the HAES® files: “Eat Your Vegetables—News at Eleven”—Why Common Sense Health Advice Makes Bad Television

by Health At Every Size® Blog

by Jeanette DePatie (The Fat Chick), MA, ACE

Over the past few weeks, especially in the shadow of the Weight of the Nation series, I’ve heard the same question from a number of people:

“Since we know that the same common sense health advice works for people of all sizes, why don’t they share that advice?” they ask. “Why do they have to whip up such a fat panic?  Why can’t they just tell people to exercise a little more and eat their fruits and vegetables and get a little more sleep?” they wonder.

I can’t blame them for asking.  It seems like most of the studies that have come out over the last few years point to common sense solutions.  Get 150 minutes of exercise per week.  Eat 5 servings a day of fruits and vegetables.  Get 7-9 hours of sleep each day.  And so on.  It seems like these common sense solutions should be shared in every newspaper and magazine and aired in every show on television.  There’s just one problem.  Common sense does not make good television.

Over the past ten years, I have worked in Hollywood in the entertainment industry.  I’ve learned that television, at its core, is about story telling.  But not just any old sort of storytelling will do.  Television shows are very expensive to make and are thus created in very specific, tried and true ways designed to get the viewer to stop on a particular channel and stay on that channel over the commercial break.  Television is not designed to be an ideal dispensary of rational, common sense health advice.  Here are a few reasons:

Television stories need heroes and villains.

Plus-sized lizard menaces
small town way of life.

This is true whether you are talking about a reality show or a drama or a documentary.  On TV, fat people are usually the bad people and the doctors, trainers and skinny people the good people.  Stories imply that fat people are killing themselves, that fat people are making airline tickets more expensive, and that fat people are “crushing the American economy!”  (Cue the old black and white Godzilla footage of the monster crushing school buses and buildings.)  Ladies and gentlemen, we have a full-blown “fatocolypse” on our hands!

What’s particularly interesting in this good guy/bad guy scenario is that the “good guys”—the trainers and the doctors and the coaches—get to act like bad guys in order to protect the public welfare.  Like Dirty Harry, trainers are allowed to be the menacing tough guys in order to make people exercise far beyond what is medically advisable and make them cry, “all for their own good.”  Because seeing the bad guy punished makes for good TV.  Seeing the bad guy break down and cry is the kind of high drama that will pull you over the next commercial break.  (Ironically, those same commercials often depict high-calorie, low nutrition “food porn” encouraging you to run out and consume.)  Seeing fat people repent and move closer to the thin party line makes for good “transformational” television.

Television transformations are not like real world transformations.

In order to make good television, transformations need to be far more dramatic and much faster than those in the real world.  There are no home makeover shows where they just mow the yard and paint the kitchen.  On TV, the whole house gets redone—from the painting to the landscaping to the furniture to the statues and flowers on the shelves—seemingly overnight. It should be no surprise that the same is true in health and body makeover shows. Although HAES® practitioners do not recommend intentional weight loss as a goal, even doctors who do recommend that patients drop no more than one to two pounds per week.  But how many people do you think would tune into a prime time television show depicting characters that lost one or two pounds each week?  At the end of a 13 week season, will people tune in to see characters who lost 16 pounds each on America’s Most Moderate Weight Losers?  I don’t think so.

Television relies on stereotypes.

Most television shows are pretty short—sometimes just 22 minutes with commercial breaks.  In that time, the show needs to hook you into the drama or comedy of the story.  This leaves little time for explaining difficult or subtle concepts.  Television relies on stereotypes as a sort of “shorthand” to help the viewer quickly sort the good guys from the bad guys and the problem from the solution.  The Health At Every Size® approach to wellness is currently not all that familiar to most viewers.  If a TV show were to include a HAES angle, it would have to spend an awful lot of time explaining.  Whereas “unhealthy, lazy, sad, fatty who sits on the couch all day and eats junk food” is a stereotype that a TV show might convey in just a few words, a few seconds of footage or just one still image.  This allows the creators of the show to get to the drama point faster and focus on pulling you into the show or bringing you past the commercial break.

Why it matters.

So what?  Why worry about what sort of health advice people absorb from TV?  It’s important because an awful lot of people turn to television for information on health.  A recent survey shows over 50% of respondents rely on media/information service companies (e.g., Dr. Oz, The Doctors, iVillage, WebMD) for health information.  So, when someone approaches you with a bit of medical information that “everyone knows” there’s a good chance he or she heard it on TV.  This is particularly distressing since health is not the main goal of the medium.  While television can provide information on health topics, the primary business of TV is driving ratings and improving advertising revenues.  And while I don’t in any way wish to suggest that television shows deliberately misinform viewers on health issues, I feel the need to point out that TV is, after all, an entertainment business.  I don’t have any magical solutions to offer here.  It may always be somewhat challenging to convey the HAES approach on television.  But perhaps a bit of awareness of the nature of television as a medium will help us brainstorm new ways to bring the Health At Every Size® approach to health to even more people.

4 Comments to “the HAES® files: “Eat Your Vegetables—News at Eleven”—Why Common Sense Health Advice Makes Bad Television”

  1. This is a great dissection of why mass media, especially television, is the last place you should go for health advice. Actually, I pulled the plug on my cable box 5 years ago, and just watch DVDs or streaming media. If you want health advice, it’s better to get it from the more responsible print media or blogs, including this one. Or a practitioner you trust.

  2. Fantastic article! My immediate reaction is to follow billfabrey’s lead and cancel my cable. Still, these stories are still ‘out there’ whether I watch them or not. What influence are they having on people in my life and policy makers who can help or harm me? I love that the NYT has been featuring articles which tell the real story about intentional weight loss, and the overwhelming odds against making it stick. At least some sources are telling the story from a perspective of greater complexity. Good for them and good for us!

  3. Another problem is that the “simple, work for everyone” solutions aren’t as simple or work-for-everyone as they pretend to be. It’s easy to say “exercise more”, but what if you have to work two desk jobs just to feed your kids and then go home and take care of said kids and your home? Some of that is exercise but it’s possible it’s not enough. Finding the time to do exercise “just for health” could be impossible for many people in many situations. Same with sleep – easy to tell people to make sure they get enough but if they’re in a situation where they can’t get consistent sleep (maybe they have health issues, maybe they’re the sole caretaker of someone who needs around the clock care, maybe something else). Even fruit and vegetables are expensive and difficult to find and store compared to boxed or canned pastas and soups and certainly in comparison to fast food. Even if it’s all available for cheap, what veggies are good for people still depends on the person you’re talking about. I personally can’t eat any legume, including green beans and peas. Five servings of those a day and I would be sick. For someone else it might be eggplant or bell peppers.

    I think what should be focused on is making health more attainable for more people. We should all stop acting like it’s just a matter of willpower (just like we should stop acting like “getting skinny” is just a matter of eating less and exercising more) and start focusing on making people’s lives easier and better by making food and social and financial support easier to get.

  4. Can we do a Kickstarter to fund a Regan Chastain media blitz? Running that would be the PR campaign of my dreams.

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