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How Big Food co-opted the anti-diet movement for profit

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Back in the 1960s, the anti-diet movement emerged to ease the burden of diet culture by fighting weight stigma and food shame. And now, many decades later, its argument is still loud and clear - bodies can be healthy at any size. But a new investigation from The Washington Post and The Examination found that major food brands are distorting the messages of this movement and cashing in on these trends in order to sell processed snacks and sugary breakfast cereals. Sasha Chavkin is a senior reporter for The Examination, a nonprofit newsroom covering global public health. Welcome.

SASHA CHAVKIN: Thanks for having me, Ailsa.

CHANG: Yeah, well, I want to start with what the anti-diet movement even is. Like, can you tell us more about why it emerged? What concerns was it trying to address?

CHAVKIN: The anti-diet movement began as an effort to fight back against weight discrimination and cultural obsession with thinness, which are huge problems in our society. One popular anti-diet approach is called Health at Every Size, which focuses on equal access to health care for heavier people. Another approach is called Intuitive Eating, which focuses on listening to internal cues about food and is often used for helping people with eating disorders. The common thread, I'd say, between these anti-diet approaches is they believe that diet culture is doing serious harm to people's health and well-being, and they're there to fight back against it.

CHANG: Right. And you and your colleagues identified one brand in particular - General Mills - which recruited anti-diet influencers and dietitians to promote its products online - like, sing the praises of sugary snacks, for example. And to be clear, General Mills is not the only food company that does this, right?

CHAVKIN: That's right. We did an analysis of more than 6,000 social media posts by dietitian influencers who had more than 10,000 followers, and we found that about 40% of them regularly used anti-diet language in their messages. We also found that, of the ones who shared anti-diet messages, a majority of them were also doing sponsored posts for food and beverage companies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Every time I pour a bowl of cereal, I'm reminded about the favorites I grew up on, which is why I'm partnering with General Mills. Honey Nut Cheerios were always my top pick, and that holds true today. As a registered dietitian, I will always advocate for fearlessly nourishing meals, including cereal.

CHAVKIN: So food companies were disproportionately sponsoring anti-diet dietitians as messengers to promote their products. Now, General Mills took it to another level. Not only did they work with dietitians on social media who promoted General Mills cereals using the hashtag #DerailTheShame, but they funded a study into food-shaming, which they said found that people who experienced food-shaming had higher levels of isolation and mental health issues and were more likely to avoid the cereal aisle in grocery stores. And they then used the results of that study to argue against a proposed federal regulation that would add health information to the front of food packages.

So essentially, they made the case that putting on food packages if a product is high in sugar or fat or another unhealthy ingredient was food-shaming consumers, and therefore it needed to be opposed.

CHANG: And I understand that you spoke with people who encountered these certain aspects of the anti-diet movement online and ended up drastically changing their behavior in response. What happened to these people? How did that impact their health?

CHAVKIN: I spoke with a woman named Jaye Rochon, who's a video editor based in Wisconsin, and she had struggled with weight-loss diets for years. They left her feeling hungry and really were driving her crazy. And she then encountered these YouTube influencers promoting anti-diet approaches, who said that the worst thing she could be doing was restricting foods, and she needed to stop avoiding the foods that she had been staying away from. And as a result of taking this advice, she gained 50 pounds in a period of two months. Eventually, when her weight got up close to 300 pounds, she started to really worry about her health. And she's now out of the anti-diet movement and is sharing her story because she wants other people to avoid going down the same path.

CHANG: Mmm hmm. What has General Mills said about all this - about allegations that it and other companies have co-opted the anti-diet movement for profit?

CHAVKIN: General Mills sent a statement saying that it complies with federal regulations and that it provides accurate information, based on science, to the public. They didn't answer our more detailed questions about their connections with the anti-diet movement or what they believe about some of the movement's claims about health and obesity.

What I will add to that is that some of the leaders of the anti-diet movement are not OK with what General Mills is doing. For example, Elyse Resch, who's one of the co-founders of Intuitive Eating, told us that big food companies that are using anti-diet slogans are just trying to make more money, and they're co-opting the anti-diet movement.

CHANG: Where, then, does all of this ultimately leave the anti-diet movement as a whole - and all of its messaging against body-shaming and being afraid of food?

CHAVKIN: Well, the anti-diet movement is a legitimate movement with real popularity, particularly among younger audiences, and fighting food-shaming and weight discrimination and lack of access to health care are valid concerns. What I think - the problem is that many anti-diet influencers have gone further and are making claims that are not backed by nutrition science. Some say that the health risks of obesity are overblown, or some even make the claim that diseases like diabetes and heart disease are caused by weight-shaming and dieting rather than by excess weight itself. So there are elements of the anti-diet movement that have gone far beyond the original concerns to make claims that are not consistent with nutrition science.

CHANG: Sasha Chavkin is a senior reporter for The Examination, a nonprofit newsroom covering global public health. Thanks so much for your reporting.

CHAVKIN: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kathryn Fink
Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.