Kate can never go near a diet book again. After ten years of trying every title on the market, she is suffering the consequences of serial dieting. My metabolism is wrecked,' she says. "Just to stay at a constant weight is like being on a diet. One week of even slightly letting go and I pile on the pounds. If you lose weight quickly like I've done many times, your body needs fewer calories, and the less you need to eat. It's a complete trap" Now she's at least two stone heavier than she was five years ago.
Weight and its loss have become a national obsession. We are fascinated by the melting of the once too solid flesh of Vanessa Feltz, Geri Haliwell, Alexander McQueen and Martine McCutcheon and vicariously enthralled by shows like ITV's Fat Club. No doubt we'll be grimly compelled to watch the forthcoming BBC documentary Diet or Die, focusing on obesity and whether diets work.
According to a Gallup Poll published last year, 12.8 million Britons are on a diet at any one time, 60 per cent of them on a specific programme carrying medical or celebrity endorsement. From their number, a die-hard 1.7 million people claim they are never not dieting. Many questioned had tried a high percentage of every fashionable, faddy new diet to hit the bestseller lists.
The provision of slimming cures is an industry and never has it been so rich, so aggressive or so sophisticated. Suffice to say, the diet industry is a nice little earner. In Britain alone it rakes in #2 billion a year. It is not really in its interest to sell anything but the illusion of success. Failure plus ever renewed hope is much more profitable.
'There is,' says Carolyn Edwards, a clinical psychologist who works with the charity Weight Concern, 'a lot of money to be made out of the cycle of quick-fix promises, where what appears to be personal failure - there must be something wrong with me - leads to frustration, guilt, despair and binge eating for comfort. And, despite all the claims for a scientific basis made for most diets, the truth is that very little real research has been done. But what we do know is that only long-term changes in lifestyle are really effective. For most, that just means becoming more active"
That, after all, is the difference between us and the ancestors whose lifestyle was well served by the metabolism which makes us fat. They ran around a lot more. If food was short, their bodies clicked into famine mode and eked out the energy from every mouthful, storing what it could.
Relentlessly subjected to diet after faddy diet, the chronic dieter's body, like Kate's, is certain a famine is raging. Sure that starvation looms, it adjusts its metabolism and hoards calories like there's no tomorrow - literally Dieting makes you fat. The more you diet, the fatter you become. And the more slimming aids the diet industry can hawk. Either that, or, desperate and deluded, you starve and purge yourself into anorexia or bulimia.
Although it is, according to the British Medical Journal, the sanctioned weight-loss diet (often embarked upon at the behest of or in emulation of a parent) which provides the initial impetus towards anorexia or bulimia in young women, the slimming industry has never taken any of the blame. The BMJ concluded that adolescent girls who diet even 'moderately' are five times more likely to become anorexic or bulimic than those who do not. Those on 'strict' diets are 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder. When Tessa Jowell invited a flattered collection of magazine editors, fashion writers and model-agency heads to a 'body image summit in Downing Street to scold them for promoting impossible standards of slenderness, her victims emerged chastened and the governments caring-cred score soared. At no point was the finger of blame pointed where it really belongs: at the slimming industry.
Since we cannot possibly subscribe to the view that the government is stupid, we have to conclude it is prepared to tolerate a #2-billion industry which makes some people starve themselves to death and many more eat themselves into self-hating obesity The evidence, after all, is irrefutable. If dieting doesn't kill you, it does indeed make you fat. Fewer than five per cent of dieters lose a significant amount of weight on calorie-controlled or low-fat diets and medical research conducted in America shows that 90 per cent of dieters regain every ounce, and more than 30 per cent actually gain more.
The snare and delusion, the great con at the heart of the diet culture, is that we all believe we are one of the five per cent. Certainly the diet industry gives us every reason to think so. For if you ever wondered what became of the descendants of the 19th-century's snake-oil salesmen, wonder no more. They are busy peddling diet books, slimming pills, weight-loss magazines, exercise videos, treadmills, calorie-free meal substitutes, health-club memberships, fat-free, sugar-saturated foods, therapy groups, miracle recipes, magic bullets and psychotherapeutic tracts on dysfunctional approaches to food.
Is the diet industry cynically conscious that most of its panaceas don't work? Well, no. It's not that simple. Slim Fast, for example, proudly claims its success rate is high. 'Our weight maintenance is the longest of any commercial company,' says Tessa Prior, its medical marketing manager. 'With Slim Fast, people know exactly how many calories are in our meal replacements. There are no problems with miscalculating.'
X-fat, a liquid dietary supplement that claims to bind' fat when taken after a 'fattening' meal, is similarly confident: 'We recommend you can lose two to three pounds a week, but the success rate has a lot to do with that person and their metabolism rates', says spokesman Luke Hartley And yet, you can't help thinking, they must be aware of the extremely high failure rates of all diets. And, consequently the fact that people are likely to return to them for quick-fix results. Let's face it, if any one diet could guarantee long-term weight loss, the slimming industry would not be remotely as wealthy as it is now.
Carolyn Edwards and Weight Concern would certainly like to see the diet industry regulated, its claims examined. 'Almost all forms of weight-loss treatment have proved to be unsuccessful in the long term.' she says.
Asked to search for the phrase 'weight loss', Google reported 1,950.000 sites. For diet' it found 5,030,000. Amazon.co.uk offered 7,133 diet titles, more than 800 of which were new. The current favourite - not only with Jennifer Aniston and Minnie Driver, its vocal proponents - is Dr Atkins' Diet Revolution, a high-protein diet first popular in 1972. Medical experts, such as biochemist Dr David Bender of University College London, say its consequences could include constipation, diverticulitis, irritable bowel syndrome and colon cancer. 'There is,' says Bender, 'a library full of diets that make no sense at all, and Dr Atkins flies against all good thinking about food and nutrition.'
Most of the miracle diets come from the US, truly the land of the fat. There, the diet industry is worth $40 billion a year and, despite all its expensive efforts, the proportion of the population that qualifies as obese just keeps on growing. Today, that's more than a quarter of Americans, Each year 280,000 of them die deaths directly at attributable to their weight.
America may be world flab leader, but we are wobbling along in its wake. We are, it seems, the fattest people in Europe. According to the National Obesity Forum. 19 per cent of the population now qualifies as clinically obese. Half of us are simply overweight. If the current annual percentage increase in bodily lard continues unaltered, by the year 2030. 50 per cent will have waddled into the danger zone.
And it is of course very dangerous. The cost to the NHS of treating obesity and obesity-caused diseases is estimated at #500 million. Obesity is a recognised cause of all kinds of health problems, including diabetes, arthritis, hypertension, heart disease and even cancer.
The American nutritionist, Professor David Charles Dodson, is convinced that being overweight is connected to psychological issues not solvable by a crash diet. 'Most people with weight problems have struggled to lose for years and in the process have become quite expert in the fields of diet and exercise... yet their weight remains out of control. This implies a sort of mental block, an inability to apply the knowledge one has. For example, if a 150lb person on a 2100-calorie-a-day diet walked for one hour a day, that person would lose 361b in a year: at 30 minutes a day 181b. Many people know this, yet how many are doing it?'
In short we know how to lose weight: eat adequate number of calories and burn up mo of them by exercise. But the gap between what we know and what we do is large and it is in that gap that the slimming industry insinuates itself, promising that it needn't be hard, that we needn't change our ways, that it can all done quickly and painlessly.
The problem, says Dodson, is that we are talking of the habits of a lifetime. If we have always overeaten and played couch potato, once we do shed the desired amount of weight, we revert to type. 'It is better,' he says, 'to stay overweight than to engage in the "rhythm method of girth control", also known as yo-yo dieting.'
One method by which the diet industry circumvents our logic filters is to mirror the language the current health orthodoxy. A report from the Social Issues Research Centre notes, 'Monitoring the media, one cannot help noticing that current health-promotion messages are often virtually indistinguishable from the propaganda of t multimillion-pound slimming/diet industry. Both make the basic (mistaken) assumption that slim equals healthy', and both often adopt the same scare tactics and moralistic tones.
Of the thousands of 'weight-loss programme on the Internet, nearly all emphasise health rather than vanity and claim to he formulated by a doctor. Take the Weight Loss Lab (nice clinical sound to that 'Lab' which boasts it 'helps YOU discover how to achieve healthy permanent Weight Loss', Even the diet-pill sellers ('Instant Results Guaranteed) favour reassuring stock shots of medical persons dressed for surgery and accessorised with a stethoscope.
The health establishment, surely self-appointed guardians of our well being, doesn't appear to notice how its theories are being opted in the interest of (someone else's) profit. The SIRC report suggests that it should be 'expressing concern about the ways in which the slimming industry exploits and preys up the anxieties of vulnerable adolescent girls'
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