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Fighting Fat : No Magic, but Plenty of Choices

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 commercial diet programs.

April 09, 1985|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Morton Shaevitz is no stranger to fad diets. He's seen them all, even tried a few. He once weighed 270 pounds. Now he's slim and svelte, and runs more than five miles a day.

Shaevitz, a clinical psychologist, is director of Forever Thin, a weight-loss program for moderately overweight people at Scripps Clinic in La Jolla. Many of the hundreds who take part in Forever Thin each year have tried and failed at fad diets.

Shaevitz knows why.

"Magic," he said. "People want magic. The major reason these diets succeed is that the people they induce are so desperate. And the thing is, all diets work--on a short-term basis. The hazard is, they offer fantasy solutions to a long-term problem."

Many fad programs carry with them, Shaevitz said, a "one- or two-food program, high in protein." (Many nutritionists now favor a diet of mainly complex carbohydrates--fruits, grains and vegetables--supported by protein with minimal fat.) The virtues of protein are largely a myth, he said, one promulgated in the 1950s.

"The road to heaven is paved with protein," he joked. The reason such diets work in the short term, he added, has mainly to do with fluid loss--" Enormous fluid loss, which isn't fat loss, but it shows on a scale."

Quick Fix Seductive

For many programs, that's the catch. Sudden weight loss to an overweight--or obese--person can be like manna from heaven. For the entrepreneur, it's money.

Fat people mean money.

Money becomes a bigger issue considering the programs dieters suffer through. Shaevitz says one such as his--citing long-term weight loss and balanced, nutritious eating--run a risk of not being sexy to a consumer searching for a quick fix.

"You don't make a lot of money saying you need to eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and get plenty of exercise," he said. "There's resistance to it, because the key is, it isn't magic."

So why is magic so appealing?

"Because it offers instant solutions," he said. " 'If you do this for three weeks and three weeks only, you'll have it! You'll live happily ever after! Isn't that wonderful? All you have to do is take this wonderful pill, and it works while you sleep. Isn't it great!' "

"If such pills existed," he said with a sigh, "I'd buy them."

Chronic dieters have long been exposed to the lures of pills, injections, even creams promising weight-loss magic. Some have spent thousands of dollars in making themselves guinea pigs for this or that new fad.

Sheila Henry, a La Jolla hypnotist, has seen many such cases.

"When they come to me," she said, "they're thoroughly discouraged. They've been through all the programs--Overeaters Anonymous, Thin Within, protein powders. It's sad."

Cultural Imperative

But even Henry claims only a 50% success rate with weight-loss clients. And the Southern California ethos of look-good, feel-good, be-good makes many feel "that much guiltier."

"Some are satisfied with being overweight," she said, "but the culture keeps telling them, 'You should be thin.' "

The culture also provides no guidance (or at best, very little) on how to distinguish good from bad programs. Diet experts say no commercial program works perfectly for all people, no matter how immodest its boasts.

Most are expensive. Forever Thin costs upwards of $350. The Diet Center, which has 16 local outlets and thousands worldwide, charges $295. The San Diego Weight Reduction Medical Clinics, boasting 14 facilities locally, charge $229. A hypnotist, clinical psychologist or psychiatrist charges anywhere from $50 to $100 an hour. (Group rates are lower, often on the order of $125 for eight sessions, though all prices vary.) And some programs are outright rip-offs.

Gray areas abound in the search for the right diet. Some, such as Forever Thin, are considered solid nutritionally and contain more information than a fleet of scholarly textbooks. But Forever Thin does have a weigh-in each week. If you're embarrassed by that, maybe it's not your baby.

The Diet Center ranks with the best, according to diet and nutrition experts, but sessions include group therapy-type discussions. If that isn't your thing, maybe The Diet Center isn't either. The best guideline seems to be: Go for health, solid nutrition, accurate information and reasonable cost.

And don't be surprised by surprises. Or incredible contradiction.

Mostly Women

One shock to some clients is the ratio of women to men in weight-loss programs. (Men seem to favor exercise, the more "macho" way of fighting fat.) Henry, the hypnotist, says almost all her clients are women. And Shaevitz concedes an "overwhelming number" of Forever Thin enrollees are women. The same was found at nearly every program in the county.

"There's more of an emphasis on women having to look good," Henry said. "A man can get away with a pot belly--he can hide behind a suit. A woman in the workplace is expected to look good, and looking good means no pot bellies, no double chins."

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