Jacques Peretti’s BBC documentary exposes the diet industry but he misses the elephant in the room
I am sure you buy Standpoint in the hope — too often denied, I fear — that its writers will tell you about their weight-loss programmes. Indeed, if you are anything like my colleagues at the Observer, your eyes will glaze over with excitement as I describe how I have reduced my bulk from a morbidly obese 17st 8lbs to a merely grotesquely overweight 14st 10lbs.
I could go on — and believe me I do — but in truth there is little to say. I realised that my desk-bound, pub-bound life, sustained by a beer and salty-snack diet, was not working well when I found I could not keep up with my wife when we were walking down the street. When I tried to exit the bath, I also felt an urgent need for a vast system of ropes and pulleys to lift my dripping carcass.
So I began to exercise. I did not join gyms, and not only because of the expense. I knew I would not work out in an artificial space for long. Better to break free from what doctors call our “obesogenic environment” and incorporate exercise into everyday life by walking and cycling whenever I could. As for diet, nutritionists’ ideas on healthy eating have barely changed in 50 years — fibre, brown bread, salad, fish, white meat, fruit and veg. There’s no mystery to it. It’s what your mother told you. Finish your greens, don’t scoff the cakes, get some fresh air and don’t eat between meals. As the admirably pithy NHS guide to weight loss shows, you can fit the essential information everyone who is not genetically disposed to obesity needs to know onto a sheet of A4 and still leave room for a large doodle.
No food company or book, magazine or newspaper editor has ever made money from repeating what your mother told you, however. They have promoted the advice of the fabulously profitable diet industry instead. If I had followed it, I would have lost weight — and then I would have put it back on again. Every fad diet boils down to starving yourself. You can for a while, and you will lose weight. But unless you become anorexic, your body will tire of famine, and compel you to feast. Thus, we have on the one hand sensible advice on food and exercise, which will help most people who are overweight or obese become fitter. On the other, we have a diet industry that is a multi-billion-pound swindle. The trap that awaits all those who argue about healthy eating is that while they expose lies they will debunk the truth as well.
Jacques Peretti falls into it. The Men Who Made Us Thin, his documentary series for the BBC, is in many ways a superb piece of contemporary history. Peretti is made for serious television. He asks hard questions without appearing aggressive or self-aggrandising, and possesses the populist intelligence to summarise complex arguments for the viewer without being condescending. The BBC’s researchers did him proud. They tracked down leading figures in the diet industry and somehow persuaded them to appear on camera.
The result is close to a massacre, as Peretti goes through the history of diet and exercise from 1945. Right at the start US researchers, who persuaded willing volunteers to live on a starvation diet, found that their guinea pigs put the weight back on and more besides when the experiment was over. Every reputable scientific study since has observed the same phenomenon. With 27 million people dieting in the UK, many of them bullied women who are not overweight in the slightest, that fact deserves to be better known, and Peretti hammers it home with gusto.
He gives us a former senior manager at Weight Watchers, who boasts that the dieting business is the perfect business. Any other corporation that gave its customers faulty goods would go bankrupt. When the customers of Weight Watchers and its rivals find that their diets fail, they blame themselves and come back for more. The documentaries were informative and enjoyable. But any obese viewer, including the 17st 8lbs Cohen, must have concluded that, if they watched what they ate and exercised, they would be the dupes of corporate conmen. Wised-up fatties should not waste their time and money, but carry on as before. Or as Peretti said, “While there are people for whom simply eating less and moving more will work, for most of us it doesn’t.”
That is not true, but Peretti cannot see it because he is in the grip of a euphoria that afflicts polemicists from Noam Chomsky on the far Left to Pamela Geller on the far Right. You have a sensational argument, and you convince yourself that you can prove it because every fact you quote is right. I speak from experience when I say that the elation you feel as you contemplate your watertight case is close to ecstasy. You only come down when you realise — if you realise at all — that while all your facts stand up, your conclusion when you string them together can still make no sense at all.
Peretti unconsciously admits his failure. In the second episode, he denounces the Olympics for associating with McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Cadbury. But if dieting is a waste of time, why should we not eat Big Macs and chocolate and wash them down with a fizzy drink? By the final episode, he is describing sugar as the tobacco of the 21st century, and saying, rightly in my view, that governments will have to tackle food manufacturers with the same earnestness they deployed against cigarette manufacturers. But governments might watch Peretti and reply: if it is all a con, why should we bother?
For only one minute in four hours of programming does he allow the scientists who had exposed the lies of the diet industry to give the viewers their recommendations. Guess what? They say you should eat a balanced diet and exercise. This brief moment of common sense passes in a flash, and is never repeated. What your mother told you will not make profits for food corporations, nor will it make for exciting television. And so Peretti, like everyone else with a product to sell, ignores it.