The Men Who Made Us Thin – A misleading and confused documentary
26 Aug 2013

THE MEN WHO MADE US THIN is a documentary series on BBC that looks at the diet industry and how it has been less than honest in order to sell weight-loss to its customers. ( The series brings the following points to a mainstream audience:

  1. Corporations make massive profits selling slimming products that do not work long-term, and have exaggerated the dangers of obesity in order to gain more customers.
  2. The fast food industry has linked itself with sports and sports stars so that their unhealthy foods have a healthy association. This is predicated on the lie that exercise burns off excess body fat.
  3. The redefinition of those with moderate BMI (25-30) to an "over-weight" category by the medical and drugs industries has opened up the weight-loss market to vastly increase profits for weight-loss products, drugs and foods.
  4. Many weight-loss products, such as low-calorie foods that incorporate artificial sweeteners, may have a reverse effect and actually make us fatter.
  5. Celebrities have been at the forefront of this money making enterprise, promoting unattainable BMIs as the beauty ideal.
  6. Diets and exercise do not work. (Overall conclusion viewers are left with.)

Jacques Peretti, the investigative journalist and writer of the series, seemed confused in his attack on the diet industry. The fact that an organization or an individual is making a great deal of money on playing up certain aspects of its diet and fitness products is more of an indictment against capitalism than against dieting and exercising. And the primary message of the documentary, that health should be the focus and not weight is not emphasized, and is indeed lost when each time we see shots of Peretti himself eating, he is tucking into fast-food – giving the message that fast food is normal food. And both times Peretti himself takes part in an exercise class, he quits due to his lack of fitness and with a smirk on his face – giving the message that exercise is a bit of a joke and will do little for weight loss.

So in his efforts to discredit the diet industry, Peretti throws out the baby with the bathwater and inadvertently (presumingly) rejects all diets and exercise. Some of his interviewees make the point that a healthy diet and regular exercise are fundamental to health, but this is lost in Peretti's mixed-message documentary which will undoubtedly confuse many viewers, giving justification to unhealthy lifestyles with the overall message that "diets and exercise don't work" because they are merely money making schemes (the more money made the greater the deception). This is unfortunately poor and misleading investigative journalism.

As a society, we are so accustomed to unhealthy fast food, the type that Peretti seems to enjoy, that any dietary modification that moves us out of a "burger and fries" mentality is labeled as a "diet", and generally only undertaken for a specific period of time to lose weight. But a healthy diet is worlds apart from a fad weight-loss diet, a distinction that Peretti astonishingly does not make.

It is a fact that what we eat (and when), and how much regular exercise we take, has a massive impact on our health and fitness, and very probably on our weight too. But if those who undertake specific diets and exercise programs (fad or otherwise) are unable to maintain these programs, then this does not imply that diets and exercise do not work. After all, there are many other factors involved in being fat such as emotional issues, toxic environments and our constant exposure to advertisements for unhealthy food and media shots of celebrities eating unhealthy food. So a lack of compliance to diets is not necessarily grounds to dismiss dieting: instead we should be looking at why compliance to healthy lifestyles is so low and how to increase it. (This is not to deny that many diets do not work, but many others certainly do.)

The problem if Peretti had taken a more investigative approach is that it brings into question the whole edifice of Western civilization and rampant capitalism, and a diet documentary would end up being a broad political, economic and sociological documentary – far too broad a remit for an orthodox establishment like the BBC! (And far less entertaining!) Much better for viewing figures to simply take pot-shots at the dieting and exercise industries: "Diets and exercise do not work so stop feeling guilty whilst you sit back eating another hamburger in front of your TV."

The bottom line is that Peretti is not actually looking for solutions but is in the entertainment business. And with his trademark smirk, he unwittingly distorts important issues in order to hook his audience into diet-industry bashing. He even makes the point that an overweight person can be healthier than an underweight person, but seems to forget that overall population statistics unanimously conclude that overweight individuals are less healthy than nourished underweight ones, and do not live as long.

But hang on… Peretti interviews scientists who seem to be validating his points. But this is a disingenuous approach because scientists are notoriously narrow in their academic focus, which allows journalists like Peretti to stitch together expert opinions into a tapestry that seems to justify their own opinions. So although many of the detailed points made in the documentary are valid, their contextual presentation in the documentary is invalid.

Take the list of main points that the documentary makes above. They are all true (some might argue about number 4), and yet the following is also true and confirmed by scientific research:

  1. Slimming products and practices that significantly reduce calorific intake do work. Indeed, anything that reduces overall calorific intake will help reduce weight. Of course it is not just about calories... low-glycemic nutritious food will obviously be most healthful.
  2. Regular exercise increases circulation, muscle tone, overall health and longevity. But regularity is far more important than intensity. (Check out the work of NASA scientist Dr. Joan Vernikos.)
  3. Muscle tone is not just about mechanical strength – increasing your muscle to fat ratio significantly alters metabolism, helping to reduce insulin resistance.
  4. Diets low in sugar (diets that minimize insulin secretion) help to restore insulin sensitivity in the body. This has huge health ramifications throughout the body.
  5. Artificial sweeteners can be seriously damaging to health. And the fact that they have government approval as a food ingredient brings into question the undemocratic influence that the food industry has over government and the revolving door employment practice with politicians and food corporations. (In Peretti's documentary, artificial sweeteners are merely dismissed because they are not effective for weight-loss, which is the least of concerns.)
  6. High BMI figures are correlate with increased likelihood of disease and lower life expectancy.
  7. Partial fasting diets are at the forefront of scientific longevity research. This mimics conditions that the human body evolved in and partial fasting can hugely decrease the risk of most modern degenerative diseases. (See BBC's Eat, Fast and Live Longer, a documentary as good as this one is bad.)
  8. Diets and exercise are absolutely fundamental to health and longevity (fad diet and exercise programs excluded).

This list seems very different to the one at the beginning, and yet both have validity from different perspectives, Peretti's only from a very narrow weight-loss perspective. But considering the importance of these points above, the narrow weight-loss perspective should not be allowed to eclipse them.

So to summarize: Peretti, in his effort to make a documentary on weight-loss and the shenanigans of the weight-loss industry has ignored the wider picture and effectively put out the misleading message that diets and exercise don't work, without emphasizing that a healthy diet and regular exercise do work and are indeed absolutely essential for health and longevity. So he has tarred health with the same brush that he tars the weight-loss industry, and this distorted message will have serious ramifications if it discourages anyone from trying to loose weight and keeping fit.