Sobering Dieting Advice From the Quebec Public Health Agency

One of the brochures that was freely distributed at the recent Journées annuelles de santé publique (Québec) meeting I spoke at yesterday in Montreal, is a pamphlet produced by the Québec Public Health Agency (with funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada) on the potential risks of dieting.

The pamphlet notes that:

• 1 woman out of 2 in Quebec wants to lose weight
• 45% of children aged 9 in Quebec aren’t happy with their figure
• Half of Quebec women try dieting more than twice a year
• Losing weight does not mean you are healthier (
quite the statement coming from a public health agency)
• Many women mistakenly believe losing weight will improve their self-esteem, make them more attractive and make them sexier.

The pamphlet actually warns that:

“Always being on a diet might make you gain weight. The more you are preoccupied with your weight, the more you are at risk of suffering from depression and stress. Day-to-day activities like meals, getting dressed and playing sports can be transformed into major sources of anxiety.”

The pamphlet is also very clear about why most commercial diets don’t work:

Diets don’t take into account the reasons why you are gaining weight:

• Heredity, disease, medication, age, etc.
• Eating habits, physical activity, being obsessed with one’s own weight, etc.
• Perfectionism, low self-esteem, anxiety, stress, etc.
• Standards of beauty, the environment, the type of work we do, etc.

Finally, it offers the following points to consider when thinking about losing weight:

  • Weight-loss pace: Does my plan focus on losing more than 1-2 pounds per week?
  • Methods used: Does my plan focus on what food I eat, physical activity and changing my habits?
  • Is health professional support available?
  • Food intervention: Do you vary the meals you make, experiment with different flavours, colours and ingredients? Eating right is good for your health but it can also be fun and delicious!
  • Physical activity: Does my plan have an element of physical activity, the kind I enjoy?
  • Efficiency: Has the approach I am taking been scientifically verified, and is it efficient over the long term?
  • Danger: Is my plan safe, meaning is it devoid of danger and secondary effects?
  • Advertising: Are the ads related to my plan realistic?
  • What it costs: Can I realistically evaluate the total cost of my plan?

The brochure is available both in French and English.

Not sure that warning about the ‘dangers of weight loss’ is standard practice with other public health agencies – I certainly haven’t seen similar warning signs in other jurisdictions.

Obviously, the Agency is by no means implying that excess weight or obesity cannot be a health problem – it is simply warning about the possibility that ‘self-guided’ non-evidence-based approaches, especially those often promoted by the commercial weight-loss industry, may in the end do more harm than good.

When weight loss is indeed medically indicated – treatment should perhaps be best left to ‘qualified‘ health professionals.

Toronto, Ontario

p.s. Hat tip to Chantal Bayard of the ASPQ for bringing these brochures to my attention