This week on the All Fired Up! podcast I chatted with Jodie Arnot, body positive personal trainer from The Moderation Movement and one of our UNTRAPPED guides. We spoke about how gyms have become diet central, with all of the major chains promoting various $plans$ pushing weight loss at members.

A seriously obnoxious example of this trend happened at my local gym* a few years ago, when they promoted the Cambridge Diet. This is possibly THE most extreme fad diet you can imagine – it really goes beyond the pale.

In fact, it’s so bad that I need to have a little rant about it, because it’s such an awful example of how dangerous dieting and diet MARKETING can be. Here’s a little bit of history:

The Cambridge diet was developed in 1970 by research scientist Dr Alan Howard. It is classified as a ‘very low calorie diet’, or VLCD, meaning that people replace ALL OF THEIR FOOD with shakes and soups. When it began, the Cambridge diet ‘allowed’ people a grand total of just 330 calories per day which is essentially a bee’s pube away from ACTUAL STARVATION.

The rights to the Cambridge diet were bought by Jack and Eileen Feather, American entrepeneurs with somewhat of a flair for selling mail order products alongside outlandish claims. By the time they bought the Cambridge diet, they had been in and out of court multiple times on allegations of fraud with their dodgy products – including “Mark Eden’s Bust Developer”, which claimed to increase bust size; “Slim-Skins” “Trim Jeans”, the “Sauna Belt”, and “Astro-Trimmer”, all of which claimed to reduce body size. The Feathers started selling the Cambridge diet via mail order, but in 1981 switched to a multi level marketing operation, with a ‘sales force’ (not nutrition experts) of 150,000 pushing the diet to over 5 million people. In its hey day, the Cambridge diet was seriously big business: it made $400 million in 1982!

But this financial bonanza was accompanied by a truckload of controversy: by 1982 the Food and Drug Administration had received 138 complaints of illness, including six reports of deaths, related to the Cambridge Diet.

Yes, deaths. People died after paying for this diet.

In 1982 a wrongful death suit was filed against the Cambridge diet company, after an otherwise healthy 32 year old mother of one died after being on it for a month. The cause of death was officially recorded as “cardiac arrythmia secondary to metabolic disturbance brought about by stringent dietary alteration for weight reduction”. The company settled the case out of court for an undisclosed sum.

During the 1970’s, a number of other deaths of people on commercially available VLCD’s raised serious concerns in the medical community about their safety. The general consensus was that they were not safe.  

In response to all the bad press, the Cambridge diet company tweaked their formulas and slightly increased the minimal daily calorie intake. They almost went bankrupt thanks to all of the bad publicity (and some pretty extravagant corporate lifestyles), but have clearly lived to fight another day (although the company is now based in the UK, and the Feathers are not involved).

VLCD’s have a pretty dodgy reputation in the weight science community, although like many trends they do tend to pop up now and again. They have bewilderingly enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years, as the idea of rapid weight loss is just so incredibly seductive to weight centric researchers that even great risks are apparently worth it.

In 2011, another 32 year old mum died after doing the Cambridge diet. At the inquest, no cause of death could be established, but the hearing was told that her body had traces of chemicals which the body produces when it is starving. Eventually her death was attributed to ‘natural causes’, and the Cambridge diet company once again continued to sell its products. Her family had trouble accepting that an otherwise healthy person could simply drop dead at the age of 32, but incredibly the doctor at the hearing stated that people with ‘pre-existing conditions such as obesity’ can die suddenly with no apparent cause of death. So her weight was blamed, not the extreme fad diet! This kind of thinking is deeply troubling, but not surprising, given the strong biases against weight in diet culture.

In 2012 the Cambridge diet was launched in Australia, accompanied by a fierce marketing campaign. Promises of radical and quick weight loss, alongside the ubiquitous before and after shots, litter its website –  with no mention of the inconvenient deaths/illnesses from Christmases past.

Thankfully, the Australian press quickly decried it, alongside dietitians and even the pro-weight loss Weight Management Council of Australia. However, despite an investigation by the Department of Health and Human Services, the Cambridge diet still survives and by all accounts seems to be thriving in Australia with its MLM model.

The list of side effects that can go along with a VLCD like The Cambridge diet is long, and troubling:

“Health experts have already warned of serious side-effects such as general feeling of coldness, rash, nausea, leg cramps, hair loss, halted periods and even unexpected pregnancy from following a diet so low on nutrients. The list of side-effects has also been listed on the company’s own website.”

The Cambridge website boasts that its products are nutritionally ‘balanced’, however a 2016 review found that The Cambridge diet plan did not meet minimum daily protein requirements, and was also below minimum standards for several other micronutrients. The review concluded that it could not be considered ‘nutritionally complete.’

The Cambridge diet plan operates through a network of what it calls ‘consultants’, who need no impediments such as medical or nutrition qualifications. These are people who enjoy a financial kickback from selling the product. The idea of something as potentially dangerous as a VLCD being sold by sales consultants motivated by profit rather than medically trained health professionals is gobsmacking. I think of Jeff, my old ‘trainer’ from the local gym, with his persistent sales pitch, obsession with supplements, and apparent inability to listen to anything I said, and try to picture him shouldering the incredible responsibility of supervising someone who is medically starving, and I want to cry.

Medical supervision is recommended for anyone on a VLCD, and the Cambridge sales force are clearly not doctors! The website says that the consultant will send a letter to your GP to notify them that you’ve started the diet, and that you’ll be asked to see the GP for checkups during your time on the diet. How strictly this is actually followed is unknown. And of course, many of the people who died on plans like these were faithfully getting their medical checks – there were no immediate warning signs that problems had developed.

This is not ok, should not be happening. An entire gym is profiting from selling dangerous starvation diets. Gyms are places for people to move their bodies, not weight loss centres. What staggers me is how, with a history as shady as the Cambridge diet, this type of product is continued to be legally allowed to be sold in this country, or any country. Just what would it take to stop them?

* No longer my local gym – this was the final straw for me and gyms. I left that toxicity behind me, and now enjoy moving my body in the comfort of my own home, or out in beautiful nature!