The $71 Billion dollar photo and the diet industry
Updated: Apr 3
Every year on January 1, Americans of a certain girth make new year's resolutions to take off some of the extra pounds they carried the year before. With the passing of every year, America gets just a bit fatter, as measured by body mass index (BMI). Into this void jumps the $71 billion dollar weight loss industry with claims and promises, all in an attempt to help or exploit the often desperate people looking for help.
The picture above is the gasoline that fires up the weight loss industry. Always there is a "before" picture with a sadder, more obese person who is about to try this or that plan. And always there is an "after" photo of the same person- happier, thinner, sexier, and better-dressed. It's an irresistible photo. Who wouldn't rather be the person on the right?
Instagram is filled with thousands of these types of photos, and they are inspiring. So what's the problem? The problem is that these photos are often shrouded by unreasonable claims and deceptive marketing, and the results of any plan are different than the extreme photo presented at the outset. Plus they emphasize fat shaming and appearance as the key to a person's (usually a woman) value, when the true emphasis should always be on health and realistic results. And studies show that for many, 5 years later, they are back to the "before" picture or worse.
So let's take a quick look at the weight loss industry and try to separate the scams from the real thing.
Here's an easy test for weight loss claims- if they seem to good to be true, they probably are. The Federal Trade Commission, which regulates the marketplace for dishonest advertising, has a great guide called the Truth Behind Weight Loss Ads. Quoting from the article directly,
Any promise of miraculous weight loss is simply untrue.
There’s no magic way to lose weight without a sensible diet and regular exercise.
No product will let you eat all the food you want and still lose weight.
Permanent weight loss requires permanent lifestyle changes, so don’t trust any product that promises once-and-for-all results.
FDA-approved fat-absorption blockers or appetite suppressants won’t result in weight loss on their own; those products are to be taken with a low-calorie, low-fat diet and regular exercise.
Products promising lightning-fast weight loss are always a scam. Worse, they can ruin your health.
Even if a product could help some people lose weight in some situations, there’s no one-size-fits-all product guaranteed to work for everyone. Everyone’s habits and health concerns are unique.
Nothing you can wear or apply to your skin will cause you to lose weight. Period.
This list removes from consideration a good chunk of the weight loss products you may see advertised everywhere. Like this one.
As for the biggest players in the weight loss marketplace, they are all proponents of the many dozens of diets that are out there in the world, all of which claim to help you lose weight and be healthier. Some plans do most of the work for you while some make you do all the cooking, but they all offer a pathway of foods to eat and foods to ignore.
For many dieters, having a system of support, feedback, and encouragement is more important than the actual foods, and there's no shortage of that. Plans like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig have locations where people can go in and weigh themselves while getting one on one counseling. They also have their own foods that they sell to fit their plans.
For those who want medical supervision, or who's insurance covers it, there are any number of medical weight loss centers where you can get help from trained clinicians, doctors, and medical staff. The better of these will help clients design personalized weight loss plans that are supervised, while the worst operators will push pills and claim unreasonable results.
If, on the other hand, you feel comfortable weighing yourself and working online, programs like Nutrisystem, Medi-Fast, Slim-Fast, Herbalife, and many, many more will sell you their meal replacement products. The problem with meal replacements is that they can be expensive, and are hard to maintain eating for long periods of time. They are a temporary crutch. Once you lose weight and go back to regular meals again, your body can easily pack weight back on.
Finally, there are the diet plans. Every so often fad diets come and go, and with most of them there is initial buzz, some good results, and then folks give up on them. The NY Times bestseller list of books is loaded with diet plans, often written by MD's with claims that their plans are proven to help lose weight. The most reputable of the plans that I could find were:
- South Beach
- Weight Watchers
I won't go into the basics of these diets, but they have worked for many and most emphasize the basic ingredients of any good diet- low-fat, low-sugar, plant-based, and fresh, unprocessed foods.
Diet plans to avoid include cleanses and anything that isn't nutritionally balanced. Sure, you may lose weight, but at a cost to your long-term health. There are many unbalanced, bad diets advertised out there, and it shows the amount of desperation and bad information that is out there in the weight loss industry. The worst one I found was the tapeworm diet, where people actually ingest tapeworms to siphon off all the calories they eat. (What could possibly go wrong?)
Dieting doesn't work according to a UCLA study in 2007. They found that most people were successful in losing 5 to 10% if their body weight in six months time. But over the next four to five years, the majority of dieters regain all of the lost weight, plus more! If you read some of the other entries in this challenge, you'll find that there are all sorts of issues that make weight loss much harder than the diet industry paints it.
The diet industry is in business to make money first, and help clients second. Some behave better than others, but the bottom line is always about money. And while men are more likely to be overweight, women are the targets of advertising. Women are much more worried about how their bodies look from the outside, and they are willing to pay handsomely for diets that often don't work.
Be careful out there. $71 Billion spent and we still have an worsening obesity epidemic. The vast majority of people who attempt diets eventually fail, and even those who temporarily succeed are doomed to gain much of the lost weight back, thanks to set points. Seek out the good professionals and avoid the scammers. Diets don't work, but lifestyle overhauls do. It's a long process that doesn't always work right away. But with the right knowledge and attitude, hopefully we can all look more like the lady on the right than the one on the left.