RTÉ’s Operation Transformation sends out an “oversimplified and inaccurate message” when it comes to health, and is having a “triggering effect” on people with eating disorders, two broadcasters have claimed.

The show, hosted by Kathryn Thomas, returned last week and follows participants as they try to lose weight and get fit with the expert help of a personal dietician, fitness instructor, and psychologist.

But its focus on dieting and weight-loss culture has prompted criticism, with the charity Bodywhys releasing a statement last week claiming it is having a “negative impact” on people suffering from an eating disorder.

Radio journalist and former Gogglebox Ireland star Sheila Naughton, who is recovering from anorexia, has said she finds the show “hugely triggering” and said it “reinforces the voice in your head that the unsafe and dangerous behaviours you are engaging in are OK”.

“It is all done under the guise of health. It implies that your emotional trauma or distress can be solved through weight loss with all the focus on scales, weight and BMI,” she told the Sunday Independent.

“Anyone who thinks this is a positive way to encourage people to get active has never had to watch a loved one dying in front of them from an eating disorder.”

Ms Naughton said it is a “disgrace” that RTÉ has spent money on the show “while those of us wanting treatment for an eating disorder are beating down the doors to try and get a bed, or in a lot of cases left begging for financial support from the HSE” for treatments.

“I hope that no parent has to endure what my parents did, watching their adult daughter lying in a hospital bed no longer able to enjoy her life and being told by nurses, ‘You can’t stop her from dying’.

“I hope that none of those who support this show has to endure the four years of recovery during which I wondered would I even go on or still be here. Think about the impacts having this entertainment show could have on the people in your household.”

Former RTÉ broadcaster Louise McSharry, who often speaks out about weight stigma, said there is “no doubt” the programme is “damaging”.

“We know that health is so much more than a number on a scale and that an emphasis on restrictive diets and shaming behaviour can feed into disordered eating and negative self-image.”

She said restrictive dieting “doesn’t work long-term” and explains how research shows while initially effective “almost all dieters regain lost weight and often put on more”.

“Having experienced this multiple times myself, I can say with certainty that if I’d never dieted I would be thinner now than I am.

“I’m also conscious of the fact that the programme is seen by so many children and young people who are particularly vulnerable when it comes to body image.”

Ms McSharry believes Operation Transformation “sends out an oversimplified and inaccurate message when it comes to health”.

“Fat equals bad, thin equals good. Whatever about an emphasis on nutrition and exercise, what good does publicly weighing people in their underwear do?

“Putting bodies up for discussion in that way only teaches children and adults that it’s OK to comment on people’s appearance, and that if their own bodies aren’t the perceived ideal that they deserve to be criticised and, let’s be honest, humiliated.”

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Operation Transformation 2022 participants Odile Agnini, Dale Collins, Norma Taylor, Sean O'Mahony, Katie Keenan and Una Coates

Operation Transformation 2022 participants Odile Agnini, Dale Collins, Norma Taylor, Sean O'Mahony, Katie Keenan and Una Coates

Operation Transformation 2022 participants Odile Agnini, Dale Collins, Norma Taylor, Sean O’Mahony, Katie Keenan and Una Coates

Operation Transformation 2022 participants Odile Agnini, Dale Collins, Norma Taylor, Sean O’Mahony, Katie Keenan and Una Coates

In response, RTÉ said Operation Transformation “embraces a holistic approach to adopting and maintaining a healthy lifestyle as well as losing weight” and said this year’s series focuses less on weight specifically and instead involves overall health — looking at blood pressure, cholesterol, hydration, sleep quality, and psychological well-being.

However Ms McSharry said there is an opportunity for RTÉ “to create something new with a true emphasis on health rather than weight, which incorporates contemporary research” about nutrition and dieting.

“It’s about time RTÉ recognised that. I see that they have said multiple health markers are being taken into account this year, and while I won’t be watching, I hope it will be a less problematic series than we’ve seen before,” she said. 

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