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Evaluating Weight Loss Programs:
What are the Red Flags?

1. No data, or incomplete data, about the effectiveness of the program

The 1992 National Institutes of Health (NIH) Technology Conference published a list of recommendations for consumers considering weight loss programs. They were not aware at the time of any programs which could answer these criteria, nor have any programs complied since. The report states,

  • "In evaluating a weight loss method or program, one should not be distracted by anecdotal 'success' stories, or by advertising claims.  The information that should be obtained about the program includes:
    • The percentage of all participants who complete it.
    • The percentage of those completing the program who achieve various degrees of weight loss.
    • The proportion of that weight loss that is maintained at 1, 3, and 5 years.
    • The number of participants who experienced negative medical effects as well as their kind and severity.
  • Reliable statistics of this kind are not provided currently by any commercial diet plan or program. This information should be available for all supervised programs, including those based in hospitals or clinics."    National Institutes of Health Technology Assessment Conference Statement:  Methods for Voluntary Weight Loss and Control, March 30-April 1, 1992.

2. Well, that about covers it.  

Repeat after me:  SHOW ME THE DATA!

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Do you feel you deserve this information as a consumer? What do you think about the fact that the weight loss industry continues to make billions of dollars without having to be accountable in this way?  

In Margo Maine's new book, 
Body Wars: Making Peace with Women's Bodies, 
(available from G�rze Books, $14.95 plus 2.90 shipping 
800/756-7533) she writes:

"The dieting Body Wars are great for the economy, as the majority of 
discontented dieters repeatedly invest their resources in shedding pounds. 
Figures from the late 1990�s showed that Americans spent $50 billion annually on diet products.7 This exceeds the projections for the entire federal Education, Training, Employment and Social Services budgets by five to ten billion dollars.8 In fact, this figure is the equivalent of the gross 
national product of Ireland.9 The price per pound lost is enormous, with one study of Optifast dieters reporting the cost to be $180 per pound.10"

8 Historical Tables: �Budget of the United States Government: Fiscal Year 
1992.�(1991), Washington D.C.: Executive Office of the President Office of 
Management and Budget, p. 46.
9 Fraser, L. (1997), Losing It: American�s Obession With Weight and the 
Industry That Feeds On it.
New York: Dutton.
10 Gaesser, G. (1996), Big Fat Lies. New York: Fawcett Columbine.

Tell us your thoughts about the weight loss industry:

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Reader comments:

"I was a part of the weightloss industry for seven years. When I left because I gained back my weight I felt very lacking and unworthy...a failure. I had to weigh every month and send in a weigh-in slip signed by the person who weighed me to be able to keep my job. While I feel that the women I worked with were caring and sincere, we were all brain-washed in many ways. Fat is unworthy and lacking ~ thin is worthy and competent. I am glad I left the group but have struggled for three years to get back my 'healthy body image'."

"My experience is with Weight Watchers meetings. The leaders, in my opinion, promote small weight losses each week (ounces) and don't get upset at all when members talk about overeating. They get more money that way, as members have to keep going for support to lose the weight, and that is what keeps them in a job!!! Week after week I listened to how the leader herself couldn't stay on the Weight Watchers program from upsets in her life, what kind of support is that?? I finally stopped going to meetings, which was costing me in time, money, and lack of support. It is a sad world when people on a 'machine' (my computer) give more support than 'realtime' people do!!!! Diets, no matter what they call themselves, are out for our money and that is the bottom line."

"The weight-loss industry likes to prey on the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of people desperate for a quick fix. As if society doesn't ridicule us enough, the diet industry perpetuates the ridicule by preying on us! One failed weight loss product after another after another, it's embarrassing!"

"Wish I had a nickle for every pound I have lost and regained. I am 76 yrs old and in good health and overweight Guess I will stay that way and keep my money for other things."

"You know those adverts where they show their product on one side and a non-diet food on the other side, to show how much more food you can have for the same number of calories.
Why not have "XXX weight-loss programme" on one side and on the other, something fun that costs the same (e.g. a holiday, a nice night out, some nice clothes) or something good you could do with the money (what it would buy someone in the third world)."

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"The diet industry is all about BLOOD MONEY!  They profit and rake in billions every year and get super-rich. But we, fat people, women, and friends of fat people pay big time. And we pay more than our hard-earned money for it. We pay with our self-esteem, our happiness, our health, our life satisfaction, and in some cases, even our lives. Many young women, and some men, die all the time from anorexia and bulimia, and many more have permanent and long-term health problems because of it. I'm lucky I was able to stop making myself vomit and salvage my own self-image when I did, with the help of my REAL friends. Also those diet pills are more dangerous than you think. . . It was scary to see myself change for the worse so quickly like that because of such dangerous drugs - which anyone can buy over the counter. People out there, PLEASE don't use any of that crap, it will mess your mind up. The drug fen-phen was pulled from the market after some people DIED from heart failure and others had permanent heart damage from it. But don't think that that can't happen again. The murderers that make and sell these dangerous diet drugs will put out many more dangerous products in the future, hoping that you will lack the self-esteem and self-confidence to say no to these dangerous drugs, and that you will take them - even at the cost of your own health - so that they can make big bucks off of your own personal misery. Don't fall for it. Please be happy with who you are."

"It irks me that all anyone seems to care about is how you look. I'm a size 18 with a resting heart rate of 55. I'm as healthy as anyone I see (or pass) on the jogging path, but because I'm considered "obese", I must be unhealthy. I've read about the fit vs. fat arguments and I'm amazed that doctors believe if you're fat, you can't be fit. Really?"

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"They feed off of our national epidemic of obesity and an over-all society-induced feeling of fatness = unworthiness."

"I think that the weight loss industry should put out some of the information about dieting and health risks of being extremely thin, as well as the high failure rates for most diet plans!!"

"The weight loss industry is incredibly unethical--even so-called "reputable" programs like Weight Watchers count the same person losing and regaining 20 pounds 5 times as 5 "successes," (reported by Marilyn Wann in FAT!SO?), and let's not even talk about the "miracle diets" advertised in the back of women's magazines. The amazing thing to me is that so many doctors continue to recommend weight loss programs to their patients despite all the evidence that diets don't help and often make things worse (increased weight, eating disorders, nutritional deficiencies, potentially fatal side effects of weight loss drugs and surgery)."

"The weight loss industry is the greatest contributor to the widespread body hatred we see today in America. It is the weight-loss industry that tells us we are not good enough and we are too fat and then this greedy industry attempts to profit from our lack of self esteem."

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"In my mind, it's a socially-sanctioned con game. It feeds off our mysogynistic culture, and the media obsession with women's bodies and thinness. We'll never hear much about the down side of the weight loss industry in the media, because there are big bucks at stake. Oprah is not about to start preaching size acceptance as long as Jenny and WW are sponsors. The weight loss industry has a stranglehold on the media, much as the tobacco industry did in the '50's and early '60's."

"I agree with the response that calls the diet industry a big con game. Reading FAT!SO?, The Dieter's Dilemma, and other books has enlightened me about the factual and medical misrepresentation that diet companies use. Working in advertising has taught me how unethical people will twist words and say anything to make you think what they want you to think. The diet industry, the drug industry (Phen-Fen, Olestra, etc.), and some doctors seem to be riding this wave of deliberate misinformation, and money is the bottom line, not true health or peace of mind. Besides, it has been PROVEN that diets don't work in most cases!! I wish the public would get wise and quit supporting these vultures!"

"As with all things, the only criterion you really need is this: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

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"Although I am not overweight, I have many female friends who are unhappy with their size and who tell me that they are considering joining a weight-loss plan or going to a weight-loss company. I always do my best to talk them out of this by relating an awful experience that I had in college. At age 18, I had gained 15 pounds in 3 months, mainly by eating poorly and not exercising. Being young and naive, I stopped by a NutriSystems office one day for a free evaluation. I should mention here that, at that time, I was 5'4", and my recent weight gain had taken me all the way up to a whopping 127 pounds. At NutriSystem that day, after my weight and height (and no other measurement) were punched into the computer, I was informed by the frighteningly thin "counselor" that my ideal weight was 109 pounds, and that NutriSystem was going to help me get there.
Thank goodness I had enough sense to leave right then, but it's only since then that I've really gotten angry about the whole situation. I've probably seen every height/weight chart that exists and I've never seen a weight that low listed as a "healthy" weight for a grown woman who is 5'4". Had I been stupid enough to believe NutriSystem, I would have wreaked severe and possibly irreversible damage to both my body and my self-esteem in a vain attempt to get down to a weight that I haven't seen since I hit puberty. It was only because of my relative slimness that I realized their sales pitch was a complete lie; what about the larger women who might not see it for what it is and who might be more easily made to feel guilty enough about their weights to buy into (mentally and literally) such a scam?  Hence, when my larger friends come to me to talk about losing weight (I don't suggest it to them), I tell them of this experience. I also tell them that today I am at that same weight of 127 pounds, but thanks to exercise and a very healthy and non-calorie-counted diet I am in great shape, I am the size I am supposed to be, and I feel much better about myself than I did when I was 18. There's no way that a weight-loss clinic could have gotten me, or anyone, to that point."

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"They focus too much on the way people look and not enough on medical issues to do with obesity.  They should also promote images of people who are in the normal healthy weight range, rather than underweight like most models. I think they are in league with the fashion industry to make normal people think they are too fat and profit from their low-self esteem.
And none of it helps people who really are overweight. Doctors need to be more understanding about how and why people are overweight and treat it as a medical problem, not a character defect."

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"The weight loss industry is interested in one thing only--big bucks! As long as women believe that their only worth is measured by how they look, and not who they are and the goodness of their hearts and souls, the weight loss industry will continue to make big profits, and women will continue to waste their money on diets that never work for long."

"I think many doctors contribute to this problem.
      Not one but TWO of my close friends, both of whom are not at all fat, were told by their doctors that they are at an unhealthy weight. 
I asked one of these friends: "Did you ask the doctor what he meant by unhealthy? Because if it were me, I would ask, 'Really? Unhealthy? So, what can happen to me? Heart disease? Diabetes?' " Yeah right. Like carrying around 20 pounds more than your average model could really cause health problems.... Common sense people! 
      Of course, neither of my friends asked the doctor these questions. Like many people, they trust their doctor. Had they asked, the doctors probably would have been stumped.  It seems to me, doctors are buying into the culturally accepted "ideal weight", appearance-wise, as some sort of medical standard. I myself have been carrying around 50 pounds more than either of my friends, and have never had any problems. Nor have I been warned by my doctor - he says I am in excellent health. That's why I was so stunned by those other doctors' suggestions... But I was even more stunned by the fact that both my friends just accepted that they are "at an unhealthy weight", no questions asked. 
      I could go on about this for days, but I don't have the time... Just do me a favor, QUESTION EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING. Don't let these idiots push you around!"

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"I am a 33 yo, gay, white, male. I have tried Weight Watchers (once) and was hungry all the time and obsessed with food. I tried the F-Plan Diet, and felt like a horse. I have tried Atkins diet (twice) going from 232 down to 190, breaking it, then zooming up to 265. I have tried Carb Addicts, and I'm just OVER IT. I ain't dieting anymore! Eat when I'm hungry, stop when just full, move, take supplements, exercise, and to hell with the diet mentality. It is very difficult as a gay man, NOT to be intimidated by the media barrage we daily endure. Society has a low tolerance for normal looking people."

What have others done to make the industry accountable?  What can you do? Stop off at the activism page.  

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