Operation Transformation: show comes under fire as expert calls recent changes “a day late and a dollar short”

Experts have called for the cancellation of the RTÉ One’s Operation Transformation; a show which aims to focus on health and wellbeing with a considerable emphasis on diet and weight loss. While it still supports the show, The Department of Health recently announced it would not be providing funding for this season of the programme.

Weight stigma

Francis Finucane, consultant endocrinologist and bariatric physician at Galway University Hospitals says, “the nature of the approach taken in the show, in the past has certainly been problematic, stigmatising, not evidence-based and counter to the interests of people who are affected by this awful problem.”

Dr Finucane says that he spends a lot of his professional time trying to understand more clearly the causes and prevention of obesity.

“Some of the most successful and impressive people I’ve ever met struggle with their weight.”

“The message they get from a show like OT is that they are a burden on society because they haven’t been able to sort their feelings out or they have unresolved psychological issues that are driving bad behaviour that is amenable to better education, better effort, more moral integrity and that that’s the way to solve the problem.”

This message goes against what professionals know about the “biological basis for obesity and the physiological problems that arise in individuals who have a problem with eating more food than their body needs,” says Dr Finucane.

Dr Finucane says he finds it “frustrating, concerning and almost alarming” that leaders in healthcare management are still providing funding to shows of this nature.

Changes to the show are welcome but they are “a day late and a dollar short,” he says.

“The programme is symptomatic of the pejorative view that we have of people with obesity and is absolutely part of the problem and not the solution as far as I’m concerned.”

Mental health impact

Shauna Farrell, health psychologist, says that weight can be a determinant of health, however, she says that “a weight loss TV show is particularly problematic for people’s mental health as it ties a person’s value to their weight.”

Farrell says that the show increases ‘anti-fat bias’, which is a “negative association towards people living in fat bodies.”

“This intense praise they receive for weight loss can lead to internalisation of the idea that weight loss and thinness equate to value, love and being worthy. This internalisation process can and does lead to disordered eating and eating disorders.”

Bodywhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, said in a statement regarding the show on the 5th of January 2022 that “many of our service users have highlighted that the show has been and continues to be triggering for them, causes them distress and impacts negatively on their mental health.”

The statement detailed how the show perpetuates a “dieting culture that research shows does little to achieve long-lasting weight loss or health promotion.”

This statement was reiterated by Maria McCarthy, an eating disorder recovery advocate, who says that the show “is extremely dangerous because it’s conflating thinness and extreme weight loss with health.”

“With the weigh-ins and the panel of ‘coaches’ humiliating them every week, it’s just extremely toxic. The worrying thing is the fact that it’s on at a time of day when kids/ teens will see it and also the fact it’s advertised in shops normalises diet culture which definitely can lead to eating disorders developing.”

Even though changes have been implemented to the show, Farrell says, “this is still first and foremost a weight loss show. The leaders are still being prescribed restrictive diets and we are still seeing weight being measured, discussed and applauded.”

Fat liberation

Activist for fat liberation, Emma Kelly, says that “as a fat person who has felt the harm of programmes like OT and societal attitudes towards bigger bodies, it won’t be near enough until our health system sees past body size and stops seeing fatness as a problem to be fixed.”

Kelly says the withdrawal of funding by the Department of Health feels like a “win,” but she is still sceptical about the rationale for this decision.

“We have a long way to go in this country in understanding the impact of weight stigma and systemic fatphobia.”

Community impact- RTÉ

A spokesperson for RTE says, “the show continues to inspire audiences to live longer, healthier, happier lives under the careful supervision of its multidisciplinary team of qualified experts in the areas of mental health, movement/fitness, general health and nutrition.”

“The leaders have a weekly health check-in where 14 health indicators (previously 10) are monitored to improve overall health and well-being. These include upper body strength, balance, lower body strength and cardiovascular, adding to the usual hydration, blood pressure, metabolic age, general health, nutrition, and movement, among others including weight.”

“Weight loss is observed and recommended based on what is deemed medically necessary for that individual to avoid weight-related illnesses such as type II diabetes and stroke.”

“The 2023 series has been met by an overwhelmingly positive reaction from audiences across the country and community engagement is higher than ever. The GAA Lights Up initiative, for instance, run in partnership with the GAA, has seen a record 1,225 clubs register in 2023, up from 756 clubs the previous year.”

RTE’s full reply:

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