We’ve hit peak ‘Beach body ready’ in the Northern Hemisphere. Two months’ worth of diets, exercise plans and tummy smoothing swimsuits have been forced upon us from every angle. It’s now the height of summer and to those who dare to take their body to the beach with double digit body fat percentage: Tracy Anderson is coming to get you.
Who on earth is Tracy Anderson? She’s a US-based personal trainer to the stars, who once fell out with Madonna and fell in with Gwyneth Paltrow and the Goopettes. You can see where this is going already. Now usually, I tend to ignore these celebrity trainers and self-appointed wellness gurus, but last week my interest was piqued and I clicked on a link shared by Dr Christian Jessen because of his accompanying statement “I accuse ‘wellness’ sites of often being indistinguishable from pro-ana websites”.
Anderson is interviewed on the infamous Goop website (a festival of misinformation on all aspects of health), sharing her weight loss tips for whether you have a month, two weeks, a week or 48 hours to lose weight. Before I even discuss the diet itself, it’s imperative to realise that you do not need to lose weight or tone up ‘for summer’, to be ‘beach ready’ or, inexplicably, for your “high school reunion”. If you want to make better food choices and improve your relationship with food for health reasons, go right ahead but best if you chat to a registered nutritionist or dietitian first. You do not have to conform to some narrow ideal of beauty just to be deemed acceptable on the beach. You are ‘beach ready’ when you are on the beach, plain and simple.
So now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s take a look at this interview in a little more detail and I’ll explain just why it made me quite so angry. The introduction gets off to a bad start with a blatant promotion of Anderson’s protein bars but the first line to really get me going is “her approach to both fitness and nutrition are serious and clean clean clean”. Now I’ve already written about the dangers of clean eating in setting up a false dichotomy between good and bad foods when you can very healthily enjoy all foods in balance, as well as needlessly encouraging the elimination of whole food groups. But why on earth does the approach to eating and being active have to be serious? Eating should surely be a joy, a delight to the senses, and any physical activity has to be enjoyable or you simply won’t keep doing it.
“The best way to jump-start weight loss is to work out every single day until you actually crave the workout.” Ummm? As Dr Christian tweeted, this language and sentiment is indistinguishable from pro-ana websites (sites that encourage and celebrate eating disorders, sharing tips on weight loss and ‘thinspiration’ images). Everything about this statement is dangerous to mental and physical health, suggesting that engaging in excessive exercise to the verge of addiction is the key to successful weight loss. Health is deprioritised in the pursuit of thinness. Training every day is a sure fire route to injury and overtraining syndrome and encouraging this mentality could lead to body dysmorphia.
The recommended diet to help you shed 14 pounds in a month is low calorie, low fat, very low carb and OF COURSE eliminates gluten but inexplicably permits one or two glasses of wine a day, Tracey’s own protein bars and up to a bar of chocolate a day as long as it’s the specific brand that is presumably paying to advertise in this article. Now, unless you’re a coeliac or have other diagnosed gluten-related issues, then you don’t need to eliminate it from the diet, as whole grains offer a good source of fibre and micronutrients and are delicious.
Effectively, this diet consists of small amounts of very lean protein, small amounts of nuts and some fibrous vegetables (plus the optional wine and chocolate) and a whole lot of tea. Coupled with working out intensely, every day, most people would be exhausted, their performance would suffer when training but also, it would be incredibly difficult to concentrate when eating so little food. Furthermore, while weight loss would result, at least in the initial stages, much of this would be water and lean tissue resulting in a less healthy body composition and lower metabolic rate than before the diet, both of which would lead to rebound weight gain when it inevitably becomes impossible to maintain such a restrictive and unhealthy regime.
An example day consists of a cup of fresh berries for breakfast, a can of tuna with mustard and cucumber for lunch and chicken or steamed fish with green vegetables for dinner. I calculated the nutrition that this would provide, if the optional chocolate and wine were not included. Brace yourselves because these figures are for the whole day, not just one meal:
However, the reader is reassured that “If you’re hungry between meals, have, say one poached egg, and wait a few hours to see how you feel, then have another little something light if you’re still hungry.” I guarantee I would be hungry and I am certain that one poached egg would not satisfy my appetite. In answer to concerns about weight loss plateaus (which are inevitable when the metabolic rate falls in response to restricted calorie intake), the reader is encouraged to drop energy intake further, by “cutting almond milk from your coffee” (because clearly dairy, unless it’s her own brand of whey protein powder is not OK).
This diet is caveated with the statement: “Please keep in mind that these menus are meant for people who have unhealthy weight on them and/or are in need of weight management.” However, in spite of an allusion to listening to one’s body, this regime seems purely to stigmatise anyone who doesn’t conform to the ultra-thin ideal as lacking in control and being unhealthy. The sole focus on weight and not health and the instruction to weight oneself daily can lead to negative body image, weight fixation and anxiety. While I applaud the encouragement to eat responsibly sourced, whole foods, cooked from scratch, the food rules are rigid and do not foster a healthy relationship with food. Undertaking such a restrictive regime as this may increase the risk of disordered eating.
This diet is dangerously low in energy, essential fats, iron, fibre and many other micronutrients. It encourages undereating, over-exercising, the over-riding of natural appetite cues and needlessly demonises a whole range of healthy foods like whole grains, pulses, starchy vegetables, red meat, olive oil and cheese, all of which can contribute to a healthy and balanced active lifestyle. Moreover, it encourages dangerous and disordered thinking around food, weight, exercising and body image.
This advice is breathtakingly irresponsible and is not founded in any sound science, yet it comes from a source that is trusted by many, in spite of the claims being frequently refuted by scientists. It’s essential to call out this dangerous misinformation to protect the public. This is not just a threat to their physical health but also to mental health as it reinforces weight stigma, diet culture and an unhealthy relationship with food. We need to embrace all body types and stop demonising any body that does not meet the narrow physical ideal of perfection and we need to celebrate the enjoyment of good food. No ‘diet’ can work in the long term if it is not enjoyable. It might not sell weight loss books but it really is about finding a healthy balance.