know you have to write down later and face the ultimate critic (AKA you),” says the website for the popular book “Eat This, Not That.

How else can I shame myself for eating?

“There are many ways to track your progress, from basic approach to just weighing yourself every day to using various fitness tracking apps or using the wearable devices that can help you accurately count the number calories you are taking and burning,” echoes a pro-ana site.

People suffering from this devastating illness very often make a set of rules for themselves around eating, and make these rules stricter over time. This is a common feature of related eating disorders as well, which means that all together they affect at least 30 million people in the U.S. alone. This path leads to more death than any other type of mental illness.

At least one person dies every 62 minutes from an eating disorder. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, “Hospitalizations for eating disorders in children under the age of 12 years old increased by 119% between the years of 1999 and 2006.” 50% of teen girls and 33% of teen boys “engage in unhealthy weight control behaviors” as of 2017.

Eating disorders lead to more death than any other type of mental illness.

Pro-ana sites lean in to these self-imposed rules hard—and it’s this kind of attitude that leads directly to the disease, as victims become addicted to a dangerous sense of control.

You know who else talks about “rules” a whole lot?

The 10 Rules of Weight Loss That Lasts” — Shape Magazine

6 Eating Rules For Faster Weight Loss” — Prevention

The 10 Rules of Weight Loss” — Runner’s World

5 rules of fast fat loss” — Men’s Fitness

5 Rules You Need to Follow if You Decide to Lose Weight” — Women’s Health Magazine

Yikes.gov.

Perhaps worst of all is the way both the “health” industry and pro-ana movement demonize food. Some foods are okay to eat, but they’re increasingly hard to come by. It recently came to public attention that fat was thrown under the bus by the sugar industry for sweet, sweet profits.

As it turns out, you need fat to live — a fact you might forget if you spend too much time in a pro-ana forum. Or on WomensHealth.com. You know what else you need to live? Sugar. I know there’s a difference between “refined” sugars and “natural” sugars, but I know at least half a dozen people who have tried diets that cut out all sugars — even those found in fruits and vegetables.

Biochemist Leah Fitzsimmons doesn’t think this is a particularly good idea.

Glucose is a simple sugar found in the blood of all animals—without it we die. We need sugar to live. It’s the main source of energy for our mammal brains, and disruption of “normal glucose metabolism” is a root cause of a number of brain disorders. Sugar is literally brain food.

We need fat to live. According to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the healthy range for body fat content is between 8 and 33%.

Another recent study found that low-fat diets might be killing people. Oops!

We need carbs to live. Carbohydrates are our main source of energy. They come in many different forms, and guess what, we need all of them! Carbs have a number of essential functions in the body, including that glucose regulation we talked about earlier. Also, pooping.

We need salt to live. I have family members who went on a low-salt diet and ended up with intense headaches and constant thirst no matter how much water they drank. Turns out salt is essential for allowing our cells to absorb and retain water. Critically low levels of salt can put your body into shock and send you into a coma.

In short? Health is very, very, complicated. What’s good for one person might not work at all for another. Eating only bagels will likely make you feel like crap, but then again, so will eating nothing but kale. If “health” publications are actually concerned about leading people toward eating disorders, they need to read into some of these pro-ana and pro-mia (pro-bulimia) sites and forums and sit with their horror for a spell, then rethink their entire existence.

Because demonizing food and shaming eating is not healthy, it’s lethal.

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