Dissident doctors, fat activists and the growing resistance against mandatory health advice

Date of news: 28 June 2021

The Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) recently announced that the National Prevention Agreement is falling short: Dutch people still eat too much and don’t  get enough exercise. For some time now, the widely promoted healthy lifestyle has not only been called into question, but even openly rejected in the Netherlands. Since the 1970s, a diverse group of fierce activists and media-savvy doctors have been increasingly successful in getting this counter-narrative into popular newspapers, as historian Jon Verriet of Radboud University illustrates in his research that will be published in the journal Cultural and Social History on June 28, 2021.

Since the 1950s, the Western world has been waging a war on obesity. “Experts and government bodies have been telling Dutch citizens for decades that they should eat less and exercise more,” explains Verriet. And although people have been spending more and more on diets and gym subscriptions since the Second World War, polls show that we consider ourselves less healthy and less beautiful.

Body positivity

Couch potato“It is perhaps for this reason that resistance in Dutch society to mandatory advice on healthy eating and exercise has gradually been gaining ground over the years.” The battle first began in America, where as early as 1967 activists preached that it was better to ignore the well-intentioned recommendations of doctors and be proud of your fat body. “Nowadays we call this body positivity.”

In the Netherlands, the feminist action group Vet Vrij was founded a little later, in 1981. Inspired by sister clubs in the United States, they organised the popular Fat Women’s Day on several occasions, focusing in particular on body acceptance. They were also openly critical of medical authorities, who often ‘harboured prejudices’.

By that time, it had gradually become clear that having a healthy lifestyle was not all that simple. People struggled with the yo-yo effect; diets often do not work in the long run. Journalists also criticised the moralising tone used to talk about a healthy lifestyle, since there are clear links between health and income. Medical experts also started to question the proclamation of ideal lifestyle choices. “They argued that specific government measures could make healthy choices more affordable and easier to make.”

‘Experts’ have a hard time

In the 1980s, cracks began to appear in the popular idea that you could be healthy if you just ate well and exercised. Newspapers even featured more and more articles that openly ridiculed the idea. For example, some said that joggers were succumbing to a ‘collective madness’: their extreme need for fitness was almost pathological. In this decade, the right to live an unhealthy lifestyle was increasingly defended, for example by the American group Couch Potatoes.

“One of the main effects of all this contradictory lifestyle advice was that the position of medical experts in the Dutch media came under increasing pressure.” At the end of the twentieth century, scientists’ complex messages (“Is being fat unhealthy? Yes and no”) created more room in the public health debate for ‘experts with personal experience’, with their own truth claims. We are still living with the aftermath of that – a chaotic mishmash of lifestyle advice.

Historian Jon Verriet researched historical resistance to the ‘healthy lifestyle’ using thousands of articles from American and Dutch newspapers.


Jon Verriet (2021) Resisting the idealised ‘healthy lifestyle’: medical mavericks, fat activists, and Couch Potatoes in U.S. and Dutch newspapers (1967-1989), Cultural and Social History, DOI: 10.1080/14780038.2021.1933700

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