In Part 2 of our Bright Line Eating episode, I explore Susan Peirce Thompson’s grand claims that her weight loss program is “the most effective in the world”, and come to a very different conclusion. I also chat with Dr Martina Zangger, who spent 2 years as a “Bright Lifer” and has literally been to hell and back. Not only is she thousands of dollars out of pocket, but she’s had to overcome a Bright Line induced eating disorder. And she is NOT HAPPY! Diet culture constantly sells us the glossy testimonials, but the ANTI-TESTIMONIAL is much more important. The only winner here is the Bright Line Bank Account – you will not believe how much cash Susan Peirce Thompson is raking in from selling starvation. It’s enough to run a small country, yet strangely, Bright Line Eating can’t even squeeze out any decent research? CW for this episode, which has LOTS of explicit talk about eating disordered practices, numbers, and extreme dieting.


Show Notes

  • Welcome to part two of our deep dive into Susan Peirce Thompson’s program Bright Line Eating – if you missed the last episode, go back and have a listen.
  • Last episode we talked about the rules of the Bright Line Eating program, which is basically a monetised version of Food Addicts Anonymous.
  • We talked about neuroscience with Dr Susan Aamodt, and how she found some peace in the non-diet approach. Susan also gave us a great overview of how our brains regulate body weight, and how the food addiction model isn’t well supported by evidence.
  • Now we’re going to continue by looking at the alleged ‘research’ that ‘backs up’ Bright Line Eating, and then hear from  Dr Martina Zangger who nominated Bright Line for the Crappy awards and brought this rant to us.
  • And to round things out – just how much money is this program making, and where is it heading?
  • Content warning – there is some mention of numbers (weights) as we go through some research.
  • Susan Peirce Thompson is always talking about research in her book, her emails and thousands of messages she sends out to program members (and prospective members) – research that supposedly proves the effectiveness of her program.
  • The truth is that the research is much less shiny and sparkly than Thompson makes out.
  • On her website – four publications are listed. Actually, only one of them is a published paper. The other three are posters from conferences. At conferences (for example, in the nutrition world) there are lecture presentations, panels and then ‘poster presentations’. Anyone from an Honours or Masters level student, a weight-loss industry group can put up a poster – they’re not the same as a published research paper. So, on her website there’s actually only one published research paper.
  • And it’s interesting – Thompson has been in academia for most of her life, yet has so little in her name in terms of research publications. It’s usually a requirement of being employed at an academic institution, to be publishing often.
  • So, let’s look at that paper. It’s from the Journal of Nutrition & Weight Loss, and the title is ‘Evaluation of a Commercial Telehealth Weight Loss and Management Program’, published in 2018. Thompson is not one of the authors. The paper overview evaluated her online eight week bootcamp, part of her monetised program. The paper said that between October 2014 – March 2018 (roughly four years), 18,778 people enrolled in the bootcamp. WOW – this program costs US $900 per person, and nearly 19,000 people have been through this program. 
  • 9,996 of these people agreed to participate in this ongoing research study of the program, and then eight weeks later 5,374 people completed the return survey. That’s a drop out rate of around 50%. Remember – you’re just paid US $900 and you’ve dropped out after eight weeks.
  • What they found out: 
    • Demographics – people buying this program are mainly white, well off, older, female. 96% were college educated, with an average age of 55. (Targeting menopausal women who are feeling horrible about their bodies?)
    • Average weight at the start of the program (number warning) was 88.3kg, and after the eight week bootcamp where participants are told to eat three times a day only, with strictly weighed and measured food and zero flour or sugar, average weight loss was 7.5kg.
    • That’s not surprising – restricting yourself so much for eight weeks means some weight loss isn’t surprising. But it does mean you’re paying close to $200 AUD per kilo lost – and we know it’s only temporary loss.
  • Take away from reading this paper is that it’s nothing new. Like so many weight loss papers before it, it shows that when you starve you lose weight. There’s no neurological research being undertaken here, and no attempt to search for harm or screen people (such as for eating disorder behaviours).
  • Pretty flimsy, pretty unimpressive. 
  • Compare this rather limp research to the grand claims she is making in her book – “we believe this is the most successful weight loss program on earth”. Any facts to back up that opinion?
  • There’s an effort in the book to put some numbers in to back up her claims, but she’s using pretty stinky tactics.
  • She brags about the rate of weight loss on her program compared to other weight loss programs such as Weight Watchers (WW) and Jenny Craig. She cites research that on those other programs, that shows that after two years people lost 8-10% of their starting weight. Susan says that people lose 10% of their weight on her program, and 12x faster. 
  • But what she’s doing there is comparing weight loss over two years to weight loss over eight weeks. Stopping research sooner to make your program look more effective. The longer you follow people on these research papers, the more weight they regain. Dodgy, sneaky, not a fair comparison.
  • When you’re trying to peddle weight loss, the strongest evidence is not in the short term result. It’s all about proving that your program can “keep their weight off forever”, because that’s really what everyone’s looking for – and we know that in all these programs people overwhelmingly put the weight back on.
  • So the claims Susan is making are leaving us dumbfounded. There are claims about the percentage of people in her program who have reached goal weight, maintained, etc – with no actual research to back it up. Are we talking about four people or one thousand – how many people are in this research pool?
  • Another red flag – in the book, Susan admits that there are people in her program with eating disorders, and people in her program who are already ‘thin’ but doing the program to achieve a ‘goal weight’. 
  • If she’s saying that there’s a cohort of people who have lost 25% of their body weight and are maintaining it, I’m really worried about those people. They very well could be unwell and potentially have eating disorders, but are being represented as success stories.
  • The three posters (not actual published research) are labelled as ‘research publications’ which is misleading.
  • One is a poster version of the published paper we just went through, and there’s a description of the poster that talks about a completely different, smaller sample of people. Perhaps because they’re talking about a smaller group of people who do have a BMI of 25 or above? Which means many of the people featured in the published article were thin to begin with, which muddies the outcomes substantially.
  • “Bright Line Eating: An effective online program for sustained weight loss” is the title of another of the posters. It’s a poster version of the dodgy tactic Susan did in her book, where the sample isn’t actually discussed (who are they? How many?). There’s no actual statistical or experimental design given in this paper, nothing to tell the reader about how the research is carried out. 
  • There are bar graphs presenting information but with no numbers to tell us about the sample being represented. There’s a bar graph titles ‘decrease in body weight over time’ that has 10% body weight lost at baseline – baseline? This poster is worlds apart from a peer reviewed published paper. Shame on you, Susan, for trying to pass this off as research.
  • Please don’t be fooled, if you hear that Bright Line Eating is research based or evidence based. This is abominable – one weight loss research paper that just backs up that weight loss occurs, but no evidence of long term effects.
  • Let’s talk with Dr Martina Zangger!
  • Martina is fired up about diet culture in general, but most particularly fired up about the Bright Line Eating movement – an unconscionable money-making scheme that encourages eating disorders and is marketed brilliantly by a charismatic charming manipulator making at least ten million dollars a year from her various programs. 
  • Martina’s Crappys rant stuck with us, because speaking from her own experience with the program made for a really strong rant!
  • You can’t just pay once for the eight week boot camp – there are follow up programs! Most participants are women, between 40-70 years of age, middle class and white. They’re spending about $3,000 AUD a year on these programs that they become dependent on. You can’t continue this program on your own, you’d just fall off the wagon – it’s so controlled! So, if you’re very controlled, highly anxious, perfectionistic, perhaps mentally unwell – yeah, maybe you could sustain it on your own. It’s basically a restrictive eating disorder.
  • When Martina was ‘succeeding’ in the program, she had an eating disorder. She developed orthorexia and was close to anorexia, which all developed during the program. It’s a really frightening slippery slope. 
  • Susan suggested some weird things. ‘Goal weight’ was a huge topic of conversation – suggesting that we should go back to our ‘high school weight’ when we were 15 or 16, ‘at our thinnest in our teens’. So screwed up!
  • Martina found the program through a long term friend. They’d both ‘struggled’ with food for a long time, and talked about things like bingeing, being ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and this friend told Martina she was going to start the Bright Line Eating (BLE) program. Martina joined her, and after a week told her friend it was just too hard – but her friend told her to keep going, that they’d try it for a month.
  • The weight loss became really addictive – the rush of hopping on the scale, seeing the numbers change, having to buy smaller clothes. Martina feels embarrassed by how superficial it was, but it was highly intoxicating. Louise doesn’t think it’s superficial at all – that pursuit of weight loss is really intense in an eating disorder. 
  • BLE rules were strict and restrictive – no flour or sugar, very little grains, etc.
  • Martina felt the program gave her an illusion of control at a very difficult time in her life – like she could set back the clock to feel younger rather than an ‘old menopausal frump’. 
  • Martina’s mother was on a diet for 67 years of her life, and taught her to diet when Martina was 12. So sad for both of them. Martina was basically then trained as a dieter.
  • Martina has very low self esteem as a young person, and felt that what she looked like could give her the self esteem she was lacking. Martina has a history of abuse in her childhood, and had feelings of being different, not good enough, ‘damaged goods’. But dieting gave her a feeling of being good at something.
  • So, dieting actually had a positive function at that time. Diet culture is all about making people feel that their appearance is their worth. 
  • Rather than think about the trauma you have experienced at the hands of (often) men, you can think about dieting. Instead of having a voice, you have dieting. It’s heartbreaking, and it makes sense. It’s a way of coping and surviving.
  • “It’s a scientifically grounded program that teaches you a simple process for getting your brain on board so you can finally live happy, thin and free” – it’s so seductive, isn’t it?
  • Since Martina’s Crappys nomination, Louise signed up for BLE newsletters and in one month has had 50 emails from BLE! It’s full of the ‘happy, thin and free’ message, and being in your ‘right sized’ body, or the ‘bright line’ body.
  • She’s GREAT at the messaging – hitting every single marketing box, with the credentials (professor of neuropsychology) to make it tick.
  • Martina is an academic with a PhD herself and so thought Susan must know her stuff. 
  • Working out the money side of things – the eight week book camp costs about $1,200 AUD. Then you’re told “you can’t do this alone, you need our support” and you can sign up for “bright lifers”, a one year support program that costs about $700 AUD per year. Then there’s another program for those people who fall off their ‘bright lines’, maybe 60% of people? It’s called ‘reboot, resume’. Thousands of women sign up for that because they feel ashamed that they can’t keep their ‘bright line’. She’s making them pay for the relapse her program causes!
  • There’s another program called ‘Bright Line Mind’, too.
  • It all rhymes, but it’s all bullshit!
  • She says when you’re cooking, if you’re hungry, put some sticky tape across your mouth so you’re not tempted to lick the spoon that you’re stirring your food with. WHAT!?! It’s irresponsible, it’s horrific – and she confidently says it to 50,000 people.
  • For people who fall off their ‘bright lines’, they don’t blame Susan – they blame themselves. They sign up again and again, “I’ve been very bad and I need to learn how to be good”. It’s diet culture.
  • Martina was able to keep her adherence to the program going without falling off her ‘bright line’ – she was brought up with a lot of Swiss discipline and put that all into being ‘good’ in the program. She thinks she was one of the more successful people in the program before deciding it was rubbish and walking away. For about two years she was following the ‘bright lines’ 100%, maybe wavering a little on quantities. Sometimes she would ‘cheat’ and put 10 grams more oats into her muesli at breakfast – cheat! 10 grams!
  • You’re weighing everything, every day. How do you do that and live your life?
  • You have to pack all your food ahead of time, and only eat out at certain places where you could get something ‘clean’. 
  • Martina remembers eating an apple instead of joining in with her family eating gelato (she loves gelato!). One day they were eating gelato and Martina thought, “fuck this!” and had a double scoop of chocolate gelato, and that was the beginning of the unravelling of BLE for her. In spite of all that powerful, positive reinforcement – things were not okay.
  • Martina is so pleased she’s found the courage to walk away from it. She wrote a letter to Susan describing her orthorexia and how the program brought on her eating disorder, and never heard back. She also wrote an email to her ‘house leaders’ who said they were ‘very sorry’ and wished her well. That was all. 
  • No interest in how they might be doing harm.
  • Within six months, Martina put on all the weight she had lost over two years. It was a very scary process, but she thought “no matter what, I’m not going to diet. No matter how much weight I’ve gained, I’m not going to restrict”. And now she feels the best she’s ever felt – so much HAPPIER! She eats what she wants, trusts what her mind or body tells her it wants, and is happier.
  • Happy, NOT thin, and free!
  • That beginning time of gaining weight back was terrifying. Martina had to pay for therapy (more money!) which was very helpful for her. She learned some principles of Intuitive Eating, and allowed herself binges – she had been so deprived that she would buy big packets of treats and eat them all quickly because she was starving for sugar. Now, she’ll eat any sweets she wants but isn’t needing to binge – because they’re all allowed.
  • The bingeing didn’t have an agenda – she wasn’t trying to get the binging out of the way so she could get past it. The bingeing just had to happen because she’d been so restricted.
  • *I can be smart, beautiful, have a loving heart, have a wise mind. I don’t have to look emaciated to be worth something.* 
  • Martina remembers talking to her 87 year old mother the day before she was scheduled to have back surgery, and how excited her mum was about losing weight after the surgery. Martina’s mother died during that surgery. Both Martina and her mum were victims of diet culture. 
  • There’s such joy in food, in sharing food, in looking forward to dinner out or the really special lunch you have in your lunch box!
  • Louise is amazed that Martina has managed to get out of Bright Lines, recover from the eating disorder that it caused, and found not just peace with food but enjoyment.
  • Susan lifted the BLE program from the FA and OA twelve-step programs, based on the addiction model. Those FA/OA programs are free – and yet she has monetised it and is making millions. It’s ethically completely not okay.
  • Susan gave a sense of community, like a big sister – loving, attentive, ‘I care about you, I love you”, but at the same time “give me your money”. It’s so manipulative. You feel special, and it’s a marketing ploy.
  • Martina doesn’t blame herself, but others do – they call themselves failures. It relies on the disempowerment of women and making them blame themselves.
  • If you’ve been involved in BLE or anything like it and developed an eating disorder, that’s because of the deprivation and restriction, and normal responses to starvation. 
  • No warnings in any of the emails or program notes so far about potential for developing eating disorders, and no accountability – she doesn’t reply to emails where people talk about developing eating disorders, about being ‘broken’, about needing to seek help.
  • Martina generously offers up her email (in the resource notes) for anyone who has undertaken Bright Line Eating and wants to have a chat or converse via email about what they’re going through. You didn’t fail, the diet failed.
  • Thank you Martina, for your courage and honesty. That recovery was so tough and our blood is boiling still about how Susan ignored Martina’s email about her eating disorder.
  • So, how much cash is being raked in by BLE?
  • Let’s look at that research paper again – in US$, she’s profited just shy of 17 MILLION DOLLARS in four years. 
  • Often on All Fired Up we talk about how diet culture is a multimillion dollar industry making money off weight cycling, but this is just one woman!
  • One website that gives out BLE information said that her husband David is the CEO of BLE. This website lists BLE as having 30 employees, and a revenue of 5.8 million US dollars.
  • This website says that in the first quarter of 2019, revenue was listed as 6 million, and in the next two quarters it was 9 million. So, in 2019 this woman made 30 MILLION BUCKS. Link to this website in the show notes. 
  • Think of just how many people that money represents, people who are desperate for the ‘bright lines’. Susan says in her book that by 2040, she wants 1 million people at what she calls ‘goal weight’. That’s $900 million in bootcamp sales!
  • Something that’s struck Louise during this research is just how much positive press there is about Susan out there. There’s just no critical feedback – in fact, there seems to be an absence of even just basic journalistic research to look at her claims. People seem to be just swallowing her ideas and her story – is it that she’s so compelling, or that she’s a neuroscientist and we just don’t question it?
  • There’s a particularly nauseating 2016 media piece about her, where the journalist just gushed about how brave Susan was to leave her academic position to do the BLE thing full time. Is it brave, or is it capitalism? How brave is it to leave academia if you’re earning millions! The journalist says “as a scientist, I’m especially heartened by Susan’s desire to use profits generated by Bright Line Eating to fund research on weight loss, since objective data and evidence based approaches are sorely lacking in the field”. Okay? Is that true? In her book, she does talk about how she wants to do more research to prove how BLE works, and talks about something called the ‘Institute for Sustainable Weight Loss’. WTF is that? It’s a ‘charitable’ foundation with a mission statement of ‘advancing the science of sustainable weight loss for everyone’, claiming that they support study into neurological changes that support weight loss. Since the establishment of the institute in 2016, Susan has made millions of dollars and there’s been no research released. But they will accept donations!
  • Louise hasn’t had any emails back after requesting confirmation of the Institute’s charitable status. It’s actually registered as a ‘non-compliant charity’ in the state of New Jersey, meaning it hasn’t supplied enough information to charity directories. 
  • So, there you have it – the Bright Line Eating world of mass marketing, dodgy diet claims, making a buttload of money off the agony of everyday people like Martina, and being unresponsive to criticism. Buyer beware!
  • It’s so low calorie, it WILL induce a state of physical starvation which will induce a whole range of homeostatic drivers that will make you preoccupied with food, with your whole body fighting to regain the weight. You’ll be more sensitive to food cues, you’ll experience a heightened sense of need for those ‘banned’ foods which makes you more likely to binge or compulsively eat due to the deprivation. Enduring a chronic starvation state slows metabolism and affects leptin, telling your brain you’re starving. 
  • And let’s not forget the serious risk of developing an eating disorder. 
  • It’s an incredibly expensive program to white-knuckle you towards some twisted illusion of ‘freedom’. Susan fails to tell people the entire truth about brain-based weight regulation and defended weight range. She is a neuroscientist but she has ignored the effects of yoyo dieting and chronic restriction. People she’s targeting are already primed to think that they’re food addicts, and she’s blaming the palatability and ‘toxicity’ of food – when really it’s the deprivation that’s causing these heightened responses. 
  • And she’s making millions of dollars and running a non-compliant charitable research institute!
  • Louise is sick of programs like BLE running unchecked, without criticism – it’s time for the anti-testimonial, like Martina’s. 
  • Get in touch – let’s start reclaiming and shaking things up!

Resources

  • Dr Martina Zangger’s email is martinaz@westnet.com.au – please contact her if you have also suffered as a result of the Bright Line Eating program.
  • The research publications section of the Bright Line Eating Website
  • Link to the very gushy article on Susan Peirce Thompson in 2016
  • The website showing the incredible amount of money that Bright Line Eating is making 
  • Link to Institute for Sustainable Weight Loss
  • Below is a screenshot of the ‘noncompliant’ status of the Institute for Sustainable Weight Loss charity: