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Why ‘Fat Camps’ Fail and Do Harm (And What to Do Instead)

Authored by: Erin Risius, MA, LPC – Director of Behavioral Health  at Hilton Head Health

The term ‘fat camp’ (or ‘fat farm’) is the most popular search term people use when researching online for weight management centers. As a specialist in health psychology, this term makes me cringe because it’s derogatory in nature. Yet, this term is innocently used by potential patrons when searching for help with their health behaviors and weight loss goals. But, the terms ‘fat camp’ and ‘weight management’ are not synonymous. Quite the contrary. Extreme weight loss centers, a.k.a ‘fat farms,’ use unsustainable approaches to nutrition and exercise that are overly restrictive, depriving, and punitive (think: The Biggest Loser). Extreme approaches are unhealthy by their very nature, yet they seduce consumers by marketing the promise of fast results. And those results are only measured by the number of pounds lost on the scale. However, that measure of ‘success’ is usually temporary and followed by a return to the original weight, or more based on the inevitable rebound effect. Health is sadly considered an option, not a requirement when the tunnel vision of weight-loss-at-any-cost is running the show and it’s the consumer that suffers. 

At Hilton Head Health (H3), we share a professional responsibility to guide people out of that tunnel vision and to expose them to a lifestyle approach to healthy weight management and wellness. Healthy, sustainable weight loss will follow healthy behaviors that feel good in the body – not punitive. Suffering and deprivation is not required despite many people thinking both are necessary to reach their goals.  

As wellness professionals, it can feel like walking a tightrope of not dismissing one’s weight loss goals while educating on safe, effective ways to prioritize healthier behaviors. We understand that in order to empower those who walk through our doors, providing health education, offering positive regard, and fostering unconditional support – no matter where one is on their journey – is key for ensuring that they walk out with the tools that are needed for their personal success. Success may be moving the needle on that scale, but also the recognition of additional measures of success, such as lowered cholesterol, improved fitness, and mobility, elimination of acid reflux, or a lessening of depression, to name a few examples. When we feel better, we make better self-care choices, so our goal is to help people feel better in body and mind. The approach taken can be either an unintentional detour or a more direct path toward a healthy weight and wellness. 

Differences Between ‘Fat Camps’ and Healthy Weight Loss Resorts

Typical ‘Fat Camp’ Healthy Weight Loss & Wellness Centers 
Encourages extreme calorie restriction Optional calorie range recommendation and education on mindful, intuitive eating 
Weight loss is the only measure of success All measures of success acknowledged and encouraged 
Provides a menu that emphasizes diet mentality (i.e. low/zero carbs) Provides a balanced and sustainable menu for optimal nutritional health, satisfaction and enjoyment 
Offers temporary ‘fix’ Provides a sustainable approach for behavior change 
No pain/no gain exercise classes are the only option Provides a wide range of fitness options to help one find their fitness style 
No exercise modifications Exercise modifications provided in every class to help people honor their mobility and fitness levels, and orthopedic conditions 
Inexperienced and non-credentialed staff Professional, credentialed staff who are experts in their field 
Oversimplified ‘eat less, move more’ approach A lifestyle approach to wellness and healthy weight loss and management 
Doesn’t address the psychological impact on goals, motivation, and process of change Has a health psychology specialist on staff for providing emotional support for underlying factors that fuel behaviors 

Psychology of Motivation 

It’s important to first address the motivation and reasons behind the desire to lose weight. These reasons are highly personal and will inevitably impact the approach one takes to reach this goal.  Understanding the psychology of the motivational mindset provides important clues into what is influencing and directing a weight loss goal.  

“I need to fix myself” 

For some people, their desire to lose weight is urgent, desperate, and rooted in body loathing. The belief is that they need to ‘fix themselves’ and they are driven by feeling ‘not good enough.’ This belief is often fueled by living in a culture that discriminates and stereotypes based on someone’s body size. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of negative comments about your weight from a loved one, acquaintance, or even a stranger on the street, it’s beyond hurtful. Despite the loving concern, unintentional ignorance, or blatant prejudice on behalf of the person commenting, it lands with a visceral gut-punch in the stomach of the recipient that can knock the wind out of the most secure and self-accepting person. We’re human. We want to feel accepted, not judged. Over time, this external judging voice can become an internalized one and body loathing may become the primary motivation to ‘fix’ what is deemed unacceptable by others and in the end, by oneself. Since desperate thoughts often lead to desperate measures, unsustainable yet seductive fad diets, and no pain/no gain exercise approaches that promise a quick ‘fix’ for what feels broken, can feel like the elixir to what ails.  However, this path comes at a high cost to one’s physical, mental, and emotional health, and often leads to a dead end. 

‘I choose to care for myself’ 

Which statement sounds more appealing: “I need to fix myself” or “I choose to care for myself”? Most people choose the latter statement because who wants to feel like they need to be fixed?  Positive change can only come from self-regard and self-respect – not self-hate – but if someone is stuck in body loathing, how does one go about changing this mindset? Healthy weight loss and management is a by-product of self-care, and the power to make healthier choices comes from knowledge and the practice of self-compassion within the process of change. Often the pace of change doesn’t occur as fast as someone desires. But, learning how to front-load on self-care habits ensures a lifestyle change that is more likely to stick long term.   

Lifestyle Approach to Wellness 

As staff, we are invested in helping people to empower themselves in body and mind. We have no expectation around someone’s weight loss journey, instead we are focused on ensuring people achieve their weight and wellness goals with dignity, care, and respect.  

A cup of coffee

“Changes that occur as a result of extreme approaches are almost always unsustainable, leading to frustration, loss of motivation, and a return to previous behavioral patterns creating a negative cycle.  At Hilton Head Health, we provide a non-judgmental environment that encourages realistic, sustainable change through education, support, and positive experiences. We recognize that long term behavioral changes start with self-compassion and self-care, not judgement and shame.”  – Bob Wright: H3 Director of Lifestyle Education  at Hilton Head Health

If you have felt stuck in your health journey, we are here for you when you are ready to liberate yourself and to try a different path. 

Click here for more information about the wellness and weight loss programs at Hilton Head Health, recently named the #1 Weight Loss and Wellness Resort the Country by USA Today