I was eating french fries when I stumbled across the show Secret Eaters on Plex. It frames itself with kind of a sweet, caring premise: we can help you figure out the secret behind your weight gain.
It’s just data after all, right? And what we all truly crave is a complete, wholesale chronicling of our entire ingestion data set, right?
That’s where the fun begins.
Sweet-talking host Anna Richardson has had her share of weight issues and she strips down to her skivvies in the pilot episode to show us the various trouble areas on her body. I really appreciated her bravery in being a real human and showing us the particular challenges she faces. More than that, she articulated how she was mostly okay with her current weight and that felt right as well. To struggle and then to accept yourself for all that you are and be at peace with your body is a vast accomplishment in and of itself.
Once we meet Anna, we see the subjects. In episode one it’s a 40-something brother and sister who “eat too little,” according to them, and yet seem to be gaining weight. In the second episode it’s a family of four who eat all healthy, homemade food from mum without any preservatives and can’t figure out why their eating plans are all going pear shaped, so to speak.
In both cases, your heart bleeds for the subjects.
Yes they agree to have cameras placed strategically around their respective houses to chronicle everything they eat, but there’s a tiny hiccup in the plan that they don’t know about.
They’re being followed.
That’s right. The diabolical part of the show is that day in and day out, for the five days of the study, they have what the show calls “Top P.I.’s” tailing them to work and to their extracurriculars, snapping telephoto images of their various eating escapades and drinking dalliances and adding all of it to both a terrible yarn wall of “secret eating” and a table that recreates every single thing the subject ingested.
It looks like a viking smorgasbord, stretching into the far horizon, dotted with pints of lager and tube steaks and all the shit you swear you dinna eat.
And then they show it all to you.
Aside from the fact that their targets are localized in the British working class, and have clearly never had a health education course in their lives, the toughest thing about this show is the insta-shame these people feel when they realize that they haven’t cheated the cameras.
When they’re away from home, and the digital scrutiny, they seem to ramp up their eating and drinking. They go to the pub and have like 11 stouts and nine amarettos and come home and order late night bratwurst while they’re pissed drunk. One dude literally fell asleep whilst holding the last few bites of a triple cheeseburger aloft in his hand only to wake up to finish it.
Away from home, Big Macs and fries are scarfed down and something called “salad cream” is liberally used to adorn bowls of romaine.
But it’s the drinks. Dear god the drinks.
Soda after terrifying soda for the teen who can’t figure out his weight issues. Like sixteen huge glasses per day interspersed with bag after bag of crisps. His mum cooking a healthy dinner for the fam, while alone in the kitchen she’s smashing hard cider like Paul Bunyan, then following it up with a series of rum and cokes poured into vast, oceanic glasses where the measurement is like half rum half soda. There must have been eight shots of rum in every one. Even her husband was like BLIMEY!
In the end, it was kind of great because everyone spent ten days afterward just tackling the direct issue the show had uncovered and all of them quickly lost some weight. And for those of us watching in the USA, it’s fun because everything is in stone.
“Harold, you came to us 16 stone 8 and now you’re 14 stone 10!”
I have no idea what constitutes a stone, but it doesn’t matter. Everyone lost some stone by the end, which is what they wanted, and so we can all come away satisfied.
But it was a slog to get there. I get it. Sometimes when you’re in that binge-drinking state, you’ll basically eat a box of farts after pub if they promise to deep fry them and bring them to you in a styrofoam container over moist french fries.
To a person, they were all basically doubling or tripling the amount of food they thought they were eating. Each report was like “Madeline reports in her journal that she eats about 1100 calories per day, mostly in prawns. When we followed her with our team of tenacious garbage divers, we found that she was eating a whopping 7870 calories per day, mostly from candy bars from the snack machine at her office, frozen macchiatos three times a day and the eight donuts she eats at tap dancing class every Wednesday night.”
Now, I like to jest about most of this, but one can certainly make a case that the entire premise of Secret Eaters–sort of policing people who have shame and discomfort around eating is at its core, fat-phobic.
I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life battling weight issues and I really related to the nearly universal revelation that we all chronically under-report our eating.
I’m certain I do.
That said: the only reason reporting your eating should ever matter is because you and you alone decide it does. The premise of the show is that people are confused about their weight and are looking for more data to address the issue. That’s their prerogative. Just as it’s anyone’s prerogative to also not choose to report.
We all come in different shapes and sizes. We didn’t pick our genetics, they picked us. So the lasting goal should be to get to a point where you feel great inside your body. For some people, that will look more active than others. Some people will focus on health, others will focus on comfort. The only right answer is what you and you alone choose.
The pitfalls of trying to measure up to some ridiculous Barbie and Ken standard have depressed many a dieter. Don’t fall into that trap. Understand that there’s a range for all of us and aspire to get to the healthiest part of your personal spectrum. Your ideal weight is something that is your decision, not society’s.
So when you’re watching a show like Secret Eaters, try to focus on the note behind the note:
We are imperfect creatures. We lie to ourselves. But the beauty of both is that in most cases, if we so choose, we still have time to arrest the tide and take control of our health. We have time to choose agency over how we make peace with our bodies, and how we respect and celebrate body diversity.
But we can also choose not to address it. People get to choose what they want to do with their bodies. To paraphrase comedian Ragen Chastain: if you run a marathon or watch an SVU marathon, they are morally equivalent. “Health” in and of itself, is not a virtue. And the idea that it is harms the disabled in a real way.
And for those of you still hungry for more cooking shows, there are a bunch of options.
Britain’s Best Bakery, Season 1 (US, UK & AU) and Season 2 (US, UK, CA & AU) 50 total episodes for you to proof to your heart’s content.