June 18, 2024

Jaye Rochon struggled to lose weight for years. But she felt as if a burden had lifted when she discovered YouTube influencers advocating “health at every size” — urging her to stop dieting and start listening to her “mental hunger.”

She stopped avoiding favorite foods such as cupcakes and Nutella. “They made me feel like I was safe eating whatever the hell I wanted,” said Rochon, 51, a video editor in Wausau, Wis. In two months, she regained 50 pounds. As her weight neared 300 pounds, she began to worry about her health.

The videos that Rochon encountered are part of the “anti-diet” movement, a social media juggernaut that began as an effort to combat weight stigma and an unhealthy obsession with thinness. But now global food marketers are seeking to cash in on the trend.

One company in particular, General Mills, maker of Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms cereals, has launched a multipronged campaign that capitalizes on the teachings of the anti-diet movement, an investigation by The Washington Post and The Examination, a nonprofit newsroom that covers global public health, has found.

General Mills has toured the country touting anti-diet research it claims proves the harms of “food shaming.” It has showered giveaways on registered dietitians who promote its cereals online with the hashtag #DerailTheShame, and sponsored influencers who promote its sugary snacks. The company has also enlisted a team of lobbyists and pushed back against federal policies that would add health information to food labels.

General Mills complies with federal regulations and “works closely with a variety of scientific, health, nutrition and other credentialed experts to ensure we provide accurate, evidence-based information,” said spokesperson Andrea Williamson.

Online dietitians — many of them backed by food makers — also are building lucrative followings by co-opting anti-diet messages. Anti-diet hashtags, such as #NoBadFoods, #FoodFreedom and #DitchTheDiet, have proliferated on social media.

The Post and The Examination analyzed more than 6,000 social media posts by 68 registered dietitians with at least 10,000 followers. The analysis showed that roughly 40 percent of these influencers, with a combined reach of more than 9 million followers, repeatedly used anti-diet language.

Most of the influencers who used anti-diet language also were paid to promote products from food, beverage and supplement companies, the analysis found.

The rapid spread of anti-diet messaging — and the alliance between some of the country’s registered dietitians and the food industry — has alarmed some in the public health community.

Since the 1980s, the U.S. obesity rate has more than doubled, according to federal data. Nearly half a million Americans die early each year as a result of excess body weight, according to estimates in a 2022 Lancet study.

The anti-diet approach essentially shifts accountability for the health crisis away from the food industry for creating ultra-processed junk foods laden with food additives, sugars and artificial sweeteners.

General Mills embraces anti-diet messaging

Amy Cohn, General Mills’ senior manager for nutrition and external affairs, promoted the cereal company’s anti-diet messaging to a room of registered dietitians at a national food conference this past fall. Cohn denounced the media for “pointing the finger at processed foods” and making consumers feel ashamed of their choices.

“You can help derail the cycle of shame,” Cohn told the dietitians.

During the session, Kathryn Lawson, a registered dietitian and director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the food giant Nestlé, tweeted: “People need to feel heard and seen to help break the cycle of shame when it comes to losing weight and eating.”

At least 10 registered dietitians promoted General Mills’ cereals in TikTok and Instagram posts last year, using the slogan #DerailTheShame while tagging the company in their posts. In some posts, dietitians show off personalized Cheerios boxes adorned with their names while they denounce “food shaming” of ready-to-eat cereals.

In a separate TikTok video published in November 2023, the self-described “anti-diet” dietitian Cara Harbstreet promoted the company’s “Big G” cereals, which include sugary brands such as Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Cocoa Puffs and Trix.

“I will always advocate for fearlessly nourishing meals, including cereal,” the Kansas City, Mo., dietitian told her followers in the video, which was labeled “#sponsored” and disclosed that she was working with General Mills. “Because everyone deserves to enjoy food without judgment, especially kids.”

Harbstreet said in an email she was “no longer actively partnering” with General Mills.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who recently co-sponsored legislation to help establish more prominent nutrition labeling on the front of food packages, said food companies’ adoption of anti-diet messaging is especially pernicious.

“I think it is really reprehensible for the food industry to prey on the vulnerabilities of people who suffer from diabetes or obesity or diseases that are caused by excessive sugar, fat and perhaps other ingredients that do them harm,” Blumenthal said. “To tell people they should be proud of eating the wrong things, that’s hardly doing them a service.”

How the food industry supports anti-diet dietitians

This past fall, following a separate Post and Examination investigation, the Federal Trade Commission cracked down on industry trade groups and a dozen nutrition influencers, flagging nearly three dozen social media posts that it said failed to clearly disclose who was paying the influencers to promote artificial sweeteners or sugary foods.

Numerous food companies continue to sponsor social media ads by outspoken anti-diet dietitians.

Dietitian Colleen Christensen posted a video of herself eating rocky road ice cream on her TikTok account @no.food.rules, in which she mocks low-calorie alternatives. She has made ads for pancake makers Kodiak Cakes and Premier Protein for her 300,000 followers.

Lauren Smith, who calls herself a “food freedom dietitian” on TikTok, has posted ads for frozen pizza from a gluten-free brand, Banza, and for a high-protein snack company, Lorissa’s Kitchen, to her more than 70,000 followers.

Christensen didn’t respond to requests for comment. Smith said she only partners with brands that she uses herself and that align with her nutrition philosophy.

Harbstreet, the anti-diet dietitian who touted cereals for General Mills, also has posted ads for low-calorie sweetener Truvia, Barilla pasta and a whipped cake icing brand owned by Rich Foods.

Cargill, the parent company for Truvia, said in an email that the company does not focus on the anti-diet movement. “We engage with dietitians across diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise,” a spokesperson wrote.

“I think it is really reprehensible for the food industry to prey on the vulnerabilities of people who suffer from diabetes or obesity or diseases that are caused by excessive sugar, fat and perhaps other ingredients that do them harm.”

— Sen. Richard Blumenthal

A spokesperson for Kodiak Cakes said in an email, “We have always seen beyond of-the-moment trends and prioritize the importance of protein and whole grains in a healthy, balanced lifestyle.”

Banza, Lorissa’s Kitchen, Rich Foods, Barilla and BellRing, which owns Premier Protein, did not respond to requests for comment.

The food industry’s close relationship with dietitians was on full display this past fall in Denver at the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo, the world’s largest gathering of registered dietitians. Dietitians noshed on vegetarian “bulgogi” samples from Beyond Meat and a pumpkin spice loaf made with the sugar substitute Splenda.

Next to Camp PepsiCo — the beverage giant’s summer-camp-themed booth — dietitians waited in line to climb a giant yellow General Mills cereal box and slide into a bowl of plushie Cheerios.

At a symposium, General Mills shared the results of a survey it funded about “food shaming” — defined as “making people feel bad about what they eat.”

The company said the research showed food shaming led to lower self-esteem and eating disorders and made people more likely to avoid the cereal aisle in grocery stores.

Cohn fielded a question from the audience about proposed Food and Drug Administration rules to label foods high in sugar, salt and fat.

“We’re doing everything we can to prevent that from happening,” she said. “Shaming is what I call it.”

The industry doubles down

General Mills has funded at least seven scientific studies since 2019 claiming that cereals are beneficial to consumers’ health. One review found that children who ate cereal, regardless of the sugar content, had healthier body weights than children who ate other breakfast food or skipped breakfast.

The company spent more than $2 million in 2022 and 2023 lobbying the federal government, according to data from OpenSecrets, a nonprofit group.

Efforts by the FDA to regulate food labels have sparked some of the fiercest opposition from General Mills and other leading cereal producers.

Last year, General Mills and fellow cereal giants Kellogg and Post Consumer Brands threatened legal action over a proposed rule to limit what they are allowed to promote as healthy. In a joint filing, the companies argued that the proposed restrictions would violate their First Amendment rights.

“They love putting ‘healthy’ in big, red letters,” Blumenthal said. “But when it comes down to the details — how much fat, how much sugar — they resist clarity like the plague.”

How the anti-diet movement has been distorted

Anti-diet proponents have been fighting against weight bias and diet culture for decades. The movement now known as Health at Every Size, or HAES, began in the 1960s as a grass-roots effort in tandem with other civil rights movements to promote equal access to health care, said Ani Janzen, the operations and projects leader for the Association for Size Diversity and Health, which holds the HAES trademark.

Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole, both registered dietitians, popularized the term “intuitive eating” with the publication of their 1995 book “Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach.” Intuitive eating urges followers to listen to their internal cues about hunger and is frequently used to help people with eating disorders.

In the past few years, academic interest in these anti-diet philosophies has surged. From 2019 to 2023, academic mentions of “anti-diet” tripled, according to a Post-Examination analysis of Google Scholar data.

An analysis of 1,500 TikTok videos using the hashtags #AntiDiet or #HealthAtEverySize by The Post and The Examination found that the most commonly discussed topics included eating disorders, dieting and weight loss.

Ice cream was the top food item mentioned across the TikTok data set, with dozens of videos defending the dessert as unfairly demonized by society, the Post-Examination analysis found.

In some videos made by anti-diet dietitians, creators say no foods should be labeled as “junk” or “unhealthy” because “all foods have value,” while showing snacks like Cheetos or candy brands like Reese’s and Twix.

But leaders of Health at Every Size say their work has been distorted on social media. The hashtag #HealthAtEverySize is often used to promote body positivity or suggest that “you can be healthy at any size,” Janzen said.

“Health at Every Size” is really about how weight bias has created a health-care system “that is harming fat people,” she said.

The wide appeal of Health at Every Size online allows it to be commercialized, said Angel Austin, interim executive director for the HAES association. “You have a lot of privileged people talking about Health at Every Size, unfortunately, because it’s profitable,” she said.

Resch, the co-founder of intuitive eating, said that big food companies touting anti-diet slogans are “just trying to make more money, and intuitive eating has been co-opted.”

Lifting the burden of diet culture

Health experts say the most worrisome trend among anti-diet influencers is the alarming amount of misinformation they spread, including claims that excess weight isn’t a health risk.

“Most chronic diseases blamed on weight can most likely be explained by other phenomena, such as weight stigma and weight cycling,” wrote Christy Harrison in her influential 2019 book, “Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating.”

Harrison, a registered dietitian and podcaster, said in an email that if she were writing the book today, she would use “more nuanced language.” She maintained her opposition to “intentional weight loss” and said she still believes that “many” chronic diseases linked to weight have other causes, citing research documenting the harms of stigma and dieting.

Deaths caused by obesity, diabetes, liver disease and hypertension have climbed to record highs over the past twenty years, and conditions that once only afflicted older adults are now increasingly present in young children.

Kevin C. Klatt, a registered dietitian and research scientist and instructor at the University of California at Berkeley, says anti-diet advocates who deny the connection between excess body fat and chronic disease have “made up stuff that is a fantasy and a total fairy tale.”

Nonetheless, anti-diet influencers have found a growing audience among millennial and Gen Z viewers, many grappling with the food fears and restricted eating practiced by their parents.

Casey Purlia Johnson, a fitness coach and social media influencer, said trying intuitive eating helped her develop a healthier relationship with food, after years of being obsessed with exercise and calorie restriction.

“We have all grown up around these crazy ideas about food,” Johnson said in an interview. She said her clients encounter a lot of misinformation around restricted eating. “They ask me on the phone, ‘Are you sure I can eat fruit?’”

While advocates say the anti-diet approach has brought a needed reprieve from the burdens of diet culture, others say the pendulum has swung too far, and the new anti-diet movement is hurting people at risk of health problems related to excess weight and a poor diet.

Misled by anti-diet messages

Rochon said she initially embraced a new ideology about nutrition after years of struggling with binge eating, weight loss efforts and hunger. Some of what she heard was based in fact. Studies show that restrictive dieting can significantly slow metabolism, a condition that can persist for years.

Rochon grew to believe that restricting food in any fashion would put her health in danger. Listening to mental hunger meant that if she was thinking about a food, she should eat it.

“Your relationship with food would just get magically healed, if you just ate the doughnuts and ate the cookies and weren’t afraid of what you were eating,” Rochon said.

As her weight increased, it began to take a toll. The risk of humiliation while navigating crowds or fitting into seats made her afraid of going out. When she attended a concert with her brother, climbing a flight of stairs was so difficult that it “stole my joy,” she said.

“As my body got bigger and bigger and bigger, I felt like my life just shrunk,” Rochon said.

Rochon said health concerns prompted her to start watching YouTube videos that challenged what she described as the “indoctrination” of the anti-diet and fat acceptance movements.

“I’m definitely out of the movement,” she said.

A few months ago, Rochon started her own YouTube channel, which has about 125 subscribers, in which she discusses her experience and her ongoing efforts to find a sustainable approach to nutrition.

“I don’t want my parents to bury me,” she said.

Jacob Mey, a dietitian and nutrition researcher at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana, said Rochon’s story is not unique. He said some of his clients have gained as much as 60 pounds in six months while working with anti-diet dietitians.

“It led them to get into the largest weight of their life,” Mey said. “The downside from a health perspective is exacerbating their obesity and potentially making worse their risk for other nutrition-related diseases.”

This report is part of a joint investigation by The Washington Post and The Examination, a new nonprofit newsroom specializing in global public health reporting. Sign up to get The Examination’s investigations in your inbox. Sign up for The Post’s Well+Being newsletter.

Story editing by Tara Parker-Pope and Raquel Rutledge. Data editing by Meghan Hoyer. Copy editing by Gaby Morera Di Núbila. Design by Chelsea Conrad. Photo editing by Maya Valentine. Visuals editing by Taylor Turner.


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