Junkfood Science: What can you buy for $310,000?

December 31, 2007

What can you buy for $310,000?

The countdown has already begun and the diet season is off and running. It's become our national pastime. Diets don’t actually work to make us thin and certainly don’t make us healthier, by all evidence, but they are extremely effective at one thing: making gobs of money for the weight loss industry. According to Marketdata Enterprises Inc., it’s a $55 billion market just in the U.S. and is expected to reach $61 billion in 2008.

Think about what that means, mostly for women who get swept up in the weight loss frenzy. A recent survey of 2,000 young women by More Magazine found that the average woman spends $5,002 every year trying to achieve a thin body: on diet and fitness aids, gym memberships, exercise tapes, supplements and “healthy” foods and diet products. “Yet, on average, women will only lose up to 3 pounds a year — most of which they put back on — while spending up to [$310,000] over a lifetime on their weight-loss regimes.”

The economic toll on women’s welfare and financial security is staggering. But they also found a number of worrying trends among young women, weight loss techniques which they’d begun at the age of 15:

· Nine out of 10 (90%) had gone at least a day without eating, with 30% starving for two or more days and 7% going more than four days without food

· A fifth (20%) had been eating one day and nothing the next, with half eating only one meal a day

· More than half (53%) felt they needed to eat less than 1,000 calories a day and a fifth (20%) less than 800 calories

· A third (34%) had taken pills trying to lose weight, 30% made themselves sick and 11% had taken speed or cocaine

As disturbing as these desperate measures are, more insidious are the conclusions made by the pollsters: that the reason these diets don’t work is that people aren’t doing it right. Dieting doesn’t work. Their answer is to avoid diet foods and starvation diets and just eat “healthy.” By making small, simple lifestyle changes; and eating healthy, natural foods and avoiding bad foods like sugars; they say, the excess weight will slowly and permanently come off. “Never say diet,” in essence. “By making it a lifestyle, it’s not a diet.”

It’s a diet.

They’re counting on people to not remember that nondieting is a worn diet tactic and nothing new. Just as all diet fads have cycled in and out of fashion, the fad of “no-diet” diets has seen a resurgence over recent years. If it had worked years ago, it wouldn’t be a fad, of course. Sadly, a lot of people become convinced that they’re eating “healthy” or “intuitively” when they’re actually dieting, restricting and restraining their eating.

By making it about “a healthier you,” no-diet diets try to distance themselves from the stigma surrounding fad diets, which everyone knows don’t work.* Jeering at fad diets** also makes for fun and entertaining stories, but merely turns attention away from the fact that the healthy, commercial diets are no more effective.

The questions used to identify fad diets, are the exact same ones we can use to identify any other diet:

· Does it sound too good to be true?

· Does the diet help a company sell products or foods?

· Does it lack scientific evidence?

The latest “it’s a lifestyle choice, not a diet” diet is from Weight Watchers. You can’t miss the nonstop advertisements. “Diets don’t work... Weight Watchers works because it’s not a diet.” Instead, we’re told, WW is about living a healthy life and that will help you lose weight and keep it off.

Making their diet a lifestyle is a clever marketing tactic to sign customers up for life. But it’s still a diet, just as it's been for decades. And what a way to live, constantly focused on food and physical appearance.

Brian at Red 3 was the first to write about this new ad campaign in a feisty series. He noted how the ads have co-opted the very same language the fat acceptance movement had created back in the 1970s. “They co-opted our vocabulary, repurposed our slogans,” he wrote. “The failure of diets [is] no longer a call to advocacy, but a sales pitch for repackaged diets.”

When the WW ads first started appearing on billboards and the internet earlier this month, he noted that a web search for ‘Weight Watchers’ + ‘diet’ yielded 594,000 hits. “I guess they must all be talking about how they aren’t on a diet,” he wrote.

“Losing weight is as easy as holding your breath,” he wrote. “Keeping it off is as easy as continuing to hold your breath.”

There is one way diets do work and only one. Here is another example: Weight Watchers International, Inc. is the world’s largest weight management company and recently announced its third quarter net revenues had increased 18.5% ($52.7 million) to $337.5 million. Just in the first nine months of this year, it had made $1,123.1 million. No doubt, it anticipates a happy new year.

* For more reading, Lindsay is compiling an online resource called “Diets Don’t Work.”

** This has been a year filled with wacky diets... that people have actually spent money on. Here are just a few:

Air Diet

Apple-a-day Diet (endorsed by the newly-appointed executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion)

Beck Diet (‘think thin’ diet)

Best Life Diet (changing habits)

BioSlim Diet (reviewed in March)

Blood Type Diet (another blood type diet)

Body ID Plan (a personal diet based on blood tests of immune reactions)

Cabbage Soup Diet

Calorie Shifting/Calorie Cycling

Cardio-Free Diet

Caveman Diet

Cell Phone Diet

Chi Diet (based on Chinese Zodiac)

Cinnamon, Lime Juice and Vinegar Diet

Coconut Diet

Diet Fork (short dulled teeth prohibit picking up large forkfuls of food)

Facial Analysis Diet

Fat Flush Diet

5 Factor Diet (5-week celebrity diet)

Fruit Diet

1st Personal Diet (another blood test diet)

Good Mood Diet (high carb, to complement the numerous low-carb diets)

Grapefruit Diet

Hot Diet (cold beverages are purported to prevent weight loss)

Hypnosis Diet

Hypnoanalysis Diet

Intuitive Eating and Emotional Freedom Technique (“diets don’t work, lose weight without dieting; there are other versions)

Master Cleanse Diet

No Crave Diet

Reverse Diet (dinner for breakfast)

Secret Diet (another ‘think thin’ plan)

Shoe Diet (cognitive behavioral techniques)

Step Diet

Thin-Link (HealthPartners is in on this diet, remote monitoring using daily accountability to keep you on your diet)

Thrive Diet (promises a lean body, sharp mind, and everlasting energy)

Warrior Diet (nocturnal eater diet)

Water Diet

Information on how these diets work can be found here.

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