This year, Americans are turning more often to the doctor's office to shed those extra pounds.
As weight-loss specialists tally memberships for the first two months of the year--traditionally, their busiest season--it's the medically supervised programs in Orange County and elsewhere that are claiming greater success than before.
Meanwhile, the popular clinics that work without physicians, such as Weight Watchers and Nutri/System, have declined to specify their early-year membership numbers.
Costa Mesa-based Lindora Medical Clinic, a chain of 30 doctor-supervised weight-loss centers throughout Southern California, is reporting a 19.5% increase in the number of patients in January compared to the same time last year to about 2,000 patients a day. Lindora offices also would not provide exact membership figures.
Membership inquiries and renewal rates have increased at the Englewood, Colo.-based American Society of Bariatric Physicians, an organization of 600 doctors who specialize in weight loss.
And Dr. Peter D. Vash, a UCLA Medical School instructor who specializes in weight loss, said interest in the specialty is at an all-time high among his peers. He is hosting a national conference in Los Angeles this month, on treating obesity as a disease.
"Doctors used to think of weight as peripheral to good health; now we're realizing it's central," said Vash, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at UCLA. "Patients sense physicians are more interested, and they're coming back."
There are other reasons why people are turning to doctors to help them lose weight.
As the national economy improves, people are spending more for weight loss. The baby boomer generation--aged now between 29 and 48--have tried self-help or commercial clinics and many have failed, according to James Merker of the bariatric physicians group. There is also greater recognition of underlying medical problems that can complicate weight loss, problems such as diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol.
Finally, a prominent investigation of weight loss released by the National Institutes of Health last year said 95% of dieters regain lost weight within five years, even after going through the best commercial weight-reduction programs.
The report recommended modest weight-loss goals and lifelong behavior changes.
"That disillusioned a lot of people" who would have entered commercial weight-loss programs, Merker said. He said interest in doctor-supervised weight reduction began picking up in October and remained strong through the end of the year. That is an unusual time for most people to start a diet program, he said, adding that "December is normally very slow."
Merker said commercial weight-loss programs have been losing members.
Joseph DiBartolomeo, a spokesman for Nutri/System--which has 1,500 centers nationwide and 11 in Orange County--declined to release 1993 membership numbers. However, he said that "common sense dictates that they would be the same because the economy is no better than last year at this time."
Weight Watchers, since it was founded in 1961, has had 30 million members; a recent count showed that 35,000 live in Orange County.
The company's California marketing manager, Mary James, said Weight Watchers' line of prepackaged dinners is selling well.
"Our overall picture for January is good," she said. "Whether we're doing that with more people or less people, I'm not going to give out those numbers."
She then referred to a newspaper article that claimed that baby boomers are more accepting than past generations of their bodies--flab and all.
"The commercial weight-loss clinics have had a dramatic drop in business," is how Merker explains such comments.
Capitalizing on the new interest in doctor-supervised weight loss, Lindora Medical Clinic launched a network television advertising campaign Feb. 1. Company President Cynthia Graff said the company is spending about $60,000 a month on the campaign.
As a result, Graff said, calls to the clinic's toll-free number have more than doubled to about 1,800 a day.
The ads show a "before" photo of a patient, then shows the patient getting thinner until he or she reaches the "after" weight.
Lindora employs five doctors, but patients more often work with its 100-member nursing staff. Founded in 1971, the company uses a program of calorie reduction, intensive emotional support for the first two months, and 18 months' coaching in behavior modification.
Patients have usually tried everything before they walk into Lindora's doors, Graff said, from "dream-away" pills that promise to burn pounds while they sleep to liquid diets to body wraps.
The liquid diets were especially popular when talk show host Oprah Winfrey lost 67 pounds that way in 1988. In fact, Merker said a fever chart of his association's membership would run parallel to a chart of Winfrey's weight.
"Patients came into doctors' offices demanding the product," he said. "There was a big drop-off once Oprah gained back her weight."