Ten Questions: Charlotte Markey
The Psychology of Eating: Why diets make you miserable
By Jayne Jacova Feld

Smart people don’t diet. At least, that’s what one Rutgers professor now knows for sure. After years studying the factors that influence body image, psychology professor Charlotte Markey says most of us approach weight management in unhealthy ways. She teaches a popular “Psychology of Eating” seminar in Camden, and she’s authored “Smart People Don’t Diet: How the Latest Science Can Help You Lose Weight Permanently.” She believes we all can find a sensible and healthy approach to weight management.

You observe how the media shapes how we feel about our bodies. Are reality shows like “Extreme Makeover” good or bad influences?
We find that, compared to a controlled group, when men and women watch these shows, they’re inspired to change their own appearance. But the problem is the extremes presented. Both boys and girls we’ve studied feel that’s a normal way to cope with body dissatisfaction.

Why is that an unhealthy idea?
Psychologists actually call it the “myth of transformation,” where people think losing weight will change everything. Reality TV capitalizes on this materialist, commercial idea. It’s not necessarily easy or fast for people to make changes, and their whole lives won’t change overnight as a result. They’re setting themselves up for failure by expecting a radical, life-altering experience.

How do your male students react when they realize the standards of beauty females confront every day?
When we look at commercials for food that show hyper-sexualized women in bikinis eating hamburgers with it dripping all over their bodies, the men realize that’s just too much and even really gross. I do think it’s worth it when the men start to get it. You get 19-, 20-year-olds saying to the women, ‘Wow, you’re right. I never thought about it that way,’ and the girls are like, ‘Yeah, duh.’

What research is there to support your hypothesis that diets don’t work?
Well, if you look at the current obesity rates (64 percent of adults in the United States are overweight or obese) and the current amount spent on products purported to help people lose weight (one estimate is $60 billion a year), it seems pretty clear that something is off. These diets don’t seem to be helping people. There is also a good deal of research suggesting that at the end of a year, on any given diet, people have lost an average of zero pounds – nothing at all!

How did you get interested in studying body image, dieting and health?
A lot of this interest originated in my childhood when I was a dancer studying at San Francisco Ballet. Dancers often adopt unhealthy approaches to staying thin. It wasn’t until I tried all the unhealthy tricks and traps of weight management and began to study psychology as an adult that I learned smart people don’t diet.

Why do you think people diet if diets don’t work?
Many people think dieting is the answer to feeling better. But really, people need to make a commitment to changing their lifestyles in minor, sustainable ways.

What role do the images of celebrities play in our addiction to dieting?
It’s hard to feel good about our bodies when we see perfect celebrity bodies everywhere. But, the first thing to remember is that virtually all the celebrity photos have been Photoshopped. Also, celebrities are paid to look good; that’s their job. There is no way the rest of us should or could have the time, money or energy to look the way they do (even before Photoshop).

How can parents model healthy body images for their kids?
Don’t ever say, “I feel so fat!” The last thing we want is for kids to learn that it’s acceptable to disparage our own bodies. Focus instead on your body’s functionality, strength and health.

What should parents do when their kids complain they are fat?
Avoid the “F word” – fat – at all costs. It’s not about being fat or thin; it’s about being healthy and fit.

How can we stop worrying about our weight and still be healthy?
Being worried is likely to lead to overeating. An important component of having a positive body image and eating well is learning to be a little bit more accepting and gentle with ourselves.

January 2015
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