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Lose Weight Now ... That's an Order

Will Americans slim down for their country? Precedents suggest perhaps not.

January 15, 2002|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's been a month since the government called upon all Americans to lose 10 pounds as a patriotic gesture. So how are we doing?

Many responded with a daily regimen of bench-pressing the TV remote and jogging to the fridge during commercials, while others simply ignored the request.

In case you missed the original hubbub, it started when the surgeon general issued a report skewering America's obesity epidemic. Tommy G. Thompson, the secretary of Health and Human Services, promptly called a press conference and asked everyone in the United States to shed 10 pounds as a show of patriotism.

As you can see from the 1,200% rise in gym membership and shutdown of all Hostess Twinkies plants, nobody listened, which is strange considering that Americans usually hang on every word Thompson utters. For example, his June report on "folic acid fortification" captivated the nation.

Maybe the problem is that Thompson didn't explain how this group weight-loss plan might be accomplished. Will Vice President Dick Cheney don a leotard and lead the nation in daily aerobics from an undisclosed location? Will Republicans devise a faith-based weight-loss initiative? Will supermarket tabloids publish an "Amazing New Chain-Saw Diet"?

Although the idea of a nationwide fitness regimen might sound absurd, there are precedents. One is Tonga, where a 462-pound king who dined on flying fruit bats and suckling pigs changed his ways and inspired a mass dieting craze in the 1990s.

The other is Philadelphia, where a crusading mayor asked residents to lose 76 tons in 76 days to overcome the town's reputation as "the city of blubberly love."

Before Tonga started shrinking its collective waistline, residents favored such delicacies as butter-slathered yams, fatty mutton flaps and whole loaves of bread filled with ice cream and drenched in syrup. Well-heeled Tongans even flew in McDonald's hamburgers and KFC fried chicken, according to news accounts. And King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV tipped the scales as the Guinness Book of Records' heaviest monarch.

Then the beefy king turned into a royal Richard Simmons. He power-walked around the palace with a military escort lugging his throne in tow. He rode a yak-fur-covered bicycle five days a week and exercised in a gym as two attendants fanned his royal sweat.

All told, he lost 200 pounds. In 1995 he inaugurated a kingdomwide fitness program, complete with prizes for lost pounds (vegetable steamers, plane trips and cash), public scales donated by UNICEF and mandatory aerobics in schools, according to reports.

To make sure his subjects' weight loss was gradual and lasting, prizes were awarded for "maintaining weight loss" and "reaching healthy weight-for-height."

Attempts to contact the king for this article were unsuccessful, but a July story in the San Francisco Chronicle said the 83-year-old monarch's weight had crept back up to 300 pounds, partly because he suffers severe arthritis and now needs crutches to walk.

As for the rest of Tonga's island kingdom, a 1999 article in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization said a survey conducted nine months after one weight-loss contest found that 69% of participants had regained some or all of the pounds they shed. However, the maintenance of weight loss by 31% was deemed "a worthwhile achievement."

Next up was Philadelphia. After Men's Fitness magazine branded it America's fattest city in 1999, Mayor John Street hired a fitness czar and challenged residents to lose 76 tons in 76 days. What City Hall was shooting for was 30,000 residents, out of the city's 1.5 million, to lose five pounds each by July 3, 2000.

The city sponsored walk-a-thons and weigh-ins, and Street sampled a vegetarian version of Philadelphia's famously fattening cheesesteak sandwich to encourage healthier eating. The city also issued a 10-step fitness guide that urged residents to adopt one new habit per week, starting with finding an exercise buddy and advancing to drinking more water, eating more fruits and fiber, and taking time to breathe deeply.

The "76 Tons of Fun" campaign attracted international media attention, including jokes from late-night comics who dubbed Philadelphia "the city of brotherly love handles."

Men's Fitness has since bumped Philadelphia down to No. 4 on its flab index. Houston, which is now No. 1, sent a delegation to Philadelphia so it could copy the city's fitness plan.

However, Philly's program wasn't exactly a raging success. Instead of losing 76 tons, participants shed a mere 6,000 pounds, says the mayor's spokeswoman.

Which brings us back to Tommy Thompson's suggestion that all Americans drop 10 pounds. If 30,000 Philadelphians have trouble erasing 76 tons, can 280 million Americans lose 1.4 million tons?

"Well, you have to start someplace," says Thompson's spokesman Bill Pierce. "You can't let the daunting nature of things stop you from trying."

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