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Work of art or paint-by-number?

by Michelle May, MD.

There is a harmful meme* (an idea gene; see additional definition at the end of this article) that has become so widespread, so ubiquitous, that it is accepted as normal. It has subtly integrated itself into our society’s beliefs, thoughts, language, behavior, and reality. It’s so pervasive that it has become “conventional wisdom” and therefore it is rarely questioned.

This meme is so insidious that most people who have it don’t even realize it. Even the people responsible for spreading it don’t recognize its potential for long term damage. In fact, most believe that they’re actually helping others when they pass along this meme. They might even feel defensive or irritated when they read this post. Hopefully they’ll keep reading anyway.

So what is this Meme?

 This meme is the belief that restriction is healthy. It usually starts with information about nutrition or weight management that mutates into rules and restriction. But the blurring of the line between healthy eating and restrictive eating is the difference between a work of art and paint-by-number. Either way, you end up with a nice picture—until you get up close to take a look.

Healthy      vs.    Restrictive
In Charge In Control
Nourishment  Diet
Fuel Calories
Quality Points
Healthy  Skinny
Aware Preoccupied
Conscious  Consumed
Mindful Vigilant
Information  Dogma
Guide Rules
All foods fit  Good or bad
Balance Perfection
Variety Temptation
Moderation Deprivation
Choosing  Earning
Deciding  Rationalizing
Flexible  Rigid
Hunger based  By the clock
Comfort Portion sizes
Physical Activity Penance
Effortless  Willpower
Trust Fear
Learning Failing
Self-acceptance Condemnation
Enjoyment Guilt
Pleasure Shame
Freedom Bondage

The main reason that this meme is so powerful is that it has a built-in protective mechanism: the underlying belief that being overweight is a sign of weakness and due to lack of self-control and gluttony. This belief ensures the survival of the meme because when one tries to restrict themselves (or others) it actually leads to feelings of deprivation and cravings for foods labeled as “bad.” That eventually leads to overeating which appears to prove the underlying beliefs. That leads to guilt, more restriction, and perpetuation of the meme. (I’ve called this the eat-repent-repeat cycle.)

One of the reasons that the meme is so successful at replicating itself is that it initially appears to be beneficial to its host so people intentionally seek it out. The empires of Weight Watchers®, Jenny Craig® and NutriSystem® (to name just a few) were built on their ability to successfully transfer this meme to millions.

For those that promote weight loss, “lifestyle change” and “healthy eating” have become euphemisms for “you’re going to be on this diet for the rest of your life.” I’m not trying to be critical; the meme is so subtle and so ingrained that they usually don’t even realize that restriction is at the core of their message.

How is this meme spread?

People are most prone to this meme if they weigh more than society says they should (or think they do). Everybody else that has the meme tries to pass it on to them in an effort to “help” them (or sell them something). It takes the form of rational suggestions, loving advice, and even harsh criticism. 

The meme spreads vertically through advertising, television, magazines, books, the Internet, and medical research. It is propagated by marketers, models, celebrities, reporters, experts, bloggers, legislators and academicians. It is then spread horizontally from doctor to patient, dietitian to client, friend to friend, wife to husband, and parent to child.

Some people who spread the meme are carriers but don’t actually manifest it themselves. For instance, some health and fitness professionals eat without restriction and participate in enjoyable physical activity but spread the meme when they put their patients or clients on diets and rigid exercise regimens.  

This meme is also swiftly moving from the United States to the rest of the world. Clearly, the meme hasn’t helped Americans and it won’t help overseas but it will continue to propagate itself until society recognizes its dangerous nature.

How do you get rid of this meme?

One way to cure this “restrictive is healthy” meme is to replace it with a new meme called Health at Every Size℠. This idea gene has the potential to paint a new picture of health. In my next post, I’ll talk about a few key steps for creating your own masterpiece!

* What’s a meme?  According to meme is a unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. Memes are the cultural counterpart of genes. According to Wikipedia, like genes, some ideas will propagate less successfully and become extinct, while others will survive, spread, and, for better or for worse, mutate. Memeticists argue that the memes most beneficial to their hosts will not necessarily survive; rather, those memes that replicate the most effectively spread best, which allows for the possibility that successful memes may prove detrimental to their hosts.

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