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Public weight loss has its ups, downs

July 24, 2006|Sally Squires | Special to The Times

Some people thrive on making their weight-loss goals common knowledge.

"They think it will help to keep them on the straight and narrow," says Dr. Arthur Frank, medical director of George Washington University's weight-management program.

Take Kirstie Alley. Losing an impressive 71 pounds isn't enough for the actress: She recently announced she plans to shed 15 more pounds by November to wear a bikini on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Alley is, of course, just the latest in a long list of celebrities willing to share their struggles to lose weight with the world -- and who sometimes are paid handsomely to do so. Others who have publicly chronicled their waistline wars include comedian Whoopi Goldberg, Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson, "Today" show weatherman Al Roker and Winfrey.

Where Alley differs, however, is in "going public" before she achieves her goal -- a move that many weight-loss experts consider risky. Yet it's also one taken by a growing number of private citizens, including contestants on "The Biggest Loser" reality television show and Steve "Fat Man Walking" Vaught, who vowed to walk across America to lose weight (although he didn't achieve his goal).

Even the young are getting into the act: MTV's reality show "Made: Prom King" chronicled the efforts of an obese teen trying to lose enough weight to snag his high school crown. And every January, companies entice employees to enter weight-loss competitions that pit one department or plant against another to see who can shed the most pounds.

Frank of George Washington University advises against going public. "It's better not to get other people involved unless they have to know," he says.

That's because there's a natural inclination to "start monitoring, watching and making judgments," Frank says. "Everyone suddenly becomes a weight-loss expert and tells you what you should be doing."

Sometimes the good intentions can backfire, turning well-meaning support into humiliation. Frank recalls one patient who announced her weight-loss intentions at her office. Her colleagues encouraged her, even posting a public chart to track her progress. "That was fine," Franks says, "until a bunch of complications came into her life. The weight loss started to level off and then creep up. That's when I asked her, 'Who is going to take that chart off the wall?' It's the kind of thing that gets people into trouble."

But for others, going public can serve as motivation. A few years ago, the Discovery Health Channel website highlighted the weight-loss efforts of half a dozen people. "I swore when I met them that not any of them would lose much weight," says Dr. David Heber, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition and a consultant to the project. "But they all lost weight and at the end of the day, the fact that there was a public incentive to lose weight helped them."

Going public also helped physician Nick Yphantides shed 270 pounds. A former executive director of the Escondido Community Health Center, Yphantides once tipped the scales at 467 pounds. When his weight began taking a health toll, he quit his job, called a news conference to announce his weight-loss goals and set a deadline to achieve it. He met his target weight a year later and has maintained that weight for the last five years.

For him, public accountability was essential. "On my own, I am still a 467-pound slob," says Yphantides, who has set up to allow others to publicly chronicle their weight-loss odysseys as a way of being accountable.

Virtually no research, however, has examined the effect of going public with weight loss. At Weight Watchers, group leaders are trained to keep weekly weigh-ins private and to never say aloud whether a member has reached the goal for the week. "Our basic position is that only the person [being weighed] has to know," says Karen Miller-Kovach, chief scientific director for Weight Watchers, who notes, however, that the program encourages participants to seek support in making lifestyle changes to lose weight.

That doesn't need to involve a public diet pronouncement. "Talk about some of the behaviors you are trying to change," Miller-Kovach says. "So, you might say to a friend or family member, 'I'm trying to get more active, would you be interested in going on a walk with me?' "

If enlisting help or telling others that you are trying to adopt new habits feels uncomfortable, those are important feelings to examine. "Is it because you're a really private person?" says Miller-Kovach. "Or that you don't yet have the confidence to do it? If that's the case, it can be very self-defeating."

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