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Fighting Fat : Obesity Is a Serious Threat to Health, But It's a Struggle to Lose

Weight loss is a multibillion-dollar industry. It includes programs--the good, the bad, the ugly -- that worsen a weight problem, promise to change it overnight or, in the rare cases, promote healthy lifelong change. It is especially important now. A federal panel has just concluded that weight loss is as serious a national problem as smoking. In a three-part series, The Times takes a look at the impact of weight loss programs on people in San Diego County--from diet to exercise programs, from snake-oil remedies to the traumas of morbid obesity. Today's segment takes a look at the medical repercussions--psychological and physical--of "the problem that won't go away."

April 08, 1985|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Some men eat to live. Other men live to eat. -- Song of Solomon

Diets have been in the news recently. For example:

- Feb. 14, news item: Obesity is termed "a killer" (in the same sense as smoking) by a federal panel. The warning says 34 million Americans are so overweight they have placed themselves at "significantly higher risk" for a graveyard full of deadly disease.

"We want the average American to know obesity is a disease--it is not a state, like loneliness," said Dr. Jules Hirsch, professor at Rockefeller University in New York and chairman of the 14-member National Institutes of Health panel. Hirsch has developed a theory on fat cells, claiming that each individual has a certain number, some higher than others (in some cases, dramatically so). The total, he theorizes, mandates whether you'll be thin or fat--until the moment you die. Depressing? Consider the success rate of weight loss nationwide--an abysmal 2%.

Obesity "is a disease that carries an increased risk of mortality," Hirsch added. "It deserves to be treated and considered just as seriously as any other illness."

Hirsch's panel concluded that "the evidence is overwhelming" that being overweight contributes to serious health problems, shortened lives and general ennui.

- March 7, Los Angeles Times: "Three government agencies, including the California attorney general, filed suit Wednesday against Herbalife International, claiming that the fast-growing Los Angeles-based marketer of nutrition and weight-loss products made false health claims about its products and employed an illegal 'endless chain' scheme to market them . . .

"Herbalife, which is privately owned, has boasted that its annual gross sales are now almost $500 million. The company has 700,000 people who independently distribute its nutritional and skin-care products throughout the United States, Canada, Australia and England."

A local spokesman for Herbalife refused to be interviewed and refused comment on allegations that Herbalife's claims are false.

His refusal came well before the court action.

- March 5, news item: U.S. Postal Service authorities seized all money and product orders mailed to a Carlsbad firm that markets "Grapefruit 45," a nationally advertised item that authorities say doesn't work.

World Communications Inc., which markets Grapefruit 45 as "the fat burner pills," was accused by postal inspectors of violating two 1984 consent agreements that sought to minimize its boasts.

The pills, some of which come from grapefruit concentrate, contain "no appetite suppressant effect," in the damning opinion of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

If motivated to lose weight, people often do it out of vanity, studies show. (Hence the popularity of quick-fix programs.) Ours is a culture that prizes the Robert Redfords and Chers (and the way they look) second only to culinary adventures. (Hence the popularity of celebrity diet and exercise books.)

Only after a near-fatal catastrophe--heart attack, runaway blood pressure, diabetes, shattered marriage, etc.--do overweight people act on The Problem That Won't Go Away. That is, really act. Most doctors, most studies, confirm this.

Many turn first of all to diets. Many of these promise magic in the way that snake oil once appealed to denizens of the Wild West. How many times have newspaper ads blared in Second Coming-size type: "I Lost 80 Pounds in Three Months! You Can Too!"?

(Jo Ellen Kitchen, a spokeswoman for The Times, said company medical director Wayne Buck checks weight-loss ads "to see if promised results are achievable by the methods the ad claims they are. We don't check every ad," she added. "Only if they look suspicious.")

Many try pills, injections, even creams to shed weight. They surrender to crackpot philosophies and spend thousands on just about anything promising hope.

Many, perhaps weary of the magic that isn't, turn to exercise. Authorities by the gymful say this is the only way to get it off and really keep it off--that it's a lifelong measure, a daily habit as necessary as brushing your teeth or bathing.

Many, perhaps weary of the turmoil, turn to such groups as Overeaters Anonymous, which offer hope in peer-group acceptance and soul cleansing.

Weight weighs heavily on the mind and body.

Dr. James Ferguson is a psychiatrist and the medical director of the La Jolla Eating Disorders Clinic. He is regarded by many as one of the foremost authorities in the country on weight loss and the dangers of being obese.

Ferguson has seen numerous "scams" come and go, taking with them dozens of poor victims who get thin only in the pocketbook. Grapefruit 45 is, in his mind, part of a long-running litany of abuse and fraud.

"The bust in Carlsbad typifies the whole diet industry," he said. "It's a useless product."

Ferguson also deplored the rise of the Beverly Hills Diet, fearing that the book from which it sprang would become a best seller.

It did.

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