The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) recently shut down FatBurney.com – a website selling weight loss products apparently containing a harmful chemical that can have unpredictable, and sometimes fatal, side effects.
The reason for the closure was because the company was “selling and marketing a highly toxic industrial chemical, 2,4-Dinitrophenol (DNP) using a website address that implied the substance may be used for weight loss”, the FSAI said in a statement released on 8 February.
The chief executive of the FSAI, Dr Pamela Byrne, expressed concern over the use of DNP in weight loss products, stating that there are “serious health risks from taking slimming products purchased online”.
“It is illegal for DNP to be sold for use as a weight loss product and it is not allowed in food. Its use has serious and unpredictable side effects, including death. There has been one recorded death in Ireland in 2015 and the UK National Poisons Information Service has recorded 32 deaths in the UK from 2007 to date,” she said.
Ads promoting many different kinds of these products – all promising a miraculous weight loss – have become commonplace, usually featuring an image of a slim, glamorous celebrity expounding on the benefits of a detox tea or meal replacement shake. Companies recruit legions of celebrities and influencers to flog their products to the eager public.
Celebrities such as Khloe Kardashian, Amber Rose, and Trisha Paytas have all been associated with dieting products, posting paid ads on their social media accounts to encourage fans to invest in these products in order to someday achieve a body like theirs.
The dieting industry has become a billion-dollar business; it was worth a massive $71 billion in the United States in 2020 (down 9% from the year before), and celebrities are cashing in.
Products promising to cause a lack of appetite have grown in popularity, with brands selling pills, gummies or even lollipops that claim to prevent cravings, and aid in a quick and easy weight loss.
However, this growth in popularity has not been without its controversy. While some celebrities and influencers have embraced the dieting culture, others have not been afraid to speak out against it. The Good Place star Jameela Jamil has been extremely vocal on the topic and has called out multiple celebrities for endorsing companies that promote various weight loss products.
Jamil, who has been open about the tough experiences she has had with dieting products, has not held back on her criticisms of the industry:
“It’s incredibly awful that this industry has bullied you until you became this fixated on your appearance. That’s the media’s fault. But now please don’t put that back into the world, and hurt other girls, the way you have been hurt. You’re a smart woman. Be smarter than this.” She commented under a now deleted Instagram post of Khloe Kardashian endorsing a weight loss shake by the brand Flat Tummy Co.
Jamil maintains that the dieting culture is grounded in misogyny – and has an extremely detrimental effect on the minds and bodies of young girls:
“No. F*ck off. No. You terrible and toxic influence on young girls. I admire their mother’s branding capabilities, she is an exploitative but innovative genius, however this family makes me feel actual despair over what women are reduced to,” she wrote in a now deleted tweet aimed at Kim Kardashian.
Paid advertisements are extremely lucrative for influencers and this, combined with celebrity worship culture, has created a viable business model for weight loss brands.
Paying people to promote and tell their followers to invest in a certain product, when in some cases they haven’t actually tried it themselves, means that people are willing to endorse products without knowing potential side effects.
“Weight loss pills and weight loss drinks are all about making money. It’s not healthy or sustainable. I think people buy these products because so many companies promote how fast you can lose weight, and everyone would love a quick fix” says Grace Taylor, who runs a fitness account on Instagram (@gracey.fit).
While they may seem like an easy alternative, they are not conducive to a healthy and sustainable diet:
“Any product or company that states you can lose weight quickly are just doing it in a very unhealthy way,” says Taylor. “Whenever my followers have asked me about weight loss products, I will always tell them you are better off eating the same amount of calories in a meal rather than a meal replacement drink.”