Bucks for the bulge

Bucks for the bulge

October 12th, 2009 by Adam Crisp in Shape

PDF: Weight Loss Industry Fact Sheet


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Biggest player

Weight Watchers reported earnings of $1.5 billion in 2008. That's enough money to run the city of Chattanooga for 10 years without taxing a single person.

Weight Watchers is the biggest player in the dieting industry, and most dietitians agree that it's a practical approach to weight loss that is sustainable after people reach their goal weight.


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If you watch TV long enough, you'll become familiar with the pitch: Take this pill, drink or potion and you'll drop weight.

Or this variation: Pay this sum, buy this gadget or hire a coach and gain the sculpted physique of a movie star.

The business of dieting now represents a $35 billion industry in the United States, according to Global Industry Analysts Inc., which monitors the growing dieting industry.

But these TV, magazine and Internet messages about fast and easy weight loss come at the consternation of trainers and nutritionists, who say there is no silver bullet to shedding pounds and getting healthy.

"If all the pills on TV worked, we would be a United States of skinny people," said Dr. Stella Volpe, a researcher specializing in diet and nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. "Clearly we are not."

Nutritionists and personal trainers say relentless marketing of diet plans, supplements and medications confuses consumers and leads many to believe that swallowing a pill or joining a gym is all it takes to lose weight.

"You can't just drink a zero-calorie shake or sprinkle some magic dust and expect to magically lose weight," said Kyle Johnston, a manager and trainer at Chattanooga's Fitness Together. "It takes a lot of work, and people don't always want to hear that."


Diet plans and medications are nothing new. The first diet recommendations came out in 1940 when the U.S. government issued its Basic Seven Food Groups. At the same time the government was pitching the basic food groups, other diets actually suggested that saturated fats, including lard, were good sources of energy.

Weight Watchers was founded in the 1960s, the same decade the Big Mac first was cooked up. Richard Simmons and his Deal a Meal plan emerged in the 1970s. Snackwells foods were so popular in the 1990s that grocery stores' shelves soon were barren after the new low-calorie snack foods were introduced.

All the while, though, Americans have been getting fatter. The most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight. And nearly one-third of U.S. adults is obese, the CDC says.

Joe Green, a contestant in the Chattanooga's Biggest Loser competition, said he has sunk a near fortune into various diets over the years.

"I lost 200 pounds on the low-carb diet," said Mr. Green, 33, who weighed 430 pounds when the competition started. "That's a temporary fix."

He praisedr Weight Watchers because it allowed him to eat foods he liked, but limited overall food intake and assigned points to all foods based on the amount of calories, fat and fiber.

Kim Carson, another competitor in the Chattanooga's Biggest Loser competition, also knows what it's like to try different weight loss methods.

"I've tried a few crash diets, but you can't live forever doing that," said the 37-year-old radio personality on US-101.

At 250 pounds, she wants to lose 30 to 40 pounds over the next 10 weeks as a part of the competition that mixes workouts six days a week with an extensive nutrition plan.

"Many years ago I tried NutriSystem, but I didn't keep it up," Ms. Carson said. "You can't do NutriSystem forever, and it didn't teach me to eat right."

"Yo-yo effect"

Television and magazines often are dominated with images of before-and-after photos, usually coupled with fine print that says the results are not guaranteed.

"The problem is that people see those photos and want those results," Dr. Volpe said. "They try those plans, and if they fail, the disappointment is sometimes the worst part. They are sometimes even less likely to try again."

Diet plans and pills often give consumers the false notion that they only need to fork over some cash, jump through a few hoops and - presto, chango - they will drop pounds.

"What you end up with is a yo-yo effect," Mr. Johnston said. "Either the product doesn't work at all or it is a plan that starves their bodies of nutrients."

If the people lose weight on these get-slim-quick plans, they often plateau at a particular weight, are not able to drop below it, then begin to gain weight back because they didn't make sustainable life changes, Mr. Johnston said.

Even at Mr. Johnston's gym, which caters to high-earning executives who can pay upward of $400 a month for one-on-one fitness and nutrition coaching, some customers expect just to spend money, sweat it out under the direction of a trainer and then go back to their old eating habits, he said.

"Exercise doesn't equal weight loss alone. Nutrition equals weight loss," Mr. Johnston said. "If people need a body composition change, it starts with nutrition."