The Body Beautiful: Dieting, Fitness and Wellness in the 21st Century

19 January 2016 | By Sign Salad

If you started this new year with a resolution to sort out your diet, you’re in good company. According to a YouGov poll (admittedly conducted on behalf of a diet food brand), weight loss was the most common New Year’s resolution in the UK in 2015, with 40% of women and 29% of men hoping to shed a few pounds in the aftermath of the festive season.

How to go about this? Most of us would probably accept that diet and exercise is the most sensible approach; that doesn’t mean of course that we actually follow through on this advice. Reduced-calorie diet foods and meal replacements traditionally do a brisk trade at this time of year, with would-be slimmers seeking to maximise their chances of swift success.

In the 1980s and into the nineties, the external appearance of physical fitness – ripped abs, a toned body – was an ultimate goal in itself. Think of Jane Fonda on the covers of her workout videos, or Arnie in his (steroid-assisted) heyday. It didn’t really matter if you cut corners or used potentially harmful substances – it was all about what you looked like on the outside.


Beautiful on the outside – Jane Fonda and Arnold Schwarzenegger

Cut to the present day. We haven’t exactly got over our desire for the body beautiful, the apparently perfect exterior. Although the 2015 ‘Beach Body Ready’ campaign by supplements brand Protein World generated over 400 complaints to the UK Advertising Standards Authority, in addition to a well-publicised cascade of interventions and parodies, the brand nonetheless reported an immediate £1 million rise in revenues on the back of a £250,000 spend – clearly for a certain demographic, the aesthetic advantages that “meal replacements” and an “energy restricted diet” can afford are worth the sacrifice (and potential body shaming).



Contentious campaign – Protein World’s Beach Body Ready campaign, 2015


However, whilst the Protein World approach of restriction and replacement clearly remains relevant for a significant number of people, other approaches to nutrition are increasingly gaining traction. A notable voice in this field is the US author and journalist Michael Pollan, whose books such as In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual offer a more balanced approach to healthy eating and living. Despite its seemingly didactic title, Food Rules presents readers with a remarkably flexible and common sense approach, centred around the aphorism “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. However, it’s perhaps the last of Pollan’s 64 rules that is most appealing to those of us who are apt to indulge every now and again – “break the rules once in a while”.


Pollan, and others such as New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, are leading the way in a new approach to health and nutrition – one centred around balance and enjoyment. A number of food brands are starting to catch on to this, offering consumers options that seek to be both nutritious and delicious – healthy eating as about what’s on the inside of your body, not just the outside. Take US dining chain LYFE Kitchen. On the walls inside every location, Bittman is quoted, assuring diners that “the food policy that matters most is yours”. Another rapidly expanding brand is Sweetgreen, which reproduces its ambitious, but admirable, “manifesto” on its walls.

What are the ramifications of all this? If the Protein World controversy is anything to go by, dieting and restriction aren’t going anywhere soon. However, the emergence of brands such as LYFE Kitchen and Sweetgreen (and others like them around the world) demonstrates a different way of thinking about healthy eating and taking care of the body, one that acknowledges us all as fallible human beings who sometimes just want to break the rules.

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