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BODY WATCH : Weighing the Chances for Dieting Success

March 07, 1995|KATHY M. KRISTOF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mary Walsten has been on a lot of diets. The problem is, her pocketbook is shrinking much faster than her frame.

A schoolteacher from Sierra Madre, Walsten has spent more than $1,200 on Nutri Systems, Jenny Craig and other diet programs, but she's never been able to accomplish more than temporary weight loss.

The bad news for dieters is that Walsten's experience is not unique. Indeed, some say it's the rule: There's no way to know for certain if you'll lose weight on a diet, but if you subscribe to any one of many popular programs, you're sure to spend a small fortune trying.

The cost of weight-loss programs ranges from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000, depending on which program you choose and how much you want to lose.

What are the chances that these eye-popping expenditures will actually cause you to lose weight? No one knows for sure.

Diet companies say they're just beginning to track success rates of their customers, so they can't spout statistics. The few statistics that already exist conflict. One study maintains that at least 64% of dieters succeed. Another indicates that about 90% fail.

The main problem with the statistics is that the scientific community has yet to determine how to measure success when it comes to weight loss, says Dr. Peter D. Vash, director of Lindora Medical Center's weight-loss program.

Are you a success if you lose the weight but subsequently gain it back? What about if you keep it off for a year? Two years? Five? Or are you successful when you consistently eat healthier, no matter your weight? There is no consensus, he says.

Losing weight is also complicated, says Joanna Lee Haase, a therapist who founded "Dietless," a weight-control program based on therapy and introspection. Different people gain weight for different reasons. And their ability to keep off pounds can be affected by a variety of outside factors.

For some, eating is a way of controlling stress. The more stress they face, the more difficult it is for them to stick with the program. For others it's a substitute for love and attention. For others, eating too much isn't the problem. Indeed, chronic dieters can effectively slow their metabolism--the body's inner weight-control gauge--to such a great degree that simply eating normally will cause them to tip the scales, says Joyce Ruygrok, owner of Diet for Health in La Canada-Flintridge.

Worse still, those who eat for comfort find that it works. High-fat foods act as a form of tranquilizer, relieving stress and deadening some psychic pains, Vash says. Dieters frequently have to address both their eating habits and whatever emotional issues are causing them discomfort. And such deep revelations don't happen overnight.

While doctors suggest that you can find and maintain an "ideal" weight by simply eating healthy foods when you're hungry--clearly the most cost-effective diet alternative--they acknowledge that this advice simply doesn't work for millions. In these cases, formal weight-loss programs are often the only viable answer.

Diet plans come in myriad variety, differing dramatically in both cost and content. Some are strict diets, where the only thing that's monitored is what you eat. Others are medically oriented, such as Lindora's plan, where dieters see a nurse and get vitamin injections five days a week. Others center on the psychological--the reasons people eat rather than what they eat. And many combine portions of all three.

The variety in program expenses are even more dramatic. Some, such as the ubiquitous Weight Watchers, are fairly inexpensive but long-term. It costs just $17 to join and about $13 per week to enroll in most Weight Watchers programs, a company representative says. It would typically take between five and 10 weeks to lose 10 pounds and another six weeks to learn how to maintain your weight. Which would make the total cost of the program $160 if you lost the weight quickly, and $225 if it took the full 10 weeks.

Weight Watchers, and most other professional diet programs, discourage weight loss in excess of two pounds per week. Those who complete the program are invited to be lifetime members and attend group meetings for free.

Other programs are swift but dear.

Costa Mesa-based Lindora, which has 30 weight-control centers in California, charges $1,100 for 10 weeks, Vash says. If you need additional sessions, you re-enroll and ring up another $1,100 in fees. But on the bright side, Vash adds, if you suffer some weight-related medical ailment, such as high blood pressure, at least a portion of the cost could be covered by insurance.

Haase's "Dietless" is a yearlong counseling and behavior modification program that costs $40 per week, plus $150 annually for materials. Grand total: $2,230. Unlike most other programs, success is not measured by how much weight is lost. It's measured based on the choices dieters make about food, Haase says.

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