Psychologist Emma Kenny has launched Make Your Switch and has commissioned some research into millennial dieting trends which reveals shocking attitudes and behaviours from millennials who are risking serious side-effects and sickness to achieve the ‘perfect body’. We caught up with her to talk about these worrying trends and how we can change our attitude towards food.
Why are the messages for young people so confusing around the subject of weight loss?
First of all, there is so much misinformation. Young people have quite a skewed image of what’s healthy. The role models these days tend to be the ultimately skinny Taylor Swift styles or the caricatured form of the Kardashians, their perception of what’s normal is quite complex.
Additionally, the information out there has become almost caricatured from the crazy wellness phases of what clean eating is meant to be about through to what you can and can’t eat. All of those messages mean that body image is confusing, particularly for women. Women are very often in society called for the way that they look. That becomes an obsessive issue and makes young people focus on the body as opposed to the intrinsic traits of what makes them who they are.
Why is there a greater focus on body image and weight as opposed to health, which is arguably more important?
Health is the only thing that’s important. When a society denotes success among the foundation of the way you look, young people will strive to emulate what is seen as successful. Much like if we valued academia the way we should do, people would strive for that. Much like when we saw the revolution of women in the workplace, they weren’t worried about the way they looked but about the ways they could take their career forward. What’s happened to some degree, is we’ve changed our reference to success in the modern- western age. We have so much exposure to social media and people emulating the mythical bodies that people see that are heavily edited on those kind of platforms. All of a sudden, young people, understandably want to be successful. We have to remember that in the foundation of this- young people are striving to be successful. If you are looking around you and that is attached to the way you look, then you are going to wish to emulate that. We have got it completely wrong, but nevertheless, that’s how young people are being brought up.
How does your mental health become affected when you go on extreme diets?
The thing is- as soon as you start screwing around with food, you have lost the battle. You see that because in the UK we have more issues than our counterparts for example, in the Netherlands and France where eating is part of their lifestyle but it doesn’t define who they are.
In the UK and the states, women and men are looking to these crazy ideas for how to stay slim and how to get the perfect six-pack. There is a huge amount of global marketing around the success of individuals who apparently stick to these kinds of fad diets. Young people- of course they want a quick fix- I am talking under 35. If someone says to you ‘if you do this then you’re going to get this’, and this looks amazing then of course you are going to think- I can achieve it. Therefore, you go down that road and when you start and get results if you’re restrict things like what you’re eating, people are really positive towards that. Very often, it’s only when people get really sick, with something like an eating disorder that people start to be quite negative about the way they look. Until that point, we are incredibly coveting of people who SEEM to have restraint and SEEM to look fantastic but it doesn't matter. People are looking from the external in as opposed to the internal out and that’s where we have gone wrong. We are not concentrating on our health and wellbeing; we are concentrating on our image. The image- it doesn’t matter how we achieve it- as long as we get it then we must be successful. That means that people have got this huge gap between mental wellness and the way that they physically look. Eating disorders are growing and they are being sustained into people’s elderly lives. We know that we’ve got lots of people in old people’s homes who suffer from bulimia and anorexia nervosa. It’s a growing phenomenon. People don’t get the help when they are young, they constantly try to amass the figure that looks acceptable in their opinion. They have restrict eating patterns and as soon as you do that- unless you have someone who can come in and really educate you and help you on that journey to health, it’s hard.
That statistic is 97% of people who go on diets, 3% can keep the weight off for five years, but only 16% of those actually do that. Of that 3%, only 16% actually succeed. That’s how tiny a percentage. You are probably talking only one in a hundred people who make it one diet. People don’t understand what food is and how to eat healthy and how to stay well.
What are the physical side effects of going on an extreme weight loss programme?
There are lots of different thought patterns here. If you speak to personal trainers, some people will say, as long as you start getting your eating back in check and you start having a healthy diet, your wellbeing will be ok- as long as you work thought it. I have worked with trainers and dieticians and there are other people who have issues around people screwing with the way their metabolism interacts. It can cause you longer issues with putting weight on and losing weight- it can become more complex.
On a personal level, the major thing is that you don’t feel good about who you are. If you don’t feel in control of what you put in your body and you don’t feel like you understand what food signifies and symbolises in your life then you’re constantly scared. That as one of the big things I think people face. More than the fact that the metabolism might have been affected, more the worry of being infertile because they have had anorexia, or the possibility of osteoporosis. They might have huge issues with their body if they have been bulimic- they might have problems with their oesophagus or reflux. These things you say- are horrible and terrifying- but I think there is nothing worse in life than living with fear. I think that when you have developed some kind of eating disorder or some kind of issue around food, you feel that fear constantly. You either think ‘I’ve put too much in my mouth’ or ‘I’ve not put enough in my mouth’ and ‘people are going to be judging me because of what I’m eating’. That rhetoric, I think is the most exhausting rhetoric if someone suffering with an eating disorder or just food per se. It’s that constant question of self.
That’s why my focus has always been – let’s get you mentally well so that food is put back in its place. It’s a way to get you from A-B the most effective way- the best fuel possible. That’s what food should be- that’s all it should ever be. You know as well as I do that there is this huge emphasis on this idea of going out for socialised meals and eating things dripping with fat and it being delicious.
We have such a terrible relationship with the language we use around food. I work with people with eating disorders, not necessarily people with anorexia but with people who are bulimic. These kind of individuals will use language like- ‘I just love food- I love it’. The minute you use a relationship word, such as ‘love’ with ‘food’- you’re screwed. You can’t love food-it can’t give you anything back. My whole emphasis is to put it back where it belongs. It should be great, it should make you feel fantastic but it shouldn’t be a relationship basis.
Please tell us about founding Make Your Switch.
I founded Make You Switch about 8 years ago in my head. My husband had an affair and left me. I was a single mum with limited income. It was really at the beginning of doing a lot of television. At that time, I was working very few hours, part time running a therapy. I suddenly lost my ability to go running every night- I used to run six miles every night and I had done for years. It was my stress relief- it wasn’t necessarily exercise- it was for the silence I got for an hour.
I had a limited income, I didn’t have my exercise anymore, and suddenly my friendship groups changed as the person he had an affair with was my best friend. The result of that was- it shifted the people I had in my life. I didn’t have the opportunity to go out anymore and I used to sit in and think to myself ‘I’m vegetarian and my kids are vegetarian which is slightly more expensive sometimes than eating no vegetarian goods’. So I thought ‘how do I live and have an exercise opportunity’? All these questions were going through my head. I just thought to myself, maybe I would benefit if I had a community where I could just put on as many videos as I wanted. I bought an exercise DVD and when you watch something every single night, it takes its toll! Then I moved onto another one. When I had gone through the financial side of it- I thought- there has got to be an easier way to do this. In terms of the food- I don’t like eating processed foods at all!
I was brought up in a non-processed way; I don’t eat any kind of processed goods. That is how I was brought up- in a working class family. Everything aas vegetables and meat at the time. It was that every working class background. I’ve never had a tin of spaghetti. I didn’t even know what pasta was until I was 16, which is really sad to admit but I generally had no understanding of those kinds of foods.
When I had my own kids, it was really difficult for me to entertain the thought of giving them anything from the microwave. I would never eat a microwave meal. It’s weird to me that you would do that- it’s not right in my head but it’s also expensive to do that. So I was thinking- how do I do this on a budget?
Make Your Switch was- what if I created something where everything is non-processed? Something you can do that’s simple and on a budget? You can exercise for five minutes if you’ve only got five minutes. If you’ve got an hour, there is an hour of yoga. There are thousands of videos.
I wanted to have the opportunity where someone else would plan everything for me. In terms of the nutritional side of it- you press one button and it populates it with everything you like; all your preferences, whatever you are eating, your dietary requirements; gluten free, healthy heart, diabetic, vegan, low GI. I wanted something that offered me that platform.
Then I wanted something to be able to talk to like-minded people and on top of that, I wanted to be able to measure. I think measuring my happiness and goals in life has made me succeed. I don’t think you need to plan. I hate to admit that because I am really disorganised in life and I wanted something that could do it for me. So all of my food is planned for 7 days and all of my exercise is planned for 7 days. I was going to eat on a budget and speak to people who might reflect my situation so even if I am stuck inside and I can’t go out- I have got people who can converse with me. That’s how it happened.
It kills me in a way- the ironic thing about starting a business is that it’s really hard work. Building the platform is incredibly intense and I have been doing it for four years. It’s only been the past 6 months that it’s been up and we’re constantly changing the site and seeing what’s worked. That's why I wanted to create an ethical platform that stops lying to people. I have just got such a mouth on me and I say it out in public and I know it’s no popular.
I love Oprah Winfrey, she was my idol when I was growing up- I wanted to be her. Now I just want to be in the audience on one of those days when they give you a car!
She is a huge deal to me but she has become a Weight Watchers ambassador. She was in the paper the other day taking about the system she applies to her weight loss- she can have three glasses of wine with her dinner. That’s everything that I despise about the world of slimming.
Or you get Slimming World that has nice guidelines applied to it- I appreciate all that research, but you shouldn't tell people that all those foods are free. You shouldn’t be able to eat as many vegetables as you want to make yourself feel incredibly full. That stretches your stomach. It makes you stick in that system for the rest of your life.
With Make Your Switch it was all about giving you that responsibility- yes you can cook this food, yes you can shop- you can shop the stuff on the site- you can get it delivered and that cuts down on any temptations when you’re out. The other side of it was- I wanted to meet people- no matter who they were or what situation you had. So you could be a body builder and you take our strong system. If you want to have a non-processed lifestyle, applying your particular preferences, you can maintain weight on the steady system. If you want to lose weight you can go on the shape system. The whole point is, you don’t weigh yourself and you don’t count calories. You put food back in its place and the mental wellbeing is my side so there are loads of videos. Videos that inspire you to think differently about food- or whether you’ve feeling depressed or whether you want to have kids- it’s all there.
I think ‘diet’ should be what you eat not what you restrict, so I think it should be reclaimed.
You are a mum- so how do you approach the subject of appearance and weight with your children?
My kids are boys. I am not going to deny for one minute- I do think that is slightly easier. I’ve never had a girl so I have never been under the same level of pressure as women. I have noticed that my nieces have some more issues compared to my boys.
Saying that, my eldest son is 14 and going through adolescence. He is really struggling with the way that that was the world perceives boys. To him- he thinks it’s normal to have a six-pack. He's a competitive gymnast and he goes to the gym three times a week and is quite body conscious. It’s a constant battle for me to help him understand that it really has no value. What has great value is your relationship with other people, all the compassion you show others and your intelligence. That is one thing you can always hold onto instead of being carried away with it. He talks all the time about how digital technology has impacted on his self-esteem. Everything just seems to perfect and shiny. With him being brought up with me, there are some positives and negatives. I am really about self-confidence. I am all about making my kids realise that they need to make themselves scared so that they can have new experiences. That can become quite exhausting for them sometimes I feel like they just wanted to be scared and not have to face and confront things. I own that about myself because I think that comes from my own upbringing. When I was a young person, I had an eating disorder and I was really sick with that eating disorder. When I got to my twenties and realised that you have to make a choice in life, and the only way of doing that is recognising that you have self-power. At that point, food got put back into its place for me. I am very conscious with my boys that I don’t want them to entertain the idea that food is anything but fuel.
I read a psychological report when I was studying psychology when I was 19 in my second year of uni. It kind of changed my ideas about food. It said they had done study in the states and had given a group of kids 30 days freedom of choice. They could eat whatever they wanted- they could have fruits, chocolates- any food they wanted. They found that every child who was left to their own devices created a nutritional diet for themselves. There was no pressure on what they could and couldn’t eat so they were as likely to eat an apple as they were a bag of crisps. I remember back then thinking that is something I’m really going to hold onto. When I was little, we were quite poor and sometimes when you’re poor you’re also hungry. Therefore, you understand what hunger is and you don’t necessarily want to be hungry. I think that was the trigger. I was a competitive swimmer and body image was really important to me. If you put weight on, you were in trouble. I didn’t want my kids to grow up with those kind of rules.
I won't ever say- you’re eating at six o'clock in the evening- I ask when does everyone feel like they’re hungry? And what do you want to eat tonight? Sometimes we have exactly the same- sometimes my boys have something that I wouldn’t necessarily eat. We have a fryer to make chips, I would ever eat them- I just don’t see the pint. So they choose what they want to eat. We have treat cupboard and they just get left of months- the chocolate is still all there from Christmas. But when their friends come around at the weekend who are restricted and they have a sleepover- come Monday there will be no food left in the house. All the kids come around and they’re like ‘it’s the free house- we can eat as much crap as we want!’ my kids are really self-regulated because they don’t see anything as a treat- but everyone has got their own way of parenting.
Do you ever feel the pressure to look a certain way given that you are in the spotlight?
Oh God, I think I’ve felt it more in the past three or four years. I didn’t feel it when I first started on TV but I do have some golden rules. I never watch my TV shows. I do a load of murder shows, I’ve got another four coming up but I would never watch myself. You just look weird after a while. I just don't. Firstly, I can’t believe how northern I am and secondly I have the most expression-full face. It’s just not good!
I think the reason I’ve realised the self-pressure in the last four years is because of the stuff I have been reading in the media about how a woman’s career can end very easily around 40. A lot of people talk about that and I think that took me a lot of time to say to myself- you’re going to have to think about what’s next.
Make Your Switch is something I have looked into doing for years but therapy will always be my first and last love. I don’t do any celebrity things, I don’t go to any parties, I don’t have any interest in that at all. I have nothing against it but I can’t imagine anything worse than being surrounded by people who are completely over done up so they look like their Instagram photos which isn’t reality because everyone looks terrible the next morning with a hangover.
I like my world small- I have a really small world. I live in the same area I have always lived and nothing would change that. I stand for health in my industry as I am sealing what I believe in. Being overweight is not an option- I wouldn’t be anyway. Being underweight is not an option. It’s being aware- I like to make sure that I am authentic.
I suppose career wise, I have had to reframe what’s important. As you get older, you do have to handle losing your looks and your body changing. And you have to be more aware of those objections you have to things like exercise. You might have excuses because you’re tired and you’re running a company for example. The rhetoric I’ve had in my head has become a bit of a battle but I’ve really worked on that and it’s been something really important to me lately- that recognition.
A lot of people my age, get into that middle age area and that is when a lot of people change their health. They get so busy, there is so much to do in life and we have to work so hard. People have very little work life-balance and they will put their health on the back burner. It’s not because they are lazy or greedy, there are so many negatives associated with people who don’t look formulaic perfect. What I see as a woman getting to that age is- I’m knackered! I’m knackered because I want to make sure that my company works, that I’m looking after all these people, that I’m looking after my kids and my parents. I want to be the best for them. You put yourself on the back burner and you don’t look after your own needs. I think over the past few years I had the battle and you have to be selfish, you have to make time for exercise and you. I have had to change the way I do things at home I’m glad I’ve got Make Your Switch because I have use loads of their videos on there- the trainers a really good. I’ve definitely had a battle.
What is next for you?
I’ve been doing Britain’s Darkest- we’re on the sixth season- that’s out in April on Netflix, I’ve got Judge Rinder’s Crime Stories Series 2 coming out, I’ve got another series- Dating with Death (I am Miss Murder!), Kids Who Kill Second Series- lots of that.
I am writing a book at the moment- a book on self and trying to increase your self-esteem so that will hopefully done within the next year. Obviously, I have been writing for Closer for years and my biggest push is Make Your Switch. That’s the big one- it’s really hard having a start-up I am balancing all of that. So just surviving! And the constant of being a mother!
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