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Diet Porn

How weight loss magazines tempt, arouse, and sabotage your diet.

I recently subscribed to a weight loss magazine. Since I'm writing a book on the science of willpower, I figured I should know what kind of advice is being pedaled by diet programs and the people who profit from them.

The cover was promising, featuring the non-sensational advice to "Eat more veggies!" and walk more. And in general, the articles were sensible, encouraging, and focused on health, not appearance.

But as I read, I started to notice some disturbing things--not in words, but in pictures.

Take, for example, an article on sweet treats appropriate for dieters. First, the piece recommended serving sizes satisfying perhaps to Lilliputians with a sweet tooth. But they are laughable for anyone who actually drools at the thought of jelly beans (recommended splurge: 10 beans, although at least they encourage to stick with one flavor, so you aren't tempted to try them all) or candy-coated chocolate eggs (six mini-eggs allowed; single-portion snack size bag count: 66 mini-eggs).

Worse yet, the treats were shown in loving, life size, full-color glory--but in servings bigger than the recommended sizes. The bowl of jellybeans shown looks like it has hundreds of beans (and at least forty flavors). The two permissible Oreos are illustrated with a stack of cookies. And the two allowed jelly fruit slices mysteriously multiplied into six by the photo shoot.

The photos, of course, are the actual likely serving size to be consumed if you bring home a bag of candy or cookies--not that you'll find any disclaimer to that effect in the article. [You will, however, find a small-print disclaimer on every "after" photo that accompanies each true success weight loss story in the magazine: "Results not typical."]

Next up: an article on boosting willpower accompanied by a photo of five cupcakes, each more deliciously frosted than the last. The article describes the science of why low blood sugar can deplete willpower. Ironic, considering the recent evidence that just seeing high-fat, high sugar foods (like, um, cupcakes) causes a sudden drop in blood sugar to prepare for what the body expects to be a forthcoming spike. That wouldn't make the reader more vulnerable to temptation, would it?

I'm not usually a conspiracy theorist, but as I flipped through the magazine, it seemed like the pages were full of images designed to arouse tempt. Cookies, cakes, pizza, close-up shots of chocolate pudding. Ad headlines promising "Dreamy, creamy, homestyle happiness." It started to feel like....dieter's porn. Or worse, like a trap.

We all know that women's magazines routinely include unrealistic airbrushed photos of models and articles about the nine new things that are wrong with your (body, health, looks, sex life). It's not a stretch to imagine that the images and editorial content support the real purpose of those magazines: to make readers vulnerable to the sales pitch for whatever makeup, clothing, diet aids, or other solutions the advertisers are selling.

I couldn't help but think as I read this weight loss magazine that I had stumbled upon the equivalent for dieters. As I put the magazine down, I found myself looking through my kitchen cabinets, considering a snack to fuel writing this blog post. And pledging to reconsider the images I include with each post.

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