People keep telling me about a program on SBS called “The Diet Testers,”a ‘reality show’ which puts various diets under the microscope.
What a great idea, I thought. Someone really needs to bust open the diet industry!
Here’s what an SBS promo says about the show:
“Dr Xand van Tulleken is back with dietician Hala El-Shafie for a third season of making members of the public miserable or happy in their dietary lives by wrangling them into road testing the most hyped, pop, fad and sciencey diets available. Café cook Stacie Stewart helps the volunteers to turn their diets into delicious dishes, and we follow their successes and failures. Unlike some other science-adjacent television I could mention, it’s actually got a faint ghost of being legit in its methodology and sense of purpose, while being very watchable, and therein lies its charm.”
The Diet Testers is a British show hosted by a handsome, thin white doctor (Dr X), and a beautiful, thin dietitian (Hala). There’s also a ‘café cook’ called Stacie, who is there not because of her culinary skills but because she managed to lose some weight a few years ago (yes, a statistical unicorn!), so she knows a thing or two about living in a state of permanent starvation. In each episode, people are sentenced to a diet of Dr X’s choice, and the cameras stalk them. As well as following the dieters, Dr X experiments with ‘more extreme’ diet fads, allegedly to figure out ‘which ones work’.
In hindsight, the phrase “’Faint ghost’ of legitimacy” should have been a warning sign, but I decided to give it a go and watch an episode anyway. And once I started I couldn’t stop, and so I give you my synopsis….
We meet friends Lucy and Sue, ’crash dieters’ who want to lose weight in 2 weeks so they’ll be ‘bikini ready’ for a spa retreat. I don’t understand why they can’t just go to the spa, but the Dr seems to think that extreme weight loss first is an excellent idea.
Lucy and Sue met when they were in the grips of a get-fit quick program. From the sounds of things, they were going at it pretty hard, and Lucy ended up tearing her ACL. A year later, both of them are once again “out of shape”, and they blame themselves. I want to run through the tv screen to tell them that actually, their experience is very normal: most people who start these ‘go hard or go home’, military style gym programs can’t sustain the demanding physical activity or the starvation, and it’s perfectly normal for them to regain the weight. I want to tell them that it’s not their fault and to please think first before going on yet another crash program.
Sue and Lucy are in a world of body hate. They say there is ‘no way’ either of them will wear a bikini to a spa day without ‘getting back’ to where they were from their last weight loss cycle. It’s so sad and hard to watch.
Sue and Lucy are interviewed by Dr X and his glamorous but mute dietitian assistant. Sue tells Dr X that she wants to an absolute shit tonne of weight. Lucy also wants to lose a huge amount. In 2 weeks. This is extreme but the Dr doesn’t even BAT AN EYELID. Instead of talking to them about the risks of crash dieting, and the very high likelihood of weight regain, the impact on their metabolism and relationship with food long term…..he just gets blamey. He asks them ‘how they got here’. I’m yelling at the TV screen, “From dieting, you plonker!”
Dr X decrees the CSIRO low carb diet for Lucy. He makes it sound legit by saying it was ‘designed by an Australian government scientific research agency,’ which is true, but he leaves out the bit about the agency being sponsored by the Australian meat industry. He also neglects to mention that the research supporting it is very short term, and that there are serious concerns about fibre intake and bowel cancer from such high consumption of meat. Just pesky details, these!
Stacie is cooking up an example meal of ‘what Sue can eat’. Even though this diet is actually for Lucy. Never mind, all of these middle age women look the same, right Dr X?
Stacie has the broadest Northern accent I’ve ever heard. She presents Lucy with her meal and announces “I’ve prepared you a posh chicken kebab.” She then advises Lucy to “add loads of spice to your meals, so you don’t miss the carbs.” This is an excellent tip from Stacie, who seems intent on teaching the world how to behave like you have an eating disorder.
Sue is ordered to go on the ‘Carb Lovers Diet’ where you’re supposedly allowed carbs but in reality no chips, white rice, or anything actually appetising. She is told that she can only eat “resistant starch,” whatever the hell that is. Starch that doesn’t come out in the wash? And she’s also restricted to 1200 calories a day, which is around the same intake people got in the concentration camps. This sounds absolutely reasonable to Dr X.
Stacie the café cook is seriously chuffed with her Carb Lover’s’ ‘meal’…..salad with a few lentils tossed through it. She says it has “Loads of veggies which help you feel full.” I never want to visit Stacie’s café.
We now take a detour with Dr X who visits a “leading behavioural psychologist who invented the Pavlock”. OMFG. The Pavlock is like a Fitbit which gives you an electric shock if you eat food. No shit. It’s based on the antiquated psychological concept of operant conditioning, in which a stimulus (food) is paired with an ‘unpleasant’ response (electric shock), with the idea being that you learn to associate eating with having laser hair removal. Dr X says it’s “a sadist version of a fitness tracker,” but apparently sees no issues, and gives it a whirl.
Dr X also glibly accepts the Professor’s other not at all dodgy invention, the ‘k-safe’ – a clear Tupperware box which you can lock so you can’t access your food until you’re going to be ‘good’. Apparently this ‘helps with cravings’. I’m banging my head on the coffee table.
This brilliant behavioural psychologist also recommends a website where you publicly declare your diet goals so you’re shamed when you don’t make them. You have to pledge money to a charity because according to the prof, people will ‘try harder’ when there’s money at stake.
Wow. Gambling AND dieting, all in one hit! Someone notify Sportsbet!
For some reason, Dr X is still grinning and nodding like he really thinks all of these are great ideas. This dude has NEVER struggled with his weight, you can just tell. The whole thing is just a hilarious lark to him.
He goes to lunch with his dad, and insists that he administer electric shocks while he’s trying to eat his wonton soup. Instead of learning to not eat the soup, the Dr immediately tries to ‘beat the machine.’ This seems to demonstrate quite beautifully how useless the Pavlok is, but Dr X shows no signs of understanding. His dad looks like he’s enjoying himself. I don’t blame him.
Inexplicably, Dr X concludes that there is ‘good science’ behind aversion therapy (eg, it worked really well for all the homosexuals in the 1970’s, didn’t it*!!!). He then says the ‘only problem’ is that he doesn’t like pain. Dr X, that’s not the only problem.
I’m close to giving up.
We are now introduced to “Life Changers” Bharat and Atul. They are called “Life Changers” because their diets will go for an amazing 4 months, which will probably feel like a lifetime but isn’t actually very long at all in the yo-yo of weight loss and regain.
Atul and Bharat are friends and actors. Apparently they want to do this diet because they’re appearing in a “Bollywood movie dance scene” and therefore must lose weight. I wonder why.
Atul is pre-diabetic (read: not actually diabetic) and believes he is “addicted” to sugar. Bharat legit thinks he’s going to drop dead at any moment because he has high blood pressure.
Bharat and Atul both want to lose a huge amount of weight, which science says is statistically very unlikely. This doesn’t bother Dr X in the least, and he dives straight into the diet sentencing.
He makes Atul go on the “Blood Sugar Diet”. This was dreamed up by serial diet peddler Michael Mosely. It’s fucking 800cals a day. Atul will literally be starved.
The café cook brings him an eggplant with a thimbleful of lamb mince on it and bless him, Bharat tells her the truth. It’s fucking bland. The dietitian shoots him with carb free dagger eyes and speaks for the only time this episode, telling him he can ADAPT it later but for now SHUTUP ffs.
The Dr mansplains to Bharat that he has high blood pressure and will probably be dead soon anyway, so instead of giving him effective and safe medications, they are sentencing him to the DASH diet. It’s too boring to even explain, but has something to do with the Mediterranean, and no salt is allowed.
The café chef whacks some spinach leaves, mushrooms and three prawns onto a plate and declares that Bharat ‘isn’t going to go hungry.’ I disagree.
“We don’t CARE if you’re hungry!!”
We go back to visit Sue, who in spite of subsisting on concentration camp rations, must cook overly elaborate, tiny portions of food for lunch. So perverse. She makes some kind of white paste and remarks that it looks like dog sick. From the look on her face, it tastes like it too.
Lucy is filmed attempting a bbq because of course that’s all we eat in Australia. She cooks a steak the size of her head and dry frys broccolini without oil, which looks desperate. But she valiantly claims to be happy.
Sue and Lucy are filmed at a friend’s party. Both have brought their own lunch which they are eating straight from the Tupperware container, which is of course absolutely normal social behaviour. They admit feeling absolutely starving, but blame themselves ‘for eating rubbish’ before the diet. No darlings, you’re absolutely starving because they are ABSOLUTELY STARVING YOU.
4 days in, and Sue films herself with her guard dog. He’s there to physically attack Sue if she goes near the fridge. Sue says she feels really good because her tummy is a bit flatter. That’s because there’s no food in it.
Sue is worried because she has to go to a wedding reception that evening, and she wants to be GOOD. “Good on you” says the condescending Dr X, who is monitoring Sue via a small camera hidden in her guard dog’s collar.
15 minutes after arriving at the reception, Sue is absolutely shitfaced and dancing up a storm. I like Sue.
We pop into Bharat’s laundry where he is weighing himself. He is of course disappointed – he was hoping to have lost a lot more weight. Dr X’s voice over makes another condescending comment blaming Bharat, even though he’s done everything he’s been told so far. This is SO representative of what happens between dieters and their Drs in real life, and probably the most honest moment of the whole ‘reality’ show.
Part of Bharat’s diet sentence is to calorie count everything, which has nothing to do with the Mediterranean. Poor Bharat can’t quite believe how little 800 calories a day really is, so he’s gone into denial and is sneaking food off his wife’s plate. Dr X takes the opportunity to unsympathetically drive home the point that all of this is his fault.
Atul is stalked by Dr X to make sure he’s not enjoying himself. He’s busily throwing out all the food in his kitchen. “Everything I love I have to give up” he says. He does his best to keep his spirits up by dressing up as a chef, but still says the food is bland. “Just shut up and stick with it, Atul” says the incredibly unsympathetic Dr. He then buggers off to road test the stupid food safe.
Within just a few minutes of having his peanuts on full display but unattainable, Dr X cracks the shits and throws the K-Safe on the floor, breaking it. He then binge eats all the peanuts, declaring orgasmically how good it tastes. In spite of literally just experiencing his own inability to stick to a restrictive food plan, Dr X seems unable to connect the dots to what’s happening with Bharat. Is he ever going to get it?
Next he ‘road tests’ the public shaming website. He publicly pledges that he’s only going to eat 6 dumplings the following day, or he’ll give 50 quid to a political party of his dad’s choice. I mean seriously this man cannot getany more privileged.
He immediately breaks the promise, and cheerfully eats most of a Chinese restaurant menu. There are still no signs that he is connecting his experience to that of his victims.
By now I’m fantasising that the dieters can spy on him through cameras installed in fake dim sims, and that they will be able to make a few snide comments of their own…but no such luck….
After ‘road’ testing the crappy Pavlok, K-Safe, and shamey website, and finding them all to be completely useless, Dr X then does a whole spiel about how effective they are, and tells us to go and buy them. I’m absolutely sure this isn’t because the product is sponsoring the show….
“None of these products work. But BUY THEM ANYWAY”.
Will Sue sober up? Will Atul crack and launch a calorie counter-attack? Will Dr X EVER get it? All these questions and more will be answered in my second serve on The Diet Testers, next week!
* No. No it didn’t. Electric shocking gay people to not be gay anymore was eventually recognised to be not only ineffective but unethical and a breach of human rights, and the practice was abandoned. No-one seems to have told Dr Pavlok.