This House would ban the promotion of diets

The promotion of the body beautiful, some would say the 'obsession' with it, has become a cause for concern in recent years. Arguably this has always been the case but a growth in various eating disorders, hospital admissions for such disorders were up by 16% in the England from 2011-2012, has been put forward as evidence that many people, especially teenage girls, have taken this fixation to an extreme where it is causing harm to their health.[1] Others have suggested that dieting has become not just a physical threat to people's well-being but serves to make life miserable, both socially and mentally, for those who do not fit the image of perfection to which we a supposed to aspire.

There are many possible causes for this and they certainly can't all be ascribed to the promotion of diets. Imagery in magazines, the physical appearance of celebrities and other causes have all been suggested as well as others.[2] However, there is a particular issue of concern here, and it is a critical one for proposition, the diets that are the focus of this debate are expensive and of questionable benefit. It's important that proposition focus on these types of diet, faddish, expensive and often offered with claims that are both improbable and implausible.

Clearly the word 'diet' has several meanings and it's important to stress that in this context we are talking about those that are promoted through the popular media rather than dietary advice that is 'promoted' by doctors and other medical professionals. Although the exact nature of these diets may change they usually fit a certain format; heavy advertising in teen and women's magazines with a presence on television that usually focusses on daytime TV. Almost invariably, the advert will contain a line such as “I lost three stone in just twelve weeks”.

There are three real concerns in this case; medical, attitudinal and ethical. As one might expect, the three are inter-related. The medical issue is at the core of the debate, nobody denies that obesity is a major public health concern, particularly in the West and notably in the US. However, the contention is that the cure is worse than the problem. Obsessive dieting can be unhealthy and the 'quick fix' solutions that lead to rapid weight loss can be physically very damaging and have a questionable benefit as the weight may return as quickly as it leads. The general medical advice, instead, tends to suggest moderation in all things.[3]

There are also concerns in terms of social attitudes – that diets promote a physique that is simply unattainable for most people. In the process this focus can lead to anorexia and other eating disorders.[4] They also engender attitudes among young people that can lead to bullying and intimidation for those who are overweight. These social attitudes have wider implications in terms of how we assess beauty and the lengths people will go to fit in.

The ethical concerns build on the previous two elements. Even where it's simply a case of buying a book, diets have a cost associated with them and some medical practitioners feel that they are selling a dream rather than anything with proven benefits. There is some evidence that certain individuals can become addicted to dieting; often seeking to be below a healthy weight. Alternatively people may endlessly jump for the next miracle cure, regardless of the cost, in an effort to attain the unattainable.

In short, Proposition is aiming to pose three questions – Is pursuit of a certain physical appearance sensible; is that appearance worth pursuing; is the proposed diet even possible as a route to get there? Opposition, by contrast, has two compelling arguments. The first is that they can argue that aiming to have a slim physique is a worthy aspiration in health terms and, secondly, that what people chose to do with their diet is not really an area of competence for any government. Tackling childhood obesity has been a priority for many governments so opposition can claim endorsement for the general idea of losing weight and encouraging the notion of dieting as a whole. They then need to address whether these diets are the right way of achieving this goal. The issue here is a simple one of freedom of speech, nobody is forcing anyone to adopt any of these diets, manufacturers and authors are simply putting ideas out there; it is not the role of government to tell them which one to choose.

Debaters' Note

I have set this debate in the framework of UK legislation although the arguments can be transferred to other jurisdictions. One point worth noting here is that restrictions on advertising are only half the story as, realistically, government intervention would need to prohibit discussion of the diets in the print and digital media. In doing so, any government would be taking a massive step towards censorship over what, in the great scheme of things, could be presented as a fairly incidental issue. For the purposes of these notes, proposition defines this as a restriction on all advertising for diet pills and similar treatments in print and broadcast media.

[1] BBC News, ‘Hospital admissions for eating disorders up by 16%’, 11 October 2012,

[2] Ronna Liggett, ‘This House would ban sexist advertising’,, 26 January 2012,

[3] BMJ, ‘Obesity – how to lose weight’, 31 October 2012, p.3,

[4] Boston Children’s Hospital, ‘Anorexia Nervosa’, accessed 27 November 2012


Medical concerns

Dieting is a medical choice and should be treated  as such; advertising the available options rather than discussing this with a doctor means that people do not have all of the available information and cannot make their decision in a safe environment.

In comparable areas such as giving up smoking, controlling drinking, making decisions about exercise, knowledge about inoculations before travel and so forth, we prize medical expertise. The diet industry in the UK is worth £2bn[1] (it's $61bn in the US) and is marked out by allowing the same people to tell us that we are sick in the first place and then tell us the cure and then do it all again when the solution didn't work.

Generally accepted medical opinion is that this is a slow process with miracle cures both unlikely to work in the first place and, where they do, more unlikely to last. In some cases the dieting may even threaten health. For example French doctors have criticised the Dukan diet, Dr Boris Hansel for example says "There are real risks … infertility, sleep apnoea, high blood pressure, type-two diabetes, liver disease or cardiovascular problems. Following this diet is not harmless; it could cause real health problems" but its endorsement by celebrities mean that many will ignore such warnings or never even hear of them.[2]

Most ridiculously, the solution that does work – moderate eating and regular exercise is absolutely free and available to all.

[1]    Arabella Weir. Try it – don't diet. The Guardian. 31 December 2010,

[2] Kim Willsher, ‘Dukan diet divides French doctors over effect on health’, The Guardian, 30 May 2011,


People often wish to change their appearance for cosmetic rather than medical reasons. As with other cosmetic changes, from a new wardrobe to surgery, this can be expensive, and may even have some risks, but it is accepted because we know that it makes people feel better. It's a lifestyle choice and is no more the business of government than choosing a new jacket or deciding to get an earring.

Selling to the vulnerable

Diets are predominantly targeted at those who feel desperate. It has nothing to do with medical need, a constant round of being told that there is only one way to look attractive inevitably encourages people to adopt a mindset that 'thin' equals 'attractive'. This has nothing to do with a medical need nor do diets represent a medical solution; at least not in the meaning of 'diet' at the focus of this debate.

The pressure on people, especially young people, to conform to a certain stereotype of physical perfection is astonishing and comes from many sources – music, magazines and the celebrity culture endemic in the media. It is notable that there is a well studied correlation between mass media consumption and eating disorders and fears of poor body image.[1]

Diet programmes sell the dream that as long as you look like a given ideal you will come to be like them. This is nearly always untrue.[2] However, it is particularly attractive to those who are most susceptible to peer pressure; primarily the young but really anyone with a desire to fit in. The advertising picks up on this, pictures of happy, smiling, thin people with successful personal lives.  It's simply an illusion and has little to do with the realities of medical need.

[1] Kristen Harrison and Veronica Hefner, ‘Media Exposure, Current and Future Body Ideals, and Disordered Eating Among Preadolescent Girls: A Longitudinal Panel Study’, Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Vol.35 No.2, April 2006, pp.153-163, p.153

[2] Federal Trade Commission, ‘Weighing the Evidence in Diet Ads’, November 2004,


Surely the fact that what is healthy is also considered sexy should be embraced. Any motivation to lose a few pounds in a country where more than a quarter of people are obese[1] is surely a good thing for public health. Prop bemoans that diet advertising is targeted at the young and yet this is the group that policy makers routinely target with legislation to encourage healthy living and an early acceptance of the need for good health.

[1] Jeremy Laurance, ‘Britain is the fattest nation in Europe’, The Independent, 17 November 2012,

Inventing the idea of fat

There's a lot to be said for eating well and being generally healthy. It's not just a matter of weight but the effect that bad nutrition has in contributing to heart conditions, blood pressure, energy levels and other health indicators.[1] None of these things are helped by trying to drop three stone in a couple of months by filling your body with one thing regardless of what it needs at the time as many of these diets do

Our physical appearance should be an indicator of our lifestyle not an accessory to it.

The diet industry has poured considerable time and effort, with help from Holywood and the publishing industry, in to promoting the idea that thin and emaciated are the same thing.

Fad diets are, for many, less healthy than being a little overweight.

[1] BMJ, ‘Obesity – how to lose weight’, 31 October 2012, p.3,


There is no doubt that weight is not purely a medical issue but that a positive appearance helps self-confidence and opens lifestyle opportunities. Different people approach losing a few pounds in different ways, some have the time for the meticulous dietary exercise and training regime Prop is suggesting but most don't. Promotion of other option is simply meeting that need.

It's my body and I'll starve if I want to

The main problem facing Prop's entire case is that this is simply none of the government's business. What people eat or don't eat is a private matter and the intervention of the nanny state would have us all on a diet of compulsory cabbage and nut roast.

People can be grown up about this, and where they're children, their parents can be grown up about this. The entire health and education system already exists to tell us to eat our greens and cycle to work; for those people who chose not to do so, they have a range of diet option and advertising tell them what those options are.  The government regularly runs healthy eating advertising campaigns, and they often focus on obesity such as the Change4Life campaign, so there is plenty of opportunity to get the other side across.[1]

It's free speech, it's a free choice for the consumer, it's called the market.

Prop seems to think that consumers are idiots, nobody believes that a diet for a couple of weeks will make them look like a super model any more than buying a pair of speedos will. However, they can assess the different products, decide which one they trust more, do further research if they want to and then choose.

[1] Staff, ‘Anti-obesity campaign launched’,, 2 January 2009,


It's simply not true to say that people automatically take their adverts with a pinch of salt. Research in the US suggests that 1 in five young adults trust advertising to always tell the truth and a clear majority think it does “most of the time”[1], as this is exactly the group that is primarily of concern it can't be taken for granted that they will use caution or undertake further research.

[1]    Harris poll. Young adults more trusting of advertising. 5 November 2010.

Banning advertising won't work

How exactly is a ban on promoting diets supposed to work? Proposition isn't talking about tackling advertising online, presumably because it's difficult to do, nor is prop tackling the issue of books promoting certain techniques. So this ban would have failed to catch the largest craze of recent years, the Atkins diet.

Equally diets are a mainstay of teen and women's magazines and a fairly central pillar of lifestyle sections of newspapers. Even so called 'quality' papers endlessly talk about lifestyles issues such as how they don't work and everyone would be better off retiring to a country manor in Shropshire for Swedish massage and a diet of organic barley.

Unless prop is talking about starting to ban books or shut down entire sections (and profitable sections at that) of publishing companies then it is difficult to see how this measure will have any real affect. 


The fact that it is difficult to do everything is no reason not to do something. At the very least articles and books have to go through an editorial process and are open to challenge by other articles and books. That's not true for bought space.

In the same way that we regulate the claims that can be made about cars, gambling websites and dating agencies to protect consumers without banning discussion of transport, money or love, advertising and journalism are treated differently.

Countercase; Tackling food advertising

If the Proposition is so keen to tackle obesity then regulating then it should tackle food advertising rather than the advertising of diets.[1] Banning the promotion of dieting ads while people are sitting in front of the TV munching on the take away food or complaining that the remote is 'all the way' on the other side of the room, smacks of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Diets are a response, one of many as Prop is keen to point out, to a serious problem that only government can begin to address.

From before we are old enough to walk most people in the developed world are hooked on a fat-, sugar- and salt-rich diet.[2] Going after dieting ads is simply an effort by governments to be seen as doing something in a way that has little electoral impact. People will still use diets because of the gaps, such as the web, already mentioned however it doesn't require government to say anything as risky as “You're fat because you eat rubbish and don't move around much” to the electorate – or worse still, “Your children are fat because you can't put your foot down and tell them they can't have another choc-ice or more chips”.

Prop's entire case is tokenism of the highest order.

[1] Denis Campbell, ‘Call for ban on TV junk food ads before 9pm watershed’, The Guardian, 4 September 2012,

[2] AP, ‘Study: Bad Eating Habits Start Near Age 2’, InteliHealth, 27 October 2003,


There is an enormous difference here. Even fast food chains themselves accept that their product should not be eaten all day everyday. Supermarkets have taken on board healthy messages about people's five a day or low fat brands. They've built these messages into their wider marketing strategy. Diet ads, by contrast, do claim to be a panacea that will instantly make you sexy, healthy, popular and, apparently successful. They are 21st century snake oil merchants and should simply be run out of town.


BBC News, ‘Hospital admissions for eating disorders up by 16%’, 11 October 2012,

BMJ, ‘Obesity – how to lose weight’, 31 October 2012, p.3,

Boston Children’s Hospital, ‘Anorexia Nervosa’, accessed 27 November 2012

Denis Campbell, ‘Call for ban on TV junk food ads before 9pm watershed’, The Guardian, 4 September 2012,

Federal Trade Commission, ‘Weighing the Evidence in Diet Ads’, November 2004,

Harris poll. Young adults more trusting of advertising. 5 November 2010.

Kristen Harrison and Veronica Hefner, ‘Media Exposure, Current and Future Body Ideals, and Disordered Eating Among Preadolescent Girls: A Longitudinal Panel Study’, Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Vol.35 No.2, April 2006, pp.153-163, p.153

Jeremy Laurance, ‘Britain is the fattest nation in Europe’, The Independent, 17 November 2012, Staff, ‘Anti-obesity campaign launched’,, 2 January 2009,

Ronna Liggett, ‘This House would ban sexist advertising’,, 26 January 2012,

Arabella Weir. ‘Try it – don't diet’, The Guardian. 31 December 2010,

Kim Willsher, ‘Dukan diet divides French doctors over effect on health’, The Guardian, 30 May 2011,