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A diet of Dr. Phil

The motivational guru takes on obesity, but how real can he get?

November 10, 2003|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

Everyone's heard it by now: Americans are fat and getting fatter. Their ballooning waistlines have come despite years of calorie counting, magic pills and fad diets. They've come despite reams of scientific research about the dangerous health risks of obesity. They've come despite stern public admonitions from the nation's leading governmental and medical organizations about eating less and exercising more.

If anyone has a chance to reach the nation's couch potatoes, it just may be a 53-year-old former college linebacker from Texas whose mix of folksy charm, tough talk and motivational skills has brought him a television audience of 65 million viewers. Phil McGraw, almost universally known as "Dr. Phil," has taken on low self-esteem and troubled relationships, and now he's tackling America's epidemic of flabbiness.

Fueled by an autumn marketing blitz, Dr. Phil's new book, "The Ultimate Weight Solution: The 7 Keys to Weight Loss Freedom," has rocketed to the top of the New York Times and other bestseller lists. With 2.5 million copies in print, it's already in its ninth printing in eight weeks.

The popular psychologist launched his book and his weight-loss campaign two months ago on his nationally syndicated daytime television show, second only in ratings to that of his show business mentor Oprah Winfrey. The show and his Web site (www.drphil.com) are tracking the progress of 13 volunteers whose starting weights ranged from 195 to 464 pounds as they struggle to slim down.

He's made recent appearances promoting his book with talk show hosts Larry King, Jay Leno and David Letterman. The Los Angeles resident was recently the subject of a Katie Couric special about his weight loss plan and was later featured discussing his seven keys in a weeklong series on "Today."

Now Dr. Phil's face is even popping up on a new line of health and nutritional products called "Shape Up!," available at such major retailers as Wal-Mart, Target and Sav-on. The multivitamins, snack and meal-replacement bars and shakes all carry Dr. Phil's picture.

Dr. Phil, who declined to be interviewed for this story, essentially summarizes what other nutritionists, doctors and health professionals have been saying for years. But some health officials say he might just be what the nation needs.

"Maybe Dr. Phil, because of his popularity, is going to be able to do what the American Medical Assn. and the American Dietetic Assn. haven't been able to do -- get the message out," said Doug Kalman, a nutritionist and spokesman for the American College of Sports Medicine.

Dr. Phil's simple message, particularly the emphasis on the psychology of eating, seems to be resonating. Obesity is a "disease of choice," he says, that can't be cured, only managed.

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Avoid emotional eating

In his book and appearances, he recommends accepting your body type and setting realistic goals that don't include looking like a Hollywood movie star. But do take personal responsibility for your weight, especially by avoiding emotional eating. "You never see a fat coyote," he has said on at least one TV show. "They eat what they need to live and move on."

When it comes to food and nutrition, don't diet or deny yourself food, he cautions. But watch your portion sizes. Load up on foods that are high in nutrients and fiber, lower in salts and fats, and take some work to actually consume.

He urges choices like broccoli, shelled peanuts and fish. Conversely, he recommends eschewing foods like Big Macs or burritos stuffed with sour cream -- basically, any food that's turns the eater into a "wood chipper." And finally, exercise vigorously for 20 minutes at least three times a week.

"There [are] brilliant people doing all kinds of fabulous research, but if you can't communicate it to the people who need the information, it doesn't work," said Susan Kleiner, a Seattle author of several books about fitness and nutrition. "Dr. Phil has a wonderful style, and hopefully people will get motivated because we're in big trouble here."

Dr. Phil's appeal is built upon his "Get Real" philosophy, which stresses action over analysis and getting "over it" so you can get "it" done. His average-Joe looks, unpretentiousness and sometimes crass wit, which includes such lines as "Pat yourself on the butt and kiss it goodbye," contribute to his high ratings, which spiked more than 25% at the debut of his second season. His overall message of individualism and can-do spirit resonates deeply with many Americans. "This notion of reinvention and the ability to remake ourselves is very much a part of the national character," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "American history is really a makeover show."

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