My Beef With Health Magazines
It’s been a long time since I’ve written a post about so-called health magazines. But every time I pass by the magazine shelves at the grocery store, I just want to scream.
One of my biggest gripes is that most info in health magazines is about weight loss. There’s rarely any mention of foods that actually nourish our bodies, workouts that make you strong and clear your head and are simply, purely and happily fun. (Gasp! Exercise can be joyful, and people would benefit so much more from this knowledge than the usual fear-of-fat or belly-bulge shaming.)
Instead, what readers get is either a sprinkling or a stockpile of weight loss talk.
So it isn’t anymore about running for fun, endurance, strength or competition. Now it’s how to run for weight loss.
It isn’t eclectic, nutrient-rich and yummy foods to try. Instead, it’s low-calorie foods that taste better than cardboard. Or eat this boneless, skinless chicken with steamed veggies, but don’t dare put pasta or pizza in your mouth.
Even Prevention, a magazine that I thought truly focused on health, has disappointingly gone over to the dark side.
While I realize that this may sound naive, but when did health magazines become all about weight loss?
For example, in Prevention, there’s a very valuable tip (cue the sarcasm) to “muscle your way to more willpower.” (We all know how I feel about willpower.):
“Next time a cupcake calls to you from a bakery window, make a fist and keep walking. Clenching any of your muscles increases willpower – it’s like a mental metaphor for resisting temptation, says Aparna Labroo, PhD, of the University of Chicago, author of the new study. Health-conscious people who tightened a muscle while selecting food from a snack bar were more likely to pass up decadent treats and opt for good-for-you fruit. Caveats: You have to be focused on healthy eating, and you have to clench the muscle while facing the dilemma.” (p. 42)
I realize that magazines are under a lot of pressure to produce new and breakthrough advice, and after a while, they might run out of tips, tricks and secrets.
But really? Really, Prevention, a clenched fist is the answer to a cupcake that talks to you?
This isn’t inventive or interesting; it teaches readers that you must avoid desserts at all costs. That cupcakes are the antithesis of healthy eating. (They’re not.)
Then there’s the blatant fear-mongering. In another article, Prevention offers a sidebar called “Couch Potato Calories,” with the following explanation:
“These foods are so easily digested that you’re likely to absorb every calorie and store it as fat. The result: Even if you don’t overeat, you may still gain weight.” (p. 91)
Then, the magazine goes on to separate a variety of foods into “the pantry stuffers,” “the impostors” and “the binge brigade.”
In another article, “Diet Goofs to Avoid,” Prevention begins by stating that carrots are essentially the gateway drug to forbidden fruits like “blue cheese, perhaps, or a nice herbed ranch” (p. 45).
With words like “sabotage,” “worry-free” (when you opt for a baked sweet potato instead of the ghastly sweet potato fries) and “vat of fat,” you’d think we were talking about something truly criminal.
While some of these tips are blatantly pro-dieting and pro-thinness, they also contain subtle mixed messages, making it more likely that people might buy into their advice (thinking it’s truly helpful and healthy).
To me, the biggest mixed message is when a health publication focuses on weight loss over and over and over. I’m not trying to pick on Prevention (there are so many other publications like this), but it’s just so disappointing!
Take also the headlines on the cover, which scream “Eat Great, Lose Weight Fast,” “Drop 2 sizes in 4 weeks,” “Foods that Fight Belly Fat” and “Wonder Workouts! 30 minutes of calorie burn in 10 minutes flat.”
A few strange references about sex and “find out what he really thinks of you,” and they’ll soon be mistaken for Cosmo.
Doesn’t it get exhausting and boring repurposing the same body-bashing, pro-dieting and thin-is-in pieces?
There are so many genuinely interesting and valuable topics health magazines can write about. (I’m sure all of us can think of great topics!)
Another example of mixed messages comes curtesy of a letter from the editor in Women’s Health. A while back, I actually wrote about Michele Promaulayko’s (WH‘s editor) words about bikini season (her letter, honestly, pissed me off; you can read why).
In March’s issue, she writes in big, bold, proud letters: “More Joy, Less Guilt.”
Sounds promising, right?
Well, the overall message is indulge and enjoy but….not too much! It’s basically a letter about reducing guilt that makes you feel more guilty.
“…As I sit here, I’m reminiscing about how whenever I’m in France I revel in the liberated attitude that abounds there. Liberated from carb phobia (daily trips to the boulangerie to pick up a pain au chocolate for breakfast and a baguette to be eaten later in the day – with cheese! – are de rigueur)…”
Here, she ups our guilt quotient by making cheese seem oh-so sinful. What’s also interesting is that her magazine is responsible for furthering messages like “carb phobia.” As the editor-in-chief, she must have some leverage about what goes in the magazine.
“Guilt is a sneaky emotional cancer, one I’ve been afflicted with for most of my adult life. It goes into remission when I touch down in a place like Paris and resurfaces when the wheels go up for the ride home. And while it wouldn’t be great to continue on an unending path of gluttony, aren’t we meant to go a little off the rails on vacation? (OK, demolishing the towering plate of pommes frites was more than a little off course, but you know what I mean.)
So the only time we can feel guilt-free, or more joy, according to Promaulayko, is when we’re many miles away from home. (Reminds me of yo-yo dieting, perhaps?) And apparently, there’s either guilt-free restriction or guilt-full gluttony. There’s nothing in between.
And actually I don’t know what she means. To me, this sounds more like a letter asking for forgiveness for the sins of enjoying some French food. If this was about pure joy, there would be no warnings, no backtracking and no beware-the-baguettes-with-cheese.
She does give us three steps to strip guilt of its power, “outsmart it” and “unlock its hold.”
To strip guilt of its power, she suggests relishing in your “indulgences,” “without stressing over every morsel that passes your lips,” instead of reviling them. (Isn’t her magazine doing precisely this?)
To outsmart guilt, work out. She says that she schedules a workout with her trainer the next morning after her trip, “knowing that a great workout would be the fastest, surest way to reset my routine.”
And in the third step, unlocking guilt’s hold, she says that guilt is mainly self-afflicted. “In my case, the offense is eating a surplus of so-called naughty foods. A victimless crime wouldn’t you say? Option the ability to absolve yourself.”
How funny that the entire magazine completely contradicts whatever shred of wisdom might be present. (I’m probably being generous.) It’s the usual barrage of headlines: “Shrink Your Belly!”; “Fast Track to Weight Loss.”
There’s even an article on fruit that “won’t pack on pounds” (p. 84). Apparently, “some of Mother Nature’s candy contains a lot of sugar and calories.”
So much for savoring and enjoying. If you can’t even have a piece of fruit without fretting about sugar, calories and imminent weight gain, shame or death, umm, what else is there?
When it comes to magazines, websites, blogs and any other writing, read what makes you feel good, uplifted, happy and nourished.
Anything that’s packed with shaming suggestions deserves to be tossed.
What do you think about “health” magazines? What are some of your favorite magazines? Please tell me there’s a good fitness or woman’s magazine out there! What topics would you like health magazines to cover?
Tartakovsky, M. (2011). My Beef With Health Magazines. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 28, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/weightless/2011/03/my-beef-with-health-magazines/