You Are What You Eat Should Have Stayed In 2007

Photo by Philippe Hays/Shutterstock
Dr Gillian McKeith holding her new book 'You Are What You Eat' in 2005
There are three things you think of when someone mentions Gillian McKeith: her fainting spell on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, Gemma Collins shouting down the phone for her to fuck off on Celebrity Big Brother, and turds in a takeaway carton. McKeith may be more of a meme than a TV celebrity these days but there was a time when she was an intimidating figure on our screens. 
You Are What You Eat was a Channel 4 programme that ran between 2004 and 2007 and utilised shock tactics and food shaming to get its participants to lose weight. Included in the show’s 60 minute running time was showing participants all the food they ate in a week, dropped into a clear plastic tube; recounting all the negatives of their diet; going into said participants' homes and binning all the food in their cupboards; and (most famously) McKeith fondling participants' faeces on camera in order to analyse their nutritional issues. 
The show was eventually cancelled and McKeith discredited as a dietician when the 'poo lady' was revealed not to have any medical qualifications. Now, 15 years later, You Are What You Eat is being rebooted with a new cast (all accurately certified in their fields) and Trisha Goddard at the helm, declaring itself "ready and raring to transform some of the country’s most disastrous dieters".
Upon viewing, the new series does exactly what it threatens on the tin. The show opens with a montage of fat people looking miserable, close-ups of fast food and voiceovers from the participants talking about how much they love to eat. Following that, the show features further food shots, with the voiceover now telling us, ominously, that food is "killing us" and that sugar is "literally poison".
The problem with the opener to You Are What You Eat feels obvious when written down like this – food is necessary to live; sugar is not, in any way, literal poison – but let’s break it down further. By juxtaposing fat people with negativity (both in their own words and in the menacing tone used to describe takeaways and tinned food), immediately the subconscious point of the show is that fat equals bad. Fat equals depression. Fat equals killing yourself. 
Caitlin, a 26-year-old primary school teacher, is shocked when I inform her that the reboot is happening. The original show left a negative impact on Caitlin, her family and her mental health (neither Caitlin nor her mother was ever a participant on the show).
"Shows like that really messed with my relationship with food and my body as my mam placed a lot of emphasis on the whole ‘good foods’ vs ‘bad foods’ descriptors shown in You Are What You Eat. I was made to feel like I’d be going up two to three dress sizes for eating a slice of cake – like that is even a bad thing," says Caitlin. "It’s better than starving myself because I feel guilty over the thought of buying a takeaway or – heaven forbid – wanting a doughnut. Actually looking at the science behind all the bullshit we were fed in the noughties has totally helped me with my views on body image and relationship with food – and it was only doable after moving out and away from someone who talks about it constantly."

I feel like as I get older I really realise how much these programmes have impacted all of us and it's so horrendous to think there are people who want these shows back.

Caitlin, 26
She finishes: "I feel like as I get older I really realise how much these programmes have impacted all of us and it’s so horrendous to think there are people who want these shows back. My cousin is currently having issues with an eating disorder and they think this will help?"
It feels important to note here that the new You Are What You Eat has made some changes to its format to feel more inclusive of our mental health and lower the shock factor (once you get past the show’s introduction, that is). 
Instead of a tube full of takeaways, participants Jackie and Adam's meals for the week are laid out on a grandiose wooden table before they are picked apart for their lack of nutritional value. This time around the poo expert is actually a doctor. As well as going into the pair’s homes and binning all their tinned food, Jackie and Adam are helped to examine the roots of their eating habits. After analysing their experiences with comfort eating, the two are also offered help to cope with these issues.
Still, the show relies heavily on the shock factor to sell itself. Not only that but on several occasions the advice given to the notably working class participants is dripping with condescension. The show’s nutritionist lists numerous complicated terms then tells Jackie she just "needs to think" and "read the labels" (Jackie had already stated earlier in the show that she didn’t know what to look out for on food labelling). 
Emily Unwin, a registered dietician with a bachelor's degree in nutrition and dietetics and a master's in foods and nutrition, cuts deep with her critique of the show’s methods of "encouraging healthy eating". "The tactics used in the show are cruel and rely heavily on shame and bullying. So many weight loss programmes use scare and shame tactics to create drama, which only creates further distance and distrust between a person and their body." She continues: "Individuals are doing the best they can with the background, resources, genetics, education, etc. they have. Blaming someone for their weight – and treating weight and larger bodies as a moral failure – ignores the interconnecting determinants of health, like economic stability, availability of resources, psychological wellbeing, history of dieting, social support, genetics, media influences, inequalities, class, neurotype, cultural norms, natural environment and physical safety, and chronic illness, to name a few." 

Blaming someone for their weight – and treating weight and larger bodies as a moral failure – ignores the interconnecting determinants of health.

Emily Unwin, Registered Dietician
The numerous nuances that Unwin asks us to consider are exactly why shows like You Are What You Eat – rebooted or otherwise – are so dangerous. Jackie says it herself in one scene where, after sharing her struggles with depression with her close friends, she states: "I've had to shame myself into doing this."
Although by the end of the hourlong episode Jackie and Adam appear much happier in their 'emotional journeys' – aka weight loss journeys – as a viewer I felt discomfited by how the pair were spoken about and treated by the show’s cast of medical professionals. Unwin explains that shame – used openly on the show as a tactic for changing lifestyle – is the worst strategy for truly helping anyone.
"Shame is a short-term motivator with short- and long-term negative consequences. I’ve had so many clients come to me who, 10, 20, 30 years later, still remember the shameful comments their trainer, dietician, mother or their ‘health coach’ gave them to try and ‘help’ them to lose weight." She concludes: "Those comments only serve to make someone feel guilty for the body they’re in, which fuels eating disorders, fatphobia and self-hatred." 
While the debate on whether fatness is always an indicator of poor health (it’s not btw) will always rage on, the You Are What You Eat reboot would benefit hugely from following through on its attempts at unpacking emotional eating. Instead of embarrassing bigger people on screen for their weekly food intake and cupboards’ contents, a TV show that takes the time to remove weight from the conversation and truly unpack the different ways we struggle with eating – from bingeing to comfort eating to lack of nutritional knowledge – would be genuinely revolutionary.
You Are What You Eat airs at 8pm on Wednesday 5th January on Channel 5

More from TV

R29 Original Series