The Hosts Of Maintenance Phase Talk Diet Myths, Food Marketing, And The Slippery Concept Of "Wellness"

Pop quiz time! In a sentence, describe wellness. Having a hard time? Well, according to Aubrey Gordon and Michael Hobbes, that's fair. It's kind of a trick question.

Gordon and Hobbes host Maintenance Phase, a podcast that debunks health and wellness myths, of which there are a frightening number. Per the self-described "methodology queens," the term "wellness" colloquially refers to so many things, it's devoid of meaning—and at times, it refers to actively unhealthy products or practices. Hobbes and Gordon launched Maintenance Phase last fall, and it's already a top-five Health & Wellness podcast in the U.S. Perhaps you've seen the hosts' other work around the internet: Hobbes also co-hosts You're Wrong About with writer Sarah Marshall, and Gordon, who previously wrote under the pseudonym Your Fat Friend, recently published her first book, What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Fat.

Maintenance Phase—named for that mythical post-crash-diet period in which you lose a bunch of weight and then maintain—isn't interested in canceling the things you like. ("If you like your Halo Top, you can keep it," they conclude about low-fat ice cream in one episode, despite the product's shortcomings.) Rather, the show scrutinizes the larger forces at work behind wellness culture, including anti-fat bias, marketing masked as health expertise, and governmental initiatives based on cultural norms instead of science. (They're coming for you, Michelle Obama.) Major themes include: dieting scientifically doesn't work; fatness does not equal unhealthiness; don't believe health claims in marketing; and eat whatever you damn well please.

We sat down (over Zoom, of course) with Hobbes and Gordon to talk about broccoli accessibility, sketchy advertising offers, and what the hell wellness even is, anyway.

The Takeout: How did the idea for Maintenance Phase come about? Why'd you decide to start the podcast?

Michael Hobbes: I noticed there's this weird hole in podcasting, and in media generally: You look up all the podcasts about health and fitness, and they're all like, "How to get your 10,000 steps!" "The New Smoothie Diet!" Very diet culture stuff. I just felt like, holy shit, there's no actual, good information about this out there. So we started talking about it in quarantine, and decided, let's be the podcast we wish existed in the world.

Aubrey Gordon: I would say there's not a lot of rigor that goes into any of those [podcasts]. They're just like, "Somebody told me they started drinking this kind of juice!" There's this uncritical acceptance of ideas about health and wellness. And in the process of making our episodes, I'll talk to a researcher who's deep in the science behind health and wellness stuff, and they'll be like, "Oh, all that stuff about sugar is bunk, and we've known it all along." Sugar highs don't really exist, sugar addiction doesn't really exist, but people are just out there talking about it. Maintenance Phase felt like this opportunity to bridge the world of what we think we know with the world of research and science and history.

TO: What makes a topic perfect for Maintenance Phase?

MH: We don't want the show to become, like, Dunk On The Next Thing Weekly. There's a lot of fish in a barrel when it comes to health stuff. There's always a new Instagram thing, there's always something that you can dunk on. And that's going to get boring for us, and it's going to get boring for listeners.

AG: Part of what makes an episode interesting to me is a subversion of our expectations about something. I continue to point to, as my personal favorite, the President's Physical Fitness Test episode. I assumed that that was good public policy based in sound science that was aggregated and analyzed somewhere. So to go into that conversation with the expectation, "I had to do this and it wasn't great for me but it's fine there's a greater good here!" and then to just have Mike knock down the house of cards...

MH: There's a greater bad there.

TO: The tricky thing about the term "wellness" is that it refers to so many things. Like, both "go for a walk" and "drink this tummy-flattening tea" fall under the so-called wellness umbrella. How would you define the term?

AG: I think of wellness, as a term, as being very similar to our fantasies about weight loss: it is a screen for us to project all of our hopes and habits onto. When I was researching for my book, I was looking at estimates of how much the wellness industry is worth. And they were like, "It's worth this many billions or trillions of dollars!" but I couldn't find anything that said, "Here's what we mean when we say the wellness industry." It's sort of amorphous by design. Like, mattress companies are calling themselves wellness companies. There are such broad claims about what wellness consists of, and for me, it feels like it is so amorphous as a way of virtue signaling. It's not a concrete conversation. It's one where a bunch of cultural myths and hopes and all kinds of stuff settle.

MH: It's literally impossible to disentangle the actual term from people using it to sell you something. I think if you asked a doctor, they would probably say, "Your resting heart rate is your overall wellness," or something. But [wellness is] mostly used as a marketing term at this point. It's like "natural." Like, "all-natural cereal"—that means literally nothing. It's just a way of talking about the peanut butter that's the same as the other peanut butter.

AG: A challenge of doing this podcast is that so many diets, and so many wellness trends, operate on the same sets of assumptions and the same magical beliefs. Standard diet marketing these days is like, "This person tried everything, and they couldn't get the weight off. And they were giving up hope, because it's all the same. Except this one!" That's been the marketing: "And nothing works, except our thing!" has been the marketing for, I don't know, 10 or 20 years.

MH: Like 200 years!

TO: Are there any words or phrases that are particular red flags for you in terms of spreading dangerous ideas masked as health?

AG: The phrases that immediately jump to mind for me are "biohacking" and "optimization" with regard to health and to wellness. Those are sort of masculine-coded terms. And because they target men, they fly under the radar in this very gendered conversation about diets and weight loss and wellness. Biohacking is the one that's really wormed its way into my brain. It's like a song. I can't get it out of my head.

TO: Michael, I know you have a passion for watching old Congressional testimony. If you each could testify in front of Congress about any one wellness-related issue, what would it be?

MH: There's this fallacy that what people need is More Information. That if you tell people that fruits and vegetables are good for them, they'll finally start eating fruits and vegetables. To me, it feels like the sort of the discourse around voting. Every four years we have these asinine campaigns that seem like they're aimed at people who can vote, but don't want to. But the vast majority of non-voting behavior is people that are working two jobs, there isn't a polling place near them, they don't want to wait in line for three, four hours. It's people who want to vote but can't. 

It's kind of the same thing with diet and exercise. People want to bike to school! People want a park near their house! People want to feed their kids healthy foods! And telling them, "Did you know broccoli is good for you?" No one doesn't know that! No one thinks soda is good for them. I still see people in government and public health and even doctors saying, "People need to learn the story of their food." And like—they fucking don't! They need broccoli to be cheaper than a pound cake. Go to the grocery outlet, look at what things cost. That's what people need.

AG: I think that I would want to talk about funding programs that mandate weight loss. The number of health programs and government programs that we run in the US that mandate weight loss—which is a thing that we scientifically don't know how to do—feels like a really important thing to lift up. Like, "Hey, the science is clear on this, and has been clear on this for a really long time." You might be able to lose moderate amounts of weight, but the folks who drop significant amounts of weight—you know, someone my size has a less than 1% chance in their lifetime of gaining their BMI "recommended weight." And there is pay that is withheld because of that. There are health programs and health treatments that are withheld. Talking in pretty frank and unvarnished terms about what we all sort of anecdotally know to be true from our lives and is borne out by research: weight loss just isn't really a thing that we know how to reliably produce.

TO: I've noticed the podcast doesn't have ads. What's the reason for that?

MH: We've gotten offers. They're so abysmal, dude. Aubrey forwards me the worst ones, and they're like, "As seen on Dr. Oz!" and "This supplement will blast belly fat!" How gross would it be on our anti-capitalist, intersectional show to be like, "Here's this new zinc supplement that was seen on Dr. Oz!"

TO: And have it air during the episode where you roast Dr. Oz.

AG: Even the [ads] that aren't ostensibly about health or weight loss or wellness are still making wellness-based claims. Big internet mattress companies will be like, "You need our mattress because sleep is key to wellness!" Or, all of the meal box companies: "People who have meal boxes are healthier, and we have keto options!" So, at least currently, there's no way we could do it. Unless we did everything sponsored by, like, Squarespace, maybe? I think that's the only one I haven't heard make some wild health claims.

MH: We want to do a series where we record these people on air and don't tell them we're recording.

TO: Colbert Report style.

AG: Or like a classier version of Crank Yankers.