Breaking Down the ‘Wellness-Industrial Complex,’ an Episode at a Time

Bozz District

Aubrey Gordon collects vintage diet books. She has amassed almost 100 titles, including the 1973 volume “Slimming Down,” written by Johnny Carson’s sidekick, Ed McMahon. “Slimming Down” — which featured chapter titles like “The Breadstick Conspiracy” and “Two Martinis Into Connecticut” — is the book that began Ms. Gordon’s collection. […]

Aubrey Gordon collects vintage diet books. She has amassed almost 100 titles, including the 1973 volume “Slimming Down,” written by Johnny Carson’s sidekick, Ed McMahon. “Slimming Down” — which featured chapter titles like “The Breadstick Conspiracy” and “Two Martinis Into Connecticut” — is the book that began Ms. Gordon’s collection.

And while the idea of mixology as nutritional strategy might seem absurd to a reader today, Ms. Gordon said that so much of the current thinking about what is now known as wellness is just as “hilarious and wacky.”

On the podcast “Maintenance Phase,” named after the concept of sustaining post-diet weight loss, Ms. Gordon and the journalist Michael Hobbes spend each episode exploring what they call the “wellness-industrial complex,” debunking health fads and nutritional advice.

While health, weight and wellness are important issues, much of what Americans understand about them is actually hollow marketing, Mr. Hobbes said.

“Most of us have confidence that we understand these wellness issues, but we don’t realize that we’re literally just regurgitating things that we saw in a Nike commercial,” Mr. Hobbes added. “And wellness is the perfect encapsulation of that. A lot of the things under wellness are just rebranded or misconstrued data being sent back to us by a company, basically.”

Wellness has two definitions, Ms. Gordon said: One is new language being used by weight-loss companies that have figured out that “dieting is less popular than it used to be,” and the other lives as “a very amorphous term that we attach all kinds of things to.”

“Vitamin companies are selling wellness,” Ms. Gordon said. “Mattress companies are selling wellness. Your work now has a wellness program. It’s sort of seen as this uncontroversial way to talk about health.”

The show is No. 1 in the health and fitness category on Apple podcasts. Episodes investigating the obesity epidemic and the problematic history of the body mass index led the podcast to its first million downloads on the listening app last month.

Since the podcast began in October 2020, the hosts have examined popular diet foods, like SnackWell’s Cookies, Moon Juice and Halo Top Ice Cream (which is the 2010s’ answer to SnackWell’s, Ms. Gordon said on that episode). They’ve done deep dives into anti-fat bias, eating disorders and the roles both Dr. Mehmet Oz and Oprah Winfrey have played in the weight-loss industry. They have also investigated popular diets, such as keto, Weight Watchers, celery juice and the master cleanse (“You’re basically drinking very tart, very spicy sugar water,” Ms. Gordon said). One episode even explored how the quest for good health can lead people to QAnon and other conspiracy theories.

In the show’s introductory episode, the hosts talk about how few health-focused podcasts are skeptical of wellness. For Ms. Gordon, 37, her skepticism grew out of her personal experience of “20-plus years of straight dieting and mostly staying the same size.”

“Being a fat lady and trying to do all the things that fat ladies are supposed to do took me right there,” Ms. Gordon said. “I’ve been doing all the things, and it’s not really producing the result that I’ve been promised for, you know, the majority of my life. And I’m also seeing other people who have been in search of that promise for the majority of their lives also not getting what they thought was going to happen. At a certain point, you kind of got to go, well, maybe it just doesn’t work.”

For Mr. Hobbes, 39, who has done extensive reporting on obesity, watching his mother’s struggles led to an interest in weight fixation.

“It was, like, this defining thing of my childhood that she was always on some completely nuts, unsustainable diet,” Mr. Hobbes said. “She was always trying so hard, like swimming five times a week and eating a bowl of carrots. The discourse around obesity was always like, well, they’re not trying hard enough. I know other people that are trying pretty hard and not succeeding.”

The show presents “relatively radical ideas about this issue,” Mr. Hobbes said, but still tries to avoid alienating listeners. One way the hosts do this is by turning the narrative on themselves, taking on topics and ideas they have personal experience with.

“At some point we’ll do CBD,” Ms. Gordon said. “I have been a CBD person, and I’ll be made uncomfortable by my own research. It feels important to the show and important to me as a person, to be like, we’re not actually above anyone. We’re not smarter than this. We’re not better than this.”

Ms. Gordon and Mr. Hobbes said they receive lots of positive feedback, but the emails they get from researchers and clinicians are some of the most meaningful.

Lisa DuBreuil, a clinical social worker at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, also operates a private practice in Salem, Mass. She uses the weight-inclusive Health At Every Size approach with her clients, who include people with substance-use disorders, eating disorders, mental health issues and those who’ve developed problems after weight-loss surgeries and chronic dieting.

She heard about “Maintenance Phase” on social media, and became a regular listener. She’s not hearing anything she doesn’t already know, but said she loves how the show makes those topics more approachable and “really fun to listen to.”

“To be able to have these kinds of resources and get information in an entertaining, interesting, but also very factual way is wonderful,” said Ms. DuBreuil, who is in recovery from an eating disorder.

Ms. DuBreuil added that the ideas and research on “Maintenance Phase” are concepts that many women, people of color and L.G.B.T.Q. people have been talking about for more than 20 years, but that “it is delightful to see new people discover it.”

Caitlin McDonald, a nonprofit administrator in Salt Lake City, said that when she started listening to the show, it felt like being seen for the first time.

“It was just sort of a revelation,” she said. “It was such a relief to be in a space where I was being talked about as a human, and not a number or a statistic.”

Scott Cave, who lives in the Appalachian Mountains region of Virginia with his wife and infant, is a historical researcher and stay-at-home father. He started listening to “Maintenance Phase” after learning about it on Mr. Hobbes’s other podcast, “You’re Wrong About.” As someone with a doctoral degree in history, Mr. Cave said he appreciates the way the podcast examines and evaluates primary sources in a way that’s fun.

In an episode on the obesity epidemic, the show laid out some of the consequences of weight stigma, including people’s delaying medical care for fear of doctors’ offices. That resonated for Mr. Cave: Once, after injuring his finger, he went to an urgent care clinic where he said he was told: “We don’t think your finger is broken. It might be, but you’re very fat, so you should probably deal with that.”

As a result, Mr. Cave said he spent years ignoring the symptoms of his autoimmune disease, just to avoid another doctor visit. “So I left with a big swollen finger and a real blow to my self-regard and my relationship with the medical profession,” he said. “When they brought it up on the podcast, I realized, ‘Oh yes, I didn’t complain about my symptoms for a long time because they were wrapped up in the shape of my body, in fatness.’”

The pandemic has only intensified America’s decades-long moral panic about fatness, Ms. Gordon said. But it has also intensified a counternarrative. She has noticed more conversations centered on body positivity and more health professionals spreading the message that “it’s actually OK if you gain weight while you’re surviving a pandemic.”

“It’s been a really fascinating moment of everyone sort of processing their own body image stuff and their own weird beliefs about fatness and health in this very public way.”

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