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The cult of dieting

June 23, 2008

I’m completely fascinated by cults. I read books, I search the internet for info. ‘Cult’ is a keyword search on my tivo. I’ve never lost a loved one to a cult or been in one myself, but the psychology of it baffles/interests me. From the outside, it can all look so obvious – the intense focus on the group, the demonization of outside forces, isolating people to make it harder to break away – but I don’t think for one second think that means that people who get involved in these groups are dumb or weak. In fact, one of the most fascinating aspects of cults to me is the way they overlap with more mainstream groups. The line between cult and not-cult isn’t always clear and studying cults is definitely a good way to see how vulnerable we all are to the techniques that lead some people into these groups.

For the most part, I’ve only thought about it in terms of religion. But I was on the phone a few days ago with my Aunt who was discussing her latest foray into weight watchers (It’s a lifestyle!) I was, naturally, completely uninterested and was using this time to read about different experts opinions on what characteristics make a cult. And since the title of this post is hardly subtle, you can probably guess what I’m thinking. So how is the culture of dieting a bit like a cult? Let’s see

Recruitment. The source I looked at gave 6 characteristics of cult recruiting. I think five of these six describe some of my experiences in WW, Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem etc…

2. Emotional Leverage/Love Bombing – Instant friendship, extreme helpfulness, generosity and acceptance…Group recruiters “lovingly” will not take “no” for an answer-invitations impossible to refuse without feeling guilty and/or ungrateful. “Love”, “generosity”, “encouragement” are used to lower defenses and create an ever increasing sense of obligation, debt and guilt.This is definitely my experience in WW. I was even paired with a diet buddy whom I was supposed to exchange phone numbers and be instantly friendly with.

3. Exploit Personal Crisis – They use an existing crisis as a means of getting you to participate. They exploit vulnerability arising from:

Broken relationships
Death in the family
Loss of job
Move to new location

Well since in the diet culture, everything bad is blamed on fat, I think this one is a given. Sad? You’re too fat. Lonely? You’re too fat. So the solution to all your problems? Stop being fat.

4. Crisis Creation – They employ tactics designed to create or deepen confusion, fear, guilt or doubt. Convincing people that their health is in immediate danger, even when our best medical tests say otherwise, creates a feeling of impending crisis in a lot of fat people.

5. All The Answers – Provide simple answers to the confusion they, themselves, create. Support these answers with material produced or “approved” by the group. Seriously, I don’t even have to say anything for this one.

Programming Once you’ve signed up for six months, how do they keep you interested.

1. Intense Study – Focus is on group doctrine and writings. I don’t even want to know how much money I spend on diet books, food journals and point cards in my day.

2. Opposer Warnings – Recruiters are told that “Satan” will cause relatives and friend to say bad things about the group to try to “steal them away from God.” There’s no satan in weight loss groups, but I know I’ve heard all about saboteurs who will try to tempt you away from the path of righteoussness cuz they are so jealous of how hot ur gonna be!!!!

3. Guilt and Fear – Group dwells on members’ “sinful nature” (many use public confession). Guilt and fear arising from “failing God” are magnified to manipulate new member. Again, I don’t think I need to say anything.

Behind the cut, I’m putting the rest of the characteristics. See how many of them apply – it’s fun.

I also feel like I should say that this is all a bit tongue in cheek. I don’t think ,for instance, that Valerie Bertinelli is going to start making people poison themselves (except with crappy crappy food) or anything. But just like it’s interesting and eye-opening to look at how close some cult techniques can be to mainstream religious practices, it’s interesting to look at how some of the same types of thinking permeate the world of dieting.

4. Schedule Control & Fatigue – Study and service become mandatory. New member becomes too busy to question. Family, friends, jobs and hobbies are squeezed out, further isolating the new member.

5. Attack Independent Thought – Critical thinking is discouraged as prideful and sinful, blind acceptance encouraged.

6. Divine Commission – Leader(s) claim new revelation from God, within past 200 years, in which all but their group are rejected by God. They, alone, speak for God.

7. Absolutism – They insist on total, unquestioning obedience and submission to the group.

8. Totalism – “Us against them” thinking. Strengthens group identity. Everyone outside of group lumped under one label.


1. Motive Questioning- When sound evidence against the group is presented, members are taught to question the motivation of the presenter. The verifiable (sound documentation) is ignored because of doubts over the unverifiable (presenter’s motives). See Opposer Warnings (#2 above).

2. Information Control – Group controls what convert may read or hear. They discourage (forbid) contact with ex-members or anything critical of the group. May say it is the same as pornography making it not only sinful and dangerous but shameful as well. Ex-members become feared and avoidance of them becomes a “survival issue.”

3. Isolation, Separation & Alienation – Group becomes substitute family. Members encouraged to drop worldly (non-members) friends. May be told to change jobs, quit school, give up sports, hobbies, etc.

4. Coercion – Disobedience, including even minor disagreement with group doctrine, may result in expulsion and shunning.

5. Phobias – The idea is planted that anyone who leaves goes into a life of depravity and sin, loses their sanity, dies, or will have children die, etc. Constant rumors of bad things happening to people who leave. No one ever leaves for “legitimate reasons.”

6. Striving for the Unreachable – Group membership and service are essential for salvation…”Work your way into God’s favor.” NO matter what you do, it is never enough.

  1. vesta44 permalink
    June 23, 2008 12:22 pm


  2. fillyjonk permalink
    June 23, 2008 1:11 pm

    Whoa, brilliant analogy! Utterly brilliant.

    I know you’re not saying that WW is going to set out poisoned Kool-Aid, but I think you give yourself too little credit when you put it down as merely an intellectual exercise. The truth is that cults have these characteristics because they are time-honored ways of breaking down the psyche and controlling people. Diet culture may not literally be a cult, but pointing out the similarities is way more than tongue-in-cheek; it highlights the fact that the diet industry is about controlling and profiting from people, not about helping them.

  3. nuckingfutz permalink
    June 23, 2008 1:36 pm


    I never would have even thought of it in those terms, but the way you break it down? Makes SO much sense.

    And ITA w/FJ. It’s not about helping people. Not. At. All.

  4. June 23, 2008 6:29 pm


    So how do I reverse it?

  5. littlem permalink
    June 23, 2008 7:37 pm

    “I’ve heard all about saboteurs who will try to tempt you away from the path of righteoussness cuz they are so jealous of how hot ur gonna be!!!!”

    I have to say, this nastycrap does in fact happen. I’ve lost friends just because I went to the gym more because I basically had pretty much no VO2max.

    “Oh you look fine! You don’t need to go! You’d rather go to the gym than drinking with us?” Well, yes, dudette, because if I don’t do something about my lung capacity I’m going to pass out after walking these three blocks, and I don’t think I trust you to get me to the hospital.

    However, I completely agree with the rest of that analogy and in place of that element would substitute the “bad foods” which tempt you to “sin”.

  6. June 23, 2008 10:47 pm


  7. June 24, 2008 9:32 am


    The disclaimer was more about wanting to make clear that I understood the degree of control wielded by cults was much greater than diet culture. But I do think drawing these connections is very useful. How many people have experienced the ‘public confession’ ritual at WW and felt that mix of personal shame and increased closeness to the group? Like you said, pointing out that these tactics aren’t new and that they are all about getting your money is a good thing.

  8. June 24, 2008 9:38 am


    I’ve seen the phenomenon you’re referring to, but I think the motivations of people are more complex than what I’ve generally heard from diet industry people. In a world where eating a certain way and going to the gym are seen as morally superior, people are afraid of judgement when their friends start going to they gym or changing the way they eat. Maybe there is also some fear of someone else becoming that mythical person who becomes thin and beautiful when they change their lifestyle, but, ime, it’s never as simple as someone desperate to feed me cake b/c they’re afraid of me being hotter than them.

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