Junkfood Science: Dare to be different — Costs of competitive dieting

November 18, 2007

Dare to be different — Costs of competitive dieting

Regardless of where you work or go to school, you’re more likely than ever to encounter pressures to participate in a Biggest Loser-style competition. Dieting appears to have become the latest national sport. But not only is the science behind these contests lacking, they can come with serious consequences that are not healthful, helpful or wise.

Employers and human resource administrators are facing hard sell marketing from weight loss interests to institute workplace weight loss incentives, under the guise of employer wellness programs. Many employers are going beyond the typical financial incentives of making insurance coverage and premiums contingent on participation in a weight loss program, they are sponsoring Biggest Loser competitions and giving cash and prizes to the biggest losers. At Agora, Inc, a Baltimore publishing company, for instance, the top losers in male, female and team categories were awarded $1,000 during its 12-week diet contest.

How-to guides tell employers that “Biggest Loser” competitions will make their workplace weight loss challenges successful. One tactic to a successful Biggest Loser contest is to create teams, as the team members and opposing teams will add peer pressure and intensify efforts. Another rule to heightening motivation, employers are told, is to make witnessed weigh-ins public knowledge.

As Employer Benefit News reported, some employers are letting workers run the competitions, others are tying them into company sponsored programs, such as Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig.

When workplaces become focused on weight loss, peer pressure can also lead to natural competition among dieters, trying to outdo each other. Thirty policemen at the New Haven Police Department signed up with a rapid weight loss program when the police chief got involved and the diet company offered a cop discount for its weekly clinic weigh-ins (usually costing $499 the first 12 weeks) — the deal doesn’t include the costs of the pre-packaged diet foods and supplements that come with the program. The diet plan is from the Connecticut Weight and Wellness center which offers a very low-calorie, high-protein diet plan of 800-1,200 calories, and a low-calorie diet plan using the same high-protein focus. Along with the special diet foods offered its upscale clients, it incorporates appetite suppressants to speed weight loss. You may have seen the billboards for this expensive program. The tombstones were the center president’s idea, hoping to scare people to death about weight loss. “We want to create a stir and a fear. We want people to be anxious,” said Dr. Jack Hauser.

Those who remember the high-protein, rapid weight loss diets of the 1970s probably cringe with every Biggest Loser story. Despite medical supervision, at least 58 young people died, as well as others left with organ damage, before the FDA took those diet programs off the market. But human research has consistently shown that rapid weight loss with very low calorie diets does not result in successful long-term weight loss, as concluded the National Institutes of Health's National Task Force on the Prevention and Treatment of Obesity.

There are no accurate counts of those who are dying from rapid weight loss diets available today, explained endocrinologist Dr. Wayne Callaway, because “when a fat person dies, it’s blamed on their obesity.” Most diet-related deaths are simply listed as due to cardiac arrest.

But competitive dieting can have other devastating consequences. Earlier this year, JFS examined life inside company weight loss programs for those trying desperately to escape the disordered eating and anorectic behaviors that they encourage. These weight loss contests and employer programs can take tragic tolls on lives and careers.

Yet, the popularity of emulating the Biggest Loser television show continues to grow. There’s a lot of money to be made on the diet programs, as well as selling books. “You, too, can be a Biggest Loser,” said today’s headline from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in a promotional article for a new Biggest Loser fitness book.

Few reporters are investigating the risks of weight loss competitions. Today’s Sunday Mirror is an exception. It brings to international focus one danger of competitive dieting seen among celebrities, as well as among young people who begin dieting with their friends. Support and encouragement among a group of dieters quickly becomes competitive dieting. The Sunday Mirror reports:

The Dangers Of Competative Dieting

While the Spice Girls battle to be the skinniest star in the band, a growing number of normal women are finding themselves in a dieting war with their friends and family.... Mel C has already voiced fears the [Spice Girl] reunion could reawaken the demons that haunted the Spices first time round. She, Geri and Victoria all developed eating disorders... ‘It was Geri who introduced me to SlimFast,’ Posh has said. ‘The trouble is when you start thinking like this [worrying about weight] it’s hard to stop...

The Spices aren’t the first celebrities to get into an all-you-can’t-eat competition. In the 90s, the Ally McBeal cast wasted away episode by episode, until Courtney Thorne-Smith quit, claiming she'd been pushed to the brink of anorexia trying to keep up with Calista Flockhart and Portia de Rossi. ‘I started undereating, over-exercising, pushing myself too hard,’ she admitted. ‘The amount of time I spent thinking about food and being upset about my body was insane.’ And now there are the Desperate Housewives, whose increasingly ill appearance is more Listeria Lane than Wisteria. Susan, Lynette and Bree were super-slender to begin with, but now look like Skeletor in a cardi.

It’s tempting to think competitive dieting is just the behaviour of attention-seeking celebrities, but according to experts it’s affecting millions of normal girls too. At best, this creates unsisterly rivalry, at worst it can trigger eating disorders. ‘Competitive dieting comes up time and time again when I go through patients’ histories,’ says eating disorders specialist Dr Helena Fox from the Capio Nightingale Hospital. ‘It’s common to hear about somebody who started a diet with friends, then became obsessed with being “the best” at losing weight.

The lengthy article goes on to talk about the risks of dieting for triggering eating disorders and bulimia. One young woman profiled explained how a slimming competition with her anorectic sister quickly spiraled dangerously out of control.

If grown men in a police force are vulnerable to slimming peer pressure, it should be no surprise that self-conscious, impressionable young women are even more so. In light of the fact that nearly half of dieting teen girls are on extreme diets, eating fewer than 1,200 calories a day, leaving them also vulnerable to serious medical and nutrition-related problems, today’s obsession with Biggest Loser competitive dieting is especially troubling.

When your school, workplace or favorite television show promotes one of these weight loss competitions, they aren’t concerned about the medical risks, the fact that these stunts have never been shown to be an effective long-term weight loss method, or the toll they can take on lives. When you know the facts, the term “Biggest Loser” takes on an entirely different meaning.

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