So What Do We Think About These Tragic Crying Depress-O-Rama Medifast Diet Commercials?

Eat astronaut kibble, cry a lot, and then your future self will hand you a tissue THROUGH TIME, albeit one dotted with the shattered remains of Einstein's theories of relativity.
Publish date:
February 26, 2013
fat, diets, commercials

Medifast has been around forever. Or at least since 1980, when “meal replacement” diets were the up-and-coming trend.

These powdered-shake-mix plans usually fell under the category of Very Low Calorie Diets (VLCDs), which is an actual medical thing. VLCDs are comprised of about 500 to 800 calories per day, and usually were liquid diets, meaning you’d get a can of magical diet pixie dust to mix with water. And that was it. That was all you ate.

They were historically only prescribed under strict medical supervision, and only in extreme cases where fattery posed an immediate threat to the enfattened, such that more medically safe and gradual diets were no longer feasible.

Did you catch that part? That rapid weight loss is actually dangerous and should only be attempted under careful medical supervision?

VLCDs operate by inducing a state of ketosis in the body, which is really just a form of controlled starvation. Ketosis creates a shift in the body’s metabolism, in which said body stops trying to burn glucose from carbohydrates for energy, and instead goes after fat stores, our biological long-term fuel storage. The body has to first metabolize fat into a form we can use for energy, and this conversion raises the ketone levels in our blood. These ketones are toxic in high enough levels, and can cause organ damage, so the body does its level best to get them out -- even in our breath, which is why one possible symptom of anorexia includes breath that smells sweet or “fruity.”

In most circumstances, ketosis can be considered dangerous and even life-threatening -- but not for fat people! Some doctors believe that ketosis is super handy for weight loss, as once the body hits this level of starvation response, the dieter ceases to feel so hungry all the time. Hence the evolution of VLCDs, and the need for close monitoring of the dieter’s blood ketones to avoid causing organ damage.

ANYWAY, liquid diets slowly fell out of favor for a few reasons. For one, they were joyless and sort of horrible. And they usually didn’t even taste very good. Plus, science has since demonstrated, in a revelation that should surprise NO ONE, that chewing is actually kind of key in both the psychological and physical satisfaction of hunger.

It turns out that drinking your meals, while probably fun in an “I’M PRETENDING TO BE AN ASTRONAUT!!!” way for a day or so, is kind of bad for human morale. I mean, even astronauts get solid food. And they’re in freaking orbit, trying to poop in a toilet with a four-inch opening (sorry everyone, I'm reading Mary Roach's "Packing for Mars" right now so I've got this stuff on the brain).

Medifast, it seems, has changed with the times, and is doing pretty well to hold up its portion of the $61 billion diet industry in the US, so they’ve dispensed with the can of powder in favor of “Medifast meals,” which are “nutrient-dense” meal replacements, at least some of which bear a curious resemblance to a sort of diet puppy kibble. (Oh, and they still have shakes too, for those who want to kick their ketosis old-school.)

Medifast's plan these days is for the dieter to consume five of these pretend-astronaut meals (comprising about 500 or so calories), plus one meal of actual food (chosen from a list of lean protein and vegetables, of course), for a total (near as I can figure) of roughly the same 800 calories as mentioned above. Maybe more, maybe less, but that looks like the ballpark number to me. And I'm sure someone at Medifast will email me if I've got it wrong.

For all this, Medifast predicts folks will lose about 1-2 pounds per week. They used to predict a loss of 2-5 pounds per week (this being a more typical loss for most medically-supervised VLCDs) but this past September, they settled a suit brought by the Federal Trade Commission, accusing Medifast of false advertising, and arguing that Medifast’s plan “did not have a reasonable basis in scientific evidence to support the claims.” Medifast’s subsidiary, Jason Pharmacueticals, did not admit liability but still forked over $3.7 million in penalties. Ouch.

Now that we have the context, let’s get to these new commercials. Several of you have emailed me about this “Conversations with Yourself” series of Medifast ads in which the “befores” talk to the “afters,” via the magic of editing and filming the dieters first at the start and then near the conclusion of their kibble-eating Medifast journeys.

That said, the first time I watched one, I didn’t know this, nor that it was called “Conversations with Yourself,” so I was just WAY CONFUSED and thought these were fatties apologizing to family members, or something. It doesn’t help that the afters tend to have new hairstyles and better makeup, making them harder to recognize (or maybe I think all thin people look alike?).

So they are BRUTAL. In Tina’s conversation above, the fat “before” cries and apologizes and tells her future thin self (who is not yet sitting across from her when this part was filmed, mind you) that she looks “great.” The thin “after” smiles all reassuringly, and asks her past fat self why she waited so long to get on the diet kibble train. Who knows? It’s both painful and awkward. And painfully awkward.

Tina's thin “after” then announces, “I bought a swimsuit this year, for the first time in like, eight years.” To me, this is tearjerking primarily because I find it heartrending when I hear people who truly believe their bodies to be so unacceptable that they would deny themselves the pleasure of swimming, or even just being fat in swimwear in public, if they would otherwise enjoy it. I mean, good for Tina? But Tina shouldn’t have had to wait.

Tina’s got nothing on Kimberly, though.

Oh my god. Come here, fat Kimberly. Let me hug you. Kimberly’s commercial is just sad, sad, sad, and both Kimberlys get weepy. “Make sure you just stay this way,” says fat Kimberly, referencing her thinner counterpart, “and remember how difficult it was to be this way,” she says, referencing her fat self.

As depressing as it is, the sorrow is sort of interrupted by the fact that that halfway through their conversation, future Kimberly hands her past self a tissue from across the space-time continuum. The gimmicky nature of this effect was enough to rip me right out of my sympathy, if I’m honest. Because all I could think was THE TISSUE THIN KIMBERLY HANDS HERSELF DID NOT EXIST WHEN FAT KIMBERLY WAS CRYING. (Guys, just write your own "Doctor Who" jokes here, I can’t go on.)

And finally we have Joseph, representing for the dudes, who does not cry, but whose fat “before” version wears a shirt FAR too small, and the camera actually ZOOMS IN on his stomach straining at the buttons when he sits down. It ZOOMS IN. Guys. Zooms in.

I guess when they realized Joseph wasn’t going to cry, they had to do SOMETHING.

To their credit, these commercials are pretty much ALL about appearance, which is refreshing, I guess, in that Medifast ain’t even playing that their diet is about being healthier or some other intellectual shit. MEDIFAST: YOU’RE GONNA LOOK DIFFERENT.* (*Tardis not included.)

As a vocal advocate for both body acceptance as a valid life choice for them that choose it, and body autonomy for everyone, even those that don’t, I’m not about to condemn or attack Tina or Kimberly or anyone else for choosing to diet. Because they get to decide that, and they get to decide how they conduct their bodies, and they get to decide what makes them happy.

But I can’t pretend that their choices, and these commercials, don’t also take place within a much larger set of cultural expectations and assumptions. Being fat might have been way hard for Kimberly, but that’s not the case for everyone, no matter how prevalent that particular story may be.

And yet, because Kimberly’s story reinforces the whole stereotypical “being fat sucks and is depressing and miserable” narrative that we hear pretty much everywhere, this extremely public commercial stops being just about Kimberly (or Tina, or whomever) and positions her as representative of fat experience, something I am supposed to relate to.

Her choice to diet is her individual decision, but by participating in these commercials as a “real” person who is also a character devised by Medifast, it becomes something more. It becomes a cultural artifact that affects me, and lots of other fat people, by underscoring the already ubiquitous idea that fatness is misery and dieting is salvation.

These commercials might bother me less if they were a little more diverse in their reactions, and maybe had less crying, and weren’t so focused on the tragicalness of fattery. Because we see enough of that, and not just in diet commercials, but everywhere.

I know it’s selfish and all, but I’m not a sad fatty. Nor am I a "before" in search of an "after." And I think it’s reasonable to want to see more experiences like my own represented in all sorts of media. Although maybe not in this case, as I’d probably make for a terrible diet commercial. Truly, if faced with my own future thin self, our conversation would probably go something like this:

Fat Lesley: “DUDE, what about all our clothes?”

Thin Lesley: “I KNOOOOOOW, It is so depressing.”

[crying together]

Fat Lesley: “Hey, let’s have some pie.”

Thin Lesley: “Awesome! Yay!”