Everybody knows that a healthy, balanced diet and regular exercise are the best way to keep in shape, but that hasn’t stopped fad diets and promised get-fit-quick solutions existing for decades. In 2004, Channel 4 began broadcasting You Are What You Eat, a nutrition and diet show fronted by the poo-obsessed “Doctor” Gillian McKeith, which arguably started the boom in healthy-eating television shows in the UK. McKeith may not darken our living rooms any longer (she’s currently presenting a program in Canada called Eat Yourself Sexy(?!?!)), but there is still plenty of food-related pseudo-science on our screens.
Cake tastes nicer than celery, but is less healthy. Going for a jog is better for you then slumping on the sofa in front of Netflix, but it’s a pain in the arse. These two concepts are simple to understand, yet would make for terrible television, so producers have to dress them up for entertainment.
Currently, Channel 4 (them again) are part-way through Series 3 of Secret Eaters. The premise of the show is thus: two or more people (who live together and/or are related) are struggling with their weight and are at a loss as to why. Over the course of a week, they are followed and secretly filmed, so we get to see what they’re really eating, before they’re confronted with the realities of their diet and the number of calories they’re consuming on a weekly basis. They then vow to live a healthier lifestyle and, a few weeks later, we get to check in to see how that’s working out for them. In between, there’s a piss-poor scientific investigation segment, which is so lacking in rigour, you’d fail your Year 9 SATs if you presented it as an experiment.
There are a number of issues with this program. First off, we’re in Series 3, yet all the people on the show appear to have no idea they’re being followed or filmed. This is despite the fact they know they’re appearing on a show called Secret Eaters. When they’re shown the footage of them eating a Krispy Kreme from earlier in the week, they seem genuinely shocked, as if they don’t remember it happening. I’m no expert in privacy laws and the like, but I’m pretty sure that a film crew can’t set up a multitude of cameras in your home without your prior consent. Perhaps I’ll have a word with Lord Leveson, just to make sure.
When the “reveal” is done towards the end of the show, our participants are shown all the food they ate that week laid out on a series of tables (not the literal food that they ate, the show isn’t quite that scatological) – a visual aid popularised by the McKeith school of television shows. This never fails to elicit a series of gasps and widened eyes. But hey, guess what, you could be the world’s healthiest person, but a week’s worth of food still looks like a hell of a lot of food. While the people on the show are groaning, “how did I eat all that?”, it’s not as if the super-fit gym bunnies could tackle seven days’ worth of pasta and salad in one sitting either.
A dietician then spells out some cold, hard facts about the deficiencies in the diets of the hapless victims, then illustrates them via a bizarre comparison system. “Sandra, you drank fourteen double vodka and cokes over the course of a week”, she states. “That’s the equivalent to lying on your back, putting a funnel in your mouth and chugging a kilo of melted butter in under thirty seconds.” (Disclaimer: this may not be an exact quote from the series.) These non-like-for-like illustrations are essentially meaningless; fourteen double vodka and cokes might contain the same number of calories as ten thousand lettuces, one and a half hog roasts or a year’s worth of Jubilee Line pollution. The fact remains, what you eat and drink is more than just the sum of the calories it contains and in a bid to further shame the people on the show, their actual diet is always compared to a quantity of food that’s horrifyingly inedible.
In that last sentence, I’ve hit upon my main problem with Secret Eaters: the concept of shame. The majority of people who are overweight are perfectly aware of the fact, and have likely been struggling to shed the pounds. Therefore, the last thing they need is presenter Anna Richardson gleefully bouncing around trestle tables full of pasties screaming, “You ate this!” “Look at this!” “All this you ate in just one week!” “How do you feel now?” She genuinely treats the people on the show as if they were children, and you’re half expecting her to make them go and sit on the naughty step because they bought a couple of Scotch eggs from a BP garage on the way home. Her fat-shaming is relentless, and reaches its apogee at the segment’s climax where she near-enough forces the reluctant participants to admit, on camera, that they are, in fact, “secret eater”.
Small semantic point: if you’ve been eating in your own house, and it’s been filmed on camera and shown back to you, you’re hardly eating in “secret”, are you? IT’S YOUR HOUSE.
Perhaps worst of all though, are the science sections, and here I use the word “science” entirely wrongly, as these investigations rely on little more than anecdotal evidence and make the claims from L’Oréal adverts look like the work of CERN. You can almost hear Ben Goldacre weeping into his Cheerios while Richardson and pals look to “prove” some self-fulfilling theory, normally with a sample size of around four, and ignoring any possible explanations for the behaviour exhibited except the one they’re attempting to replicate. Of course, it’s unrealistic for a prime-time TV show to do experiments with lab-grade standards, but it’d be nice if things were a little more scientific than showing four people who have drank wine ate more than four people who have drank wine they didn’t know was alcohol-free, and proclaiming it as a breakthrough.
In a way, any show that attempts to make people think carefully about what they eat and the lifestyles they lead is a force for good, especially in a country where a relatively large proportion of the population is overweight. However, educating people about health and diet is one thing, and stating the obvious (binging on biscuits is bad for you) while simultaneously lowering people’s self-esteem (the fat-shaming, the tables laden with food) is another. Shows like this don’t really help anyone and, if anything, there’s a perverse pleasure to be had from watching this show while shoving industrial quantities of takeaway food down your cakehole.