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Feeding our diet obsession

Weight-loss fads fuel a high-stakes industry in which profits seem to be growing ever fatter.

May 05, 2003|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

Weeks after the recent death of Dr. Robert C. Atkins, national newspaper ads and radio spots eulogized the bestselling author who bucked the medical establishment with his controversial low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet. But the notices had a secondary purpose.

"There were over 10 million people out there wondering what comes next," said Matt Wiant, chief marketing officer for Atkins Nutritionals Inc. in New York. "We wanted to send a signal that this is a jumping-off point, not the end of something."

The company's media campaign hints at the high stakes within the weight-loss industry, where scores of competitors are vying for a slice of an estimated $40-billion-a-year pie. Each diet plan, whether Atkins', Sugar Busters or the Zone, trumpets itself as the best long-term route to shedding pounds and achieving better health.

Business forecasts for the weight-loss industry, which includes everything from diet foods to weight-management classes, continue to predict fatter revenues. Marketdata Enterprises, a Tampa, Fla.-based research group that tracks consumer behavior, estimates at least 6% growth in each of the next three years.

The prediction shouldn't be too surprising to anyone familiar with America's longtime devotion to weight loss. Pick up any bestseller list from the last three decades and there's likely to be a diet book or two atop it.

The claims in these books, however, are either contradicted or untested by science. Studies have shown that the overwhelming majority of diets fails to keep weight off and may actually set the body up to gain more.

So what accounts for America's enduring and robust appetite for the popular diet?

"Everything in America is set up to eat more and move less," said Marion Nestle, a professor and chair of New York University's Department of Nutrition and Food Studies. "We're obsessed with dieting because we're all getting fatter."

A slew of recent studies has sounded the alarm about America's burgeoning waistlines. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies more than 60% of Americans as overweight or obese, and the trend is expected to continue. Experts blame a host of factors, including sedentary lifestyles, poor exercise habits, super-size food portions and the easy access to rich and fatty foods.

"Food is available everywhere all the time, like never before in history. Gas stations, drug stores, schools," said Kelly D. Brownell, professor of psychology at Yale University who studies obesity, eating disorders and weight regulation. "Unhealthy food is cheap, convenient and tastes good, while just the opposite is true of healthy foods."

Coupled with societal pressure to conform to largely unrealistic standards of beauty and thinness, the atmosphere produces desperation among those who either have or perceive they have a weight problem. "Under these conditions, people will try virtually anything," added Brownell, author of "Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America's Obesity Crisis, and What We Can Do About It," set for a fall release. "Because some hope is better than no hope."

Mass diets are meant and marketed to remedy the problem. Their popularity is often aided by an unusual element or playful gimmick, according to experts. Diets that advocate no, low or high amounts of carbohydrates or fats, or some combination thereof, have been sold at one time or another. The technique helps the method or product to stand out in a very crowded and competitive field.

In the short term, many diets may actually take pounds off. In the long term, dietary success is elusive, with studies showing that 95% of dieters who take off the weight pack it back on after five years or less.

It's no mystery what promotes weight loss -- expend more calories than are consumed. "Nobody is going to listen to that," said Nestle, author of last year's "Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health." "It's not fun, and Americans want fun."

Despite awareness of their high failure rate, popular diets exploit the lottery mentality, according to Joanna Ikeda, a nutrition professor at UC Berkeley. Most diet books and products are reasonably cheap, she pointed out.

"Most people are willing to risk that kind of money for the huge payoff," said Ikeda, who notes that dieters frequently switch diet products and methods as plans fail. "They think, 'Maybe this [one] will work for me.' "

Popular diets are fueled as well by what many experts consider to be a flawed assumption -- that personal weight gain is entirely an issue of personal control. Willpower is one thing, but when sodas are in schools, restaurants are serving ever larger meals and vending machines are everywhere, even the strongest constitutions can gradually succumb.

"We really have to start looking at creating an environment that fosters good health," said Ikeda. "Especially schools, which should be promoting a student's physical well-being as well as their intellectual growth."

But such sweeping changes are unlikely anytime soon.

The weight-loss industry "has been going strong for the past 40 years," said Brownell. "I don't know why that would stop all of a sudden."

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