Sunday, January 03, 2010

Waste size. Redux.

Taking my cue from the networks, which of course develop a major case of rerun fever during the holidays, I've decided to kick off 2010 with a "best of..." from this same day three years ago. It's no less pertinent now than it was then.

January '07. God...have I really been at this that long? Yes, and much longer. We grow old, we grow old, I have let my blog go cold. (Apologies to Prufrock.)

By the way, I'm republishing this with the original comments intact, so some of you may be interested to see what you said back then.


It's that time of year again. And you know precisely what time that is, too, don't you? Because just as sunrise follows sunset, and the paparazzi follow Britney, and Charlie Sheen follows—well, let's leave it there—holiday season is followed by…weight loss season!

"A new you now!" is the blaring message of the January issue, every January issue, of just about every major consumer magazine, as publications tap the spirit of their readers' New Year's resolutions. In women's magazines the theme is apt to remain on the cover in some token manner every month, then reappear in big-splash format around March or April, in time for the annual bathing-suit purchase. But make no mistake, this is no longer an exclusively female province. The mid-90s ascendancy of such magazines as Men's Health and Men's Fitness has prompted other, more traditional men's magazines, like Esquire and even Playboy, to run increasing amounts of diet- and fitness-related content, thus legitimizing weight-consciousness as a front-of-the-mind concern for a growing number of American males. Accordingly, the diet and fitness industries raked in over $46 billion in 2004; revenues are projected to top $60 billion by 2008. [ED NOTE: They did, and then some.] But even those lofty numbers understate the dimensions of the enterprise, omitting as they do the low-level entrepreneurship of self-styled fitness trainers, nutrition and diet counselors, and practitioners of other latter-day "specialties" that require no little or no credentialing.

The grim irony is that as the movement swells, so too does the collective American waistline; as the movement touts its latest waist-slimming godsends in progressively bolder language, America grows ever fatter and more out of shape—alarmingly so since 1991, by every meaningful barometer (clinical obesity, overall incidence of weight-related illness, children's ability to meet minimal fitness standards, and the like). Almost seven out of 10 of us weigh more than we should. An astonishing 26 percent of American adults meet the formal criteria for obesity.

Complicating matters—this will come as no shock to those who've been reading SHAMblog all along—is an ever-hopeful consumer base that refuses to believe what it simply doesn't want to hear; a consumer base that's been conditioned (and now conditions itself) to expect instant results from painless programs; a consumer base that's all too willing to make a Faustian bargain, accepting some modest level of short-term success in exchange for colossal long-term failure, including likely health risks. The diet industry plays off this culturally embedded naivete. It’s a vicious cycle, with no end in sight.

The bottom line is an ever-widening gulf between promises and results. The magnitude of the waste—the portion of that $46 billion that goes for nothing—probably can't be measured with surgical accuracy, but almost surely is beyond comprehension. (Don't worry; we'll back this up as we go.)

The interest in effective weight loss is pervasive. One-third of adult America was on a diet last year: Of 217 million Americans over age 18, roughly 71 million attempted weight-loss regimens of one kind or another. (For women as a class, that figure runs as high as 95 percent, if a survey by magazine colossus Conde Nast can be believed.) In a 2005 poll of those who've signed up for organized programs (Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, etc.), 37 percent said they'd tried two or more such plans; 22 percent had tried at least three. Consumer demand for the next weight-loss breakthrough is such that "revolutionary products" that lack any scientific foundation (and may well be unsafe) typically generate millions in ill-gotten revenues before the government steps in.

Mostly, however, the government opts out. As is so often true of regulatory impotence, the reasons can be traced to the cozy, strange-bedfellows ties between politicians and the diet industry's heaviest hitters. It can even be argued that Washington underwrites the fraud being perpetrated on an unsuspecting public: Established federal practices give makers of drugs and so-called "nutraceuticals"* a significant role in the regulatory process. And in one of the most outrageous abuses of power, for more than a decade the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has been implicitly (sometimes explicitly) vouching for "natural" and "alternative" regimens that (falsely) claim to promote weight loss and offer myriad other health benefits. In the end, for all the bureaucratic posturing and even the occasional piece of major regulatory legislation, the diet world remains as wide-open a realm as exists anywhere in American consumer society.

The need to lose weight is clearly there. So is the desire (though, it bears repeating, too many people have wholly unrealistic expectations of the level of commitment required). Mostly it's the viable plan that's missing.

We'll be taking a closer look at the diet/fitness industry in the days ahead. I hope you'll forward a link to this blog to people you know who've expressed a recent determination "to lose, you know, a few pounds..." You may save them from a lot of frustration, heartache and wasted money. And—who knows?—you might even help them help themselves.

Wow. Imagine that: turning to SHAMblog for something that might actually help. Who'd-a-thunk?

* which, for the record, do not really exist. As Quackwatch's Dr. Stephen Barrett once told me, "Something is either a pharmaceutical or it's not. There's no in-between."


Rodger said...

Between Law and Order episodes on USA tonight, my better half and I witnessed a commercial for bariatric surgery. At best, I don’t understand the procedure. Apparently, however, at least according this commercial, it can help you fine that special someone you’ve always been looking for.

The irony – if someone is having trouble dropping weight, that might be why they’re not attracting the right guy. Instead of sending a message that proper weight loss is healthy, the commercial is just another example of how a misconception of weight loss is being propagated.

By the way – the blog looks very nice. The red banner and red outline gives SHAMblog a more appealing feel – the font choice and orientation are good too. It’s snazzy, Steve. Good job.

Steve Salerno said...

You know, the Mayo Clinic has all sorts of very specific guidelines about who should contemplate such surgery, and they're very restrictive: BMI over a certain number, serious/disabling health probelms, etc. Mayo won't even do the surgery for most "elective" patients. But most other hospitals and doctors are far less picky, and you'd be astonished at how many Americans today are having bariatric surgery (and taking similarly extreme steps) purely for vanity-based reasons. That's one of those things I'm "looking into" in 2007 (hint hint).

As for the blog, thanks for the feedback. Yeah, a magazine editor I've been writing for since the mid-80s contacted me last night to tell me she loves it--it has "a very magazine-y" look, she said. Which is exactly what I've been aiming for. I think I'm finally going to have time to make more of an outreach in terms of putting SHAMblog in front of some new eyes in 2007. We'll see how it goes.

Cosmic Connie said...

Oh, you coy thing, Steve. Making us "weight" for *your* secret.

a/good/lysstener said...

Steve, in a way I miss the old SHAMblog, but I must confess this is much slicker. And slick is good, right?

Steve Salerno said...

So I guess we're all into word-play of one form or another today, eh gals? (Pardon my use of "gals," but somehow it seems apt here.) I tell ya, sometimes I don't know about you two.... But then I don't know about me, either, so why should you be any different?

Trish Ryan said...

Given our national obsession with get-thin-quick schemes, I was surprised by how good the reality show THE BIGGEST LOSER was. Granted, the participants were in an unnatural environment, working out 8 hours a day. But they worked for their results, and the show made it really clear that workign out and changing our eating is the only path to fitness.

I think we'd all be A LOT more motivated if there was a mandatory public weigh-in every four years, kind of like the Olympics for couch potatoes :)

Anonymous said...

Eager to see what you have to say about this, my wife is always on a diet at this time of year, which of course tells you how succesful last year's diet was. Which also tells you why I have to write this anonymously.

Spider63 said...

I have lost 147 lbs. over the past two years without any diet formula. Exercising and eating less of the foods that I like has made it possible to keep the weight off. Most of those get-thin-quick diets are bogus, and I don't think anyone can live on some fixed formula for the rest of their lives. That is one reason so many people regain all their weight loss eventually.

Dimension Skipper said...

Nothing to do with weight loss/gain except possibly Oprah's...

Was just reading this item and the book being touted seems like it could be up your SHAMmy alley, Steve. Just thought I'd point it out in case you aren't aware of it and would care to check it out a little bit (even if only for your own personal amusement purposes)...

Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk, by Robyn Okrant

Sounds Morgan Spurlock-y, but in book form.

Personally, I don't know anything more about it than what I read at the pages to which I just linked.

The author also has a Living Oprah blog to go with the book, but at a very quick glance it appears to me to be more promotional than informational.

If we're doing personal weight loss stories, though...

I deliberately dropped 60-70 lbs around 10 years or so ago and have maintained around 150-155 ever since (I'm 5'11" to 6', thereabouts).

Was never fanatical about exercise, though I did try to do more brisk walking when outdoor temperatures and weather permitted. Mostly, I used portion control rather than worrying about WHAT I'd eat. Just because I like something (a lot) doesn't mean I have to eat a bucketload of it in one sitting.

So... small portions (which were really right-sized portions) and no seconds. Also, no desserts except for birthdays and similar occasions (but I was never big on sweet desserts anyway, I always preferred a good meal by itself).

It's amazing how quickly you can get used to just simply eating less until one day you realize you just can't eat more, certainly not like you used to. At least that was my experience.

I still eat some fast food, but usually get just a small sandwich (often off a value menu) or small Wendy's chili and skip the so-called value meals with their sodas and fries. I carry water with me all the time.

Actually, I highly recommend giving up sodas and other calorie-laden beverages as one of THE most beneficial things one can do if trying to shed pounds or get fit. I used to have maybe one soda a month just to get the taste once in a while, but lately I can't tell you the last time I had one. I seem to have dropped the habit almost altogether without even quite realizing it.

Steve Salerno said...

DS: Your experience--which sounds so commonsensical--is nonetheless the truism that Americans simply don't want to hear and won't buy in book or program form. To weigh less and maintain that weight, you have to consume fewer calories or burn more calories or, ideally, some combination of the two. The pounds will come off slowly, but they will stay off as long as you stick with the program (or don't develop some metabolic aberration, and those are far more rare than you'd be led to believe by people who are looking to alibi for their obesity).

Despite all that, we still want the magic pill, and especially at this time of year, we'll check our brains at the door in order to justify ordering a "60-day money-back supply" of those pills. And when the pills arrive, the brochure will say that they "work best when combined with a program of exercise and sensible eating" (!).

Dimension Skipper said...

Hmmm, I just realized the prior comments were old, from the time of the original posting of this item. So we weren't exactly "sharing" (present tense) weight loss stories. Oh well. Not that what I said in that regard was irrelevant in any way...

Any chance you could change the blog option settings to stamp comments with a date as well as the time, Steve? Especially if you have any plans of doing more such re-posts in future? No biggie, just wondering.

It's not the first time I've been under some confusion in that regard. Then again, confusion is a very natural state for me...

I also wanted to clarify that when I talk of giving up the calorie-laden beverages, I actually also meant to include the alleged diet sodas (one or fewer calories) and their ilk too. There's other stuff besides calories that are potentially bad for people. But then because something is labelled "diet" many folks think that allows them to have a little more than they otherwise would. I find that simple water satisfies my thirst like nothing else.

Dimension Skipper said...

P.S. I should have realized the comments were old when I was skimming them and wondering why people were talking about the changed look of the blog and I didn't notice anything different. My brain obviously wasn't firing on all thrusters. (:^0)

Steve Salerno said...

DS: Good suggestion about the time-stamp. Didn't realize I had that option. In my defense, I've only been doing this July 27, 2005, at 9:42 a.m.

Dimension Skipper said...

Cool. Thanks for implementing the requested blogger option change!

That makes things much clearer, helps avoid confusion as to whether comments are old or more recent with significant gaps between. Especially helpful with some of the more popular older posts (even if not actually re-posted) that occasionally draw new readers in by still appearing in their search engine results (like the Lucinda Bassett stuff).

Dimension Skipper said...

We cross-commented. As I was thanking you for implementing the change you were thanking me for suggesting it, but I didn't see yours until I submitted mine.

I wouldn't have bothered with yet another comment except I just want to mention that blogger may very well have changed the available comment timestamping options somewhere between the time you started blogging and now. And if full date timestamping wasn't available at the time you originally set things up, it's then very easy to just never venture back into those option settings and see that subsequently there are more choices available.

I don't know if that's the case, but it at least sounds plausible. So I say that puts the issue squarely in the reasonable doubt camp, thereby letting you off the hook.