I wanna start this post with a quote:
“The average person will try 126 fad diets in their lifetime”Independent newspaper
For me, that’s beyond shocking.
Even if you just spend 30 seconds considering the implications of this, it’s mind-boggling.
And at the core of this dieting culture are slimming clubs such as Slimming World (SW) and Weight Watchers (WW).
Combined, they have a quoted 1.4 million members, although other sources (The BBC) suggest it’s closer to 6 million.
The question posed is: Do diet and slimming clubs actually help members lose weight or is there a risk of ending up heavier further down the line and triggering mental health issues / disordered eating?
I want to focus this post specifically on emotional and binge eating as that’s what I work with.
There are both slimming club member reports and scientific studies suggesting that clubs like WW and SW are indeed linked to disordered eating.
The long-term effectiveness of the actual weight loss at slimming clubs can also be put into question.
A study by Michael R. Lowe et al. in 2007 showed that the percentage of participants who remained below their goal weight 1, 2 and 5 years after completion of the programme was [only] 26.5%, 20.5%, and 16.2%”.
From my own experience, many of my clients tell me that the weight they were when they started out dieting is now the weight they wish they were now. So basically many dieters end up worse off than when they started.
Worse still, the National Health Service (UK) partners with Slimming World in some counties and offers patients a free 12-week membership.
There are studies done (Weight outcomes audit in 1.3 million adults during their first 3 months’ attendance in a commercial weight management programme) that do show positive outcomes for many SW members, but these fail to take into account the long-term results, plus also effects of subsequent eating disorders created by the diet. It’s also important to note that Slimming World funded the study.
The Hidden Dangers of Diet Clubs: Nurturing Eating Disorders Unknowingly
For most, it’s hard to see the connection between diet clubs like SW and WW (who claim to change lives) and the disordered eating they create or exacerbate.
To give an idea of the abnormal behaviours and feelings diet clubs can bring up, this is what one member reported:
- I was checking my weight 10+ times a day.
- I just had to lose every week, otherwise, I was a failure.
- I would get up on the day of my weigh-in, early in the morning and do fasted cardio at 6 o’clock in the morning, just to sweat out that extra 1 lb that I didn’t lose last week.
- I would find excuses to go for an extra walk just to burn more calories.
- When extra exercising stopped working, I found myself punishing myself and ended up binging and purging a number of times.
- Some unhealthy junk is considered a free food, that you can eat without ‘synning’ yet a handful of nuts will have about 15 syns!
If you develop unwanted behaviours around your diet and exercise it can lead to a negative experience of life. The paradox is that many started out on their weight loss journey to avoid this experience in the first place.
Emotional and binge eating can create habits, behaviours, feelings and emotions that take away from your experience in life. The subsequent effects on your body and mind can create a downward spiral that leads to a engaging in more of the learned behaviours to try and avoid the negative feelings created.Harry Snell, 2023.
What is Binge eating disorder?
The MIND mental health charity states that “you might rely on food to make you feel better. You might also use food to hide difficult feelings. It is sometimes described as compulsive eating”.
These are some of the feelings that you may experience:
- Being out of control
- As if you can’t stop eating
- Ashamed of how much you eat
- Lonely and empty
- Very low, even worthless
- Unhappy about your body
- Stressed and anxious
These are some of the behaviours that you may experience:
- Eat large amounts of food all at once (bingeing)
- Eat without really thinking about it, especially when doing other things
- Often eat unhealthy food
- Eat for comfort when you feel stressed, upset, bored or unhappy
- Eat until you feel uncomfortably full or sick
- Hide how much you are eating
- Find dieting hard whenever you try it
The results of bingeing behaviours could include:
- Putting on weight
- Feelings of nausea
- Having shortness of breath
- Getting sugar highs and lows, which means having bursts of energy and then feeling very tired
- Developing problems linked to being overweight – for example, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, or joint and muscle pain.
As you can see, there are many feelings, behaviours and resulting consequences of emotional and binge eating.
They are not all required to be diagnosed and even without a diagnosis you can still experience these symptoms.
Let’s now discuss disordered eating (binge and emotional) more in detail within the context of diet clubs like Slimming World and Weight Watchers.
Consultants and Coaches
Both Slimming World and Weight Watchers are franchises and are run by local “consultants” or “coaches” as they refer to them. Sometimes the consultant is also referred to as a group leader.
These leaders of local franchise groups in many cases have been members themselves and are often attracted to the idea of the flexible working hours and income their group can provide. Many of the consultants have families so this fits in perfectly with things like school runs and other family obligations. Slimming World advertise this heavily in their marketing to become a consultant.
Then to become a consultant you have to undergo the training process which just is a few days rather than years compared to an actual nutritionist or dietician. There’s no regulation around this and should be a red flag straight away. Also because of the lack of knowledge about how to read and interpret science, consultants are vulnerable to learning and believing nutrition myths from social media influencers just like any layperson.
“These consultants have no mental health awareness, no nutritional awareness and no concept of what to look out for when it comes to an eating disorder, they are there to collect their £5.99 a week by whatever means they can and you are literally just a number to them.”
And as the consultants have often been previous members of slimming groups themselves, they often still struggle with their own weight which should be an early indicator that the diets don’t address all weight loss issues. If you are allowed to become a group leader and still have issues yourself, this should also highlight some serious issues within the approach.
“There’s one with a lady who lost a lot and gained it back, yet is still a consultant. And one with a consultant who doesn’t even properly do the plan. She lives on salads and barely eats carbs, and saves her syns for the weekend, which I thought was discouraged.”
Another problem I often see is that because the consultants 100% believe in how the plans work, when members are not making progress, it’s blamed on them and not the diet. This can lead to feelings of guilt, shame and inadequacy.
“I would get up on the day of my weigh in, early in the morning and do fasted cardio at 6 o’clock in the morning, just to sweat out that extra 1 lb that I didn’t lose last week”.
The consultants often have poor knowledge of how the human body works and how many variables and factors affect weight loss and its success. A member could be doing well, but because of the metrics measured and poor understanding of the whole weight loss journey, they might be left feeling the opposite.
Consultants often fail to educate members sufficiently.
- How much weight loss is appropriate?
- Is there any other measure of progress?
- How should you react if you don’t lose weight?
- What is the role of exercise in their weight loss?
Slimming Groups: A Double-Edged Sword with Unintended Consequences
Slimming World and Weight Watchers groups are run in local communities usually in rented spaces such as community centres.
The setup of diet clubs can both feel supportive for some (the feeling that “these people are on the same journey as me”), but at the same time, it can be deflating for others.
“While in the queue for my weight in, another person saw me and began to loudly criticise me for being there as I was “slim enough” and my mere presence was mocking her.”
One of the biggest complaints from members is seeing other people do well and feeling bad about their own progress. When you bring people together who are suffering from a common problem, there is inevitable comparison.
There’s often no context to this comparison though…
- Did the person who lost more weight have more weight to lose?
- Did they starve themselves to lose more weight that week?
- Was your weigh-in on a day when you just happened to be heavier?
- Were you holding more water weight when you weighed?
- Or any other random factor?
“I would find excuses to go out to the shop or for an extra walk just to burn more calories”
Slimming Groups: The Effect on Self-Worth
From my experience, slimming groups are very achievement-based rather than action, effort and behaviour-based.
You can’t control what the scale says, but you can control the effort you put in and the actions you take on any given day or week.
This is similar to how we talk about in schools where children should be praised more for their effort than the results they get in class.
There are studies that indicate that outcome and ability praise over effort praise results in self-sabotage.
“Self-worth theory suggests that when an individual’s self-worth is threatened, they are likely to use a self-serving attributional strategy and self-handicapping”Shufen Xing et al. – Effects of Ability and Effort Praise on Children’s Failure Attribution, Self-Handicapping, and Performance.
The fixed mindset of judging the slimming group member on their weight at every meeting is belittling to many and has a huge effect on self-worth. It’s often interpreted as “My worth is based on my weight and nothing else”.
“I just had to lose every week, otherwise I was a failure, right?”
Not feeling worthy can induce loads of unhelpful feelings and behaviours such as low self-esteem, body image distortion, people pleasing, attention seeking, rumination and intrusive thoughts.
As a way to numb themselves from the effects of the above (often stress and overwhelm), it’s common for dieters to turn to emotional and binge eating. Eating is a way to switch the brain off and momentarily not have to deal with difficult thoughts. It also produces dopamine and endorphins which are mood-enhancing.
I’m sure you can see that the negative feelings above are things we are trying to tackle by losing weight and NOT amplify!
Diet and slimming group members often report taking off jewellery etc…to try and avoid the embarrassment of not having reached their goal that week. I found a forum online discussing “Your Tricks on Weigh-In Day”. One member mentions the lengths he goes to before weigh-in:
“Ive stopped eating at 10pm the day before and neither ate nor drank until 7pm weigh-in the next day. I find I can manage fasting no problem. The most extreme version of the above involved me getting up on weigh day, having a morning drink, and then not eating or drinking a thing. At 4:30 i would run 5k, and at 5:30 I would do 45 minutes of kettlebell aerobic exercise, and then only drink after weigh-in at 7pm.”
Other members have reported that it feels like being a cow herded onto a lorry in the line to be weighed at the weekly meeting.
“The first hour consisted of people standing, cattle-style in a queue to be weighed. I felt degraded and deflated on their behalf.”
And importantly as well, weight is a huge focus in slimming clubs and one of the only metrics members are asked to measure on their journey.
“I just had to lose every week, otherwise I was a failure, right?”
What about why they want to lose the weight?…their dream life and how they want to live?
And what about…
- Their relationship with themselves?
- Blood health markers?
- Mental health?
- Physical strength?
And other Non-Scale-Weight Victories (NSWVs) as they are often referred to.
If someone already has slow self-worth, putting themselves in situations where they could be “hurt” even more is going to make their brain very wary about the whole weight loss process. This includes feeling negative emotions around not making progress and feeling like a failure if the scale doesn’t show the number they were expecting. This can induce even more anxiety which can lead to a release through emotional eating.
The brain is very powerful and emotions can activate the fight or flight response which is very hard to overcome. This can lead to the feeling that you have absolutely no control when urges, cravings and compulsions arise over food.
Slimming Club Diets: How Their Food Plans Create Disorders
The actual diet that’s provided to slimming club members is where we really see the psychological effects of trying to lose weight and how it can cause disorders.
There are a few factors to consider, so bear with me:
Diet Rules: Ridgid & Arbitrary
The same factor that makes diets “easy” to follow in the short term is the factor that makes them fail in the long run.
And that’s the RULES they set.
Rules aim to try and make diets simple by making them very black and white.
Some examples are:
- Labelling of good or bad foods.
- Foods you can have and foods you can’t.
- Allowing fat but not carbs.
- Allowing you to eat between these hours and not these other hours.
- Setting a points or calorie target.
However, it’s important to understand that these rules are:
- Arbitrary and made up.
- Make you feel boxed in, creating imaginary boundaries which make you feel like you have failed if you cross them.
- Cause overthinking, overanalysing and extra stress.
- Ultimately make dieting harder to maintain long-term.
- And they can make you feel like a bad person.
When you create a diet rule you create an imaginary box around yourself in your head (whether you realise it or not).
Without knowing it your focus then changes and your brain is constantly switched on to check if you have crossed this line or stepped outside the “box”.
It’s the same as walking a slackline 30cm off the ground vs. 30m. It’s the same task, but you feel more confined 30m up as you’ve created more severe consequences if you fail.
For this reason, your mind focuses on the “what ifs”.
30m up, you will start thinking, “What if I wobble”, “What if I fall”, “What if I die”, “What if…”
The same happens with the diet…
Creating a box around you invites the feelings of “what if”.
- “What if I go over my calories?”
- “What happens if I am under?”
- “What happens if I eat after 6pm?”
- “What happens if I cross a time zone?”
- “What happens if I’m still hungry?”
- “What if someone offers me something that I’m not supposed to have?”
This creates 3 problems:
- It creates the black-and-white thinking of if I broke the rule, then I’m not on the diet anymore and can also invoke feelings of you being a good or bad person (more on this later).
- It takes your focus off the goal and onto what could go wrong. You get more of what you focus on. If you’re not focusing on where you are going on the slackline, then you look down and fall off. The same happens on the diet – you’re so caught up in overthinking that you stop taking proper action or end up self-sabotaging the process.
- It takes a lot of energy to think! Especially when there are infinite things to think about. If you’re tired, stressed and overwhelmed in your life even before you start the diet, think what how much all this extra thinking will add to your stress!! And then, how do you usually deal with stress? A binge?
Another problem with creating arbitrary rules that allow you to fail is that it feeds into our human trait of generalising our beliefs.
What I mean by this is you can end up labelling yourself as bad if you keep making mistakes.
Labelling things as good and bad based on generalisation is really common. A great example is Covid. I heard many people say “2020 was a terrible year for me”.
Is this true? Was 24 hours a day 365 days of the year terrible, or did you have “bad” moments which you are using to label the year as bad? Were there equally lots of good moments which you’ve forgotten to focus on?
The same happens with dieting. A few bad moments can become a bad week. A bad week could become a bad month. A few bad months could become “I’ve been bad over the last few months”. That could then become, “I’m bad”, “I’m a failure”, “I’m not good enough” etc…
This black-and-white thinking and labelling can spiral out of control. A few bad moments can end up becoming your identity.
Your brain uses your identity to guide you through your life. If you believe you’re not good enough, then your actions are going to be half-hearted compared to if you 100% believe in yourself.
That’s where we start to see people saying “I’m gonna TRY this new diet” instead of more committed language.
Does the word TRY portray confidence, conviction and belief?
Diet RULES Create Negative Behaviours:
Another thing is that RULES shape behaviours. These arbitrary rules force you to have behaviours you wouldn’t have otherwise.
- I can’t possibly eat after 6pm because it’s not part of my diet.
- This food is 7 syns so I I’m not allowed it.
- Or this is 7 syns so I’m gonna not eat all these other things, so I can have it.
- I’m allowed X, but not Y.
E.g. I’m going out for a meal and I won’t know how many points are in the food, so I’ll take the day off the diet today.
Basically, rules stop you thinking for yourself.
They can also be much more insidious. Many slimming club members end up trying to trick the system to get better results in order to avoid the embarrassment of feeling like a failure in front of others:
“I would get up on the day of my weigh-in, early in the morning and do fasted cardio at 6 o’clock in the morning”.
“The community itself was quite toxic and reinforced disordered eating. Everything was about tricking the system and big losses each week”.
“The night following my weigh-in I would pig out on all the foods I had restricted before”.
Without realising it at the time these behaviours then end up making it more likely to experience a weight gain rather than loss and thus start the guilt cycle.
Diet Rules Can Destroy Confidence
Diet rules can also affect confidence.
If you follow a diet with rules like points, calories, syns etc…you’re essentially “outsourcing” decisions to the diet plan.
This causes 2 problems:
- You don’t learn to think for yourself.
- You lose touch with your body’s natural hunger cues.
1. Arbitrary rules that make you feel boxed in don’t develop the ability for you to make decisions yourself. You rely on the RULES to follow. As I mentioned before, you’re either totally following them, or totally not.
Life isn’t like a Disney movie. It’s not black and white. There’s not good and bad. Your day is highly likely to throw unpredictable things at you. If those things make you fall outside the “boundaries” of your diet RULES then you could end up feeling like you’ve failed – without reason.
Does deviating 1% off your path mean you’ve failed?
Ironically, the on or off-the-diet mindset creates RULES where you end up totally 100% off the diet if you feel like you haven’t followed them.
Diet-induced Self-sabotage in action!
Part of learning to think for yourself is about exposing yourself to inevitable mistakes which help you learn.
Making your own choices and following through on your own actions is also what builds confidence and makes you proud of yourself. If outsource all decisions to your arbitrary diet plan, you lose trust in yourself and will rely on something external to dictate your decisions.
This is what cultivates indecision and overthinking.
This can spill over into other areas of your life as well! For example, in an office meeting, you may not believe your comments are worthy to speak up and put forward your ideas. This may even lead to you not getting a promotion over another person who does put forward ideas.
2. Because counting points, syns or even calories means that you can eat whenever you want, whenever you want as long as you are within your limits, you can often lose the ability to eat intuitively. You don’t need to listen to your hunger signals anymore – you listen to the rules of the diet which requires adding up your points, calories or syns.
This can end up in disaster on those days when you aren’t following the diet – you aren’t following hunger signals or fullness cues, so you have literally nothing to guide your food choices. This is what often leads to binges as well.
“I began eating everything in sight, and with no rules to follow, I felt out of control, often eating over 5,000 calories in one sitting until I passed out in a daze.”
Diet Rules Create FEAR
The introduction of rules can also create real fear and anxiety over what and how to eat.
I had a client genuinely get anxious over buying a banana after doing the Keto diet for many years.
This goes back into the slackline and feeling boxed in. If you feel like you have crossed the line, your brain alerts you to it!
This is an example of an unhealthy obsession. A banana is healthy, but an arbitrary rule that the Keto diet introduces (don’t eat carbs) can make you feel like you’ve crossed a line when you do something that goes against those rules.
The same can happen with going over your points, calories or syns allocations.
“Not only did I find it impossible to maintain my new weight but I also had a newfound anxiety around calorie counting, cooking and eating out.”
“I quickly came to associate low calorie foods as ‘free’ or ‘good’ and anything above 100 calories as ‘bad’”.
Slimming Club Members Want Fast Weight Loss
Diet clubs like SW and WW don’t address the need for rapid results.
Most members aren’t happy with themselves or their lives and link it to their body shape and size.
This often results in behaviours which end up sabotaging their own progress. E.g. Going more extreme when they don’t see results. Diet clubs do nothing to address the issue of self-worth, where it comes from and how to love yourself.
That also links back to the emphasis on weight loss as the sole measure of success. Yes, weight loss is why members start dieting. But what is it that they really want? The energy, the health, being able to run after their kids?
This narrow focus on weight often leads to an unhealthy fixation on the scale number which can lead to disordered reactive eating.
E.g. My Weight went up, felt bad, stressed and tired of the diet, it’s not working so what’s the point, give up, binge, feel even worse, what’s wrong with me, I’ve put on even more weight, I need to do better, start the diet again.
And this can be an endless cycle!
That’s why some of my clients have dieted for 20+ years after starting from a very young age.
“I was first introduced to slimming world when I was around 13 years old. My mum told me that I could eat a whole chicken and as many muller lights as I wanted. I joined a group when I was 19 and failed. Joined again when I was about 25 years old and over 16 stone and managed to get down to 13 stone which I was happy with. I wasn’t healthy though. I would spend the whole of Wednesday (weigh in day) starving myself and giving myself enemas before weighing in and then buying a huge takeaway and large bar of chocolate or packet of cream cakes to binge on that night.”
What About Members Who Do Lose Weight?
As I mentioned in the intro, the sad thing is that for many, after years of doing diets like SW and WW their original start weight (when they considered themselves fat), becomes their new goal. They end up putting on weight during their journey.
Think about how much of life they have missed out on while thinking and worrying about food that whole time.
Of course, there are going to be people who lose weight in diet clubs. And anyone that loses weight is going to feel better about themselves. Losing just a bit of weight can mean the difference between life and death if you are obese.
I think it’s important to note that we all have different personality types as well.
Someone whos a Type A personality that is very goal orientated, likes control and good under stress is going to cope with a diet club mentality very differently to say a Type B who is driven a lot by feelings, struggles with consistency and is not able to cope so well with challenges.
That’s justifying the way slimming clubs do diets, however Type A’s may be able to endure them for longer before falling off.
And when a slimming club member does reach their goal weight, how does their personality type then dictate their future success? – A type A without a new goal and less strict rules may not fare so well!
The good reviews Slimming Clubs Receive
People do lose weight attending diet clubs, but when you see a positive review, still consider the following.
- It’s easy to lose some weight if you have a lot to lose. There are people who may lose some weight and then get stuck. I’m not saying it doesn’t make a difference to their lives, but consider that a 20-stone person who loses 3 stone may not reach their goal even though 3 stone is an impressive amount to lose when you look at it without context.
- Remember that weight loss reviews are often left during or just after being in the club, so those are probably moments of success. I always remind people to not only focus on the before and after photos, but what about the after-after photo? What happened a year down the line? This is super important to indicate real success.
- As mentioned before, there are millions of members in these diet clubs. To simplify it, let’s round down and say there are 1,000,000 members in each of SW and WW. As an example, let’s say 1% of people get results – that results in 20,000 positive reviews. That looks great, doesn’t it? But if you know that 20,000 represents 99% of people failing, it doesn’t look so good does it? That’s only an illustration and I don’t have the numbers of how many people do succeed, but I hope that gets the point across about having lots of reviews.
The final thing I want to say is what happens when members do reach their goal? They are advised to stick with the diet for the rest of their lives. They have to maintain this confused “box” around them like a prison because if they deviate outside it they don’t know how to live. Inside the box is safe and “on the diet”; outside the box is a life where they have no skills on how to make choices and decisions around food by themselves.
Outside the box seems a scary place where there are no rules and the possibility of putting all the weight back on. So even after reaching their goal, there’s the background anxiety of “I must stick to this diet otherwise I’ll put the weight back on”.
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