Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Hoodia wanna believe?

"The search for an optimal diet plan is almost a national pastime," Dr. George L. Blackburn, associate director of the Harvard Medical School's Division of Nutrition, once observed. I'd argue only that Blackburn understated his case: I'd omit the almost and change pastime to obsession.

As noted, America spent at least $46 billion to try to shed its extra tonnage in 2004, and is projected to spend $61 billion by 2008. One-third of all adults were on a diet at some point last year, including up to 95 percent of women under 30; in today's busy world, you can even "go to" Weight Watchers meetings online (and is it me, or is there something slightly ludicrous about being able to attend such events without ever getting up off your fat behind?) Last year a record 140,000 Americans became sufficiently fatalistic about other paths to fitness that they underwent weight-loss, or "bariatric," surgery (even though the Mayo Clinic and most other responsible institutions reserve such surgery for the morbidly obese and/or those afflicted with serious weight-related health problems). Cha-ching. Another $3.5 billion.

Feeding this insatiable appetite for weight loss requires a steady stream of supposedly fresh material (the adverb is important, and we'll explore its meaning in due course). This naturally leads to ever-more-extravagant promises and a feverish upping of the ante as competing magazines, plans, books, chains, pills and freelance gurus try to market-differentiate from, and outdo, each other. Amid all this, the impossible becomes possible, the outrageous becomes the norm. Or as Blackburn put it, "Dieters are easily seduced by meaningless anecdotal accounts of quick weight loss and totally unrealistic promises of easy success." Hope springs eternal.

Ahhh yes, Hope. I think I once mentioned that my original title for SHAM was "Hyping Hope." That's an even better title for today's weight-loss movement, a realm in which common sense, let alone any reverence for the scientific method, is not just unfashionable, but seen as cynical and "disempowering."

But let's hear it from the irrepressible
Richard Simmons: "Don't let anyone tell you what you can and can't do, or what's 'realistic' for you to achieve!" he lisps during a raucous GMA segment in which he leads floor exercises for several dozen overweight women. "You're always going to run into people who want to throw cold water on your goals. Well, don't let them! There's nothing stopping you from losing the weight you want to lose!"

In fairness to Simmons, who always struck me as well-meaning, I don't think he intends this as a blanket alibi for the unscrupulous promoters of worthless diet aids. He refers instead to the sad truth that there are people who live to rain on your parade.* Trouble is, that same argument has been used to wave off legitimate criticism of the weight-loss movement—and is used daily in self-defense by con artists selling products that (at best) won't do you much good and (at worst) may do you substantial harm. Nor do you have to descend into the movement's deepest, darkest crevasses to encounter such risks. Haphazardly tampering with the body's normal system of intake and outgo is asking for trouble, even when you're not eating trees or gulping
herbs native to rain forests and other regions better known for giving the world AIDS and Ebola. Serious health questions have even been raised about diets (like Atkins)
that are now cultural institutions and, as such, have transformed American eating habits. With fad diets, you get all the risk, regardless of whether you ever get the benefit in lost weight.

Nonetheless, American dieters—to their downfall—operate under the assumption that the kookier the regimen, the more "visionary" it must be. Any plan that sounds too commonsensical lacks the pizzazz to gain popular traction and thus become, from a marketing standpoint, the Newest New Thing. As Harvard's Blackburn suggests, this has the effect of imbuing even the most outlandish weight-loss scams with a certain topsy-turvy credibility. Or as
Dr. Stephen Barrett puts it, "It's hard to get anybody's attention peddling an old standby like Vitamin C. But if you tell people they can lose weight by consuming ground-up Brazilian tree bark…?" (Admit it, you half-thought I was kidding about the trees, didn't you. Perhaps we have a glimpse of our species' future in the photo, above right.)

Beyond the general American vulnerability to self-improvement scams that I describe in my book, this diet-specific vulnerability can be further explained in two ways. One, a lot of folks will tell you they've "already tried," and failed at, the commonsensical approaches to weight loss. So they hunt out new wrinkles. But there's a reason for their chronic failure...which brings us to Two: Genuine weight control requires dedication over time. It requires self-sacrifice, and patience. In most cases, it requires meaningful changes in lifestyle. That's a level of personal investment that the average American dieter either can't or won't abide.

Accordingly, dieters shy away from things they don't want to be true—and for which actual evidence exists—instead putting their faith in things they want to be true—but for which there's zero evidence! A perfect example is the CW that "fasting makes you fat." It's simply false. (Not to sound insensitive, but if it were true, shouldn't those
hordes in Darfur be grossly obese?) Sybaritic culture that we are, we recoil from the very idea of fasting. It's uncomfortable. It entails willpower and self-denial. And we should recoil, because fasting eventually causes the body to metabolize proteins from its own heart and other muscles/organs. In effect, you eat yourself. The problem, therefore, isn't that fasting makes you fat. It's that fasting makes you dead. But strictly as a weight-loss tool, fasting does work. We refuse to accept that, because fasting is a radical conceptual cousin to the idea of EATING LESS, and that's just not how we Americans like to conceive our weight loss. We don't want to make the hard choices.

No. We want the pill or plan that screams

To be continued...

P.S. Look it up.

* I've been accused of this myself, of course. For a textbook example, see the comments following my recent Amazon review of The Secret, which for some reason won't link properly.


Cosmic Connie said...

Yes, Steve, I've been following the discussion on Amazon re your review of "The Secret."

As it turns out, "The Secret" reveals the key to weight loss as well as everything else in the Universe. According to "Secret" creator and producer Rhonda Byrne, writing in the book: "The most common thought that people hold, and I held it too, is that food was responsible for my weight gain. That is a belief that does not serve you, and in my mind now it is complete balderdash! Food is not responsible for putting on weight. It is your *thought* that food is responsible for putting on weight that actually has food put on weight....If you see people who are overweight, do not observe them, but immediately switch your mind to the picture of you in your perfect body and feel it.

So you can eat all you want as long as you believe food will not put on weight, and as long as you don't look at any fat people. Simple. :-)

Cosmic Connie said...

Oops, I just noticed I forgot to put closing quotation marks at the end of the second paragraph in my previous comment. Paragraph 3 was my own commentary on the Byrne quote (just in case there was any confusion).

Rodger said...

Last night the better half and I were watching Sex In The City re-runs when we saw an ad for NIV.

Apparently, taking NIV (along with diet and regular exercise) will help those whose hoilday fudge has turn into post-new year pudge.

There's no doubt in my mind that NIV (along with diet and regular exercise) will shed those post-holiday pounds -- but my wallet -- bank account too -- are both looking anorexic these days.

Eating less and walking more -- that's all I can afford. A sensible diet and regular exercise--hope that works too.

Steve Salerno said...

Very Bad Joke Dept: Rodg, you sure the ad wasn't for HIV? That'll help you shed your excess holiday weight pretty fast, too. (OK, no angry feedback on this, please. Everyone is allowed at least one gibe per year that's in horribly poor taste. I got mine out of the way early.)

Anonymous said...

In fact, if you take a close look at the small print on pretty much every weight-loss product and program, it will say that they work along with diet and exercise. And as Rodger points out, why--they're right! The terrible thing about weight control is that second word, CONTROL. No wonder we're all looking for the magic bullet! Too bad there isn't one. Great dog photo, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Steve, reminds me of the "AYDS" diet plan - it really works!


Steve Salerno said...

Yeah, I remember that one. Talk about a product killed by a suddenly awful name, huh?