Perhaps you’ve heard someone bemoan the “quarantine 15” that they’ve gained during lockdown, or their struggles to “flatten the curve” of a body that looks different after a year inside.
It was inevitable. The pandemic has made us more sedentary, and many of us have sought comfort in eating. We are languishing, as Adam Grant wrote recently, living in “the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being.” And where there’s insecurity and unhappiness, there are companies looking to make money. So here come the weight-loss profiteers, the misery merchants dressed up as purveyors of “wellness.”
They’re looking to make back whatever money they missed out on during 2020 and then some. In a normal year, the weight-loss business ramps up in January and goes strong through spring and into summer. Last year was not normal. There was stress snacking and procrasti-baking. There was no shedding for the wedding in a year when most weddings were postponed or drastically downsized; no pre-high-school-reunion crash diet or worrying if Grandma would body-shame you at Thanksgiving. The closest we got to beach season was tut-tutting at the Kardashians’ private-island getaway last fall.
And honestly, with a global pandemic to worry about, getting bigger didn’t seem like an especially big deal. It’s no surprise that many weight-loss companies took a financial hit. According to Marketdata Enterprises, a research firm, the overall U.S. diet industry reached a new peak of $78 billion in 2019, but it lost 21 percent of its value in 2020.
Was that dip matched by concurrent weight gain among Americans who suddenly couldn’t make it to their weekly weigh-ins or stock up on their meal-replacement shakes? Depends whose data you believe. A study published in the journal Obesity found a global decline in some healthy behaviors: Respondents ate more processed food and exercised less. And a recent survey from the market research firm Ipsos found that about a third of Americans said they had gained weight during the pandemic.
But research from a company that makes internet-connected scales, Withings, painted a different picture. The French company analyzed data from five million smart scales, hybrid smartwatches and smart thermometers, and found that people actually lost weight in 2020, or were more likely than in other years to hit their weight-loss goals, if they had them. (Of course, those who own such devices are a self-selecting group that likely were trying to lose weight.)
In any case, the weight-loss industry isn’t going to let a lack of data dull its zeal to convince Americans that yes, we got fat, and that now we need to get up off our couches and get back into shape — by buying their app, or signing up for their meal-delivery service or enrolling in their program. These corporate entities have been joined by the freelance scolds, the people who are not going to miss a chance to feel superior to their friendly neighborhood fatties. Magazines are full of diet-app roundups. Here is the famous physician wagging her finger at Krispy Kreme for offering free doughnuts to the vaccinated.
My Twitter feed is suddenly full of ads for intermittent fasting apps; on Instagram, it’s wall-to-wall shapewear and fat-shredding supplements. Then there’s the Facebook friend who really wants to talk about the Keto diet, or Optavia, or the Beachbody plan, and would be happy to bring me into the fold. (Yes, the weight-loss industry has branched into multilevel marketing.)
You can consume a lot of this marketing without ever hearing the words “weight” or “diet” or “calories.” The diet industry has gotten impressively subtle, even as it’s incessantly in your face. Everyone knows that diets don’t work in the long term; buzzwords like “wellness” and “strength” have replaced “diet” and “calories.” It’s all about being the best you that you can be — a you that is significantly thinner than the you right now.
I have one word for you: resist.
As we should all know by now, diets don’t work. Studies show that 41 percent of dieters gain back more weight over the next five years than they lost, and that dieters are more likely than nondieters to become obese over the next one to 15 years. For some, the language of diet culture can be downright dangerous, contributing to life-threatening eating disorders.
There’s nothing wrong with taking action to improve your health. Want to add more fruits and vegetables to your diet, or get back to regular workouts? Go for it. Get outside, now that we can do that again. But you don’t need to enroll in a program, download an app or buy frozen meals to do any of this.
After everything we’ve endured — and as the crisis still rages around the world — each of us should cherish the body that got us through it, rather than punish it for failing to fit into last year’s skinny jeans.
Jennifer Weiner is the author of the upcoming novel “That Summer.”
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