Like psychic readers and astrology hotlines, the weight-loss industry sells hope to desperate people.
Americans spend $40 billion a year on weight-loss programs and products. They answer Jenny Craig’s enticement to “lose 20 pounds for just $20” (“plus the cost of food”) or Trimspa’s offer of a seven-day supply of chocolate Hoodia weight-loss supplements for $24.95.
We buy books and magazines that offer the insightful revelation that we overeat because we’re bored. There are publications that promote weight loss via “food combining” or a diet that corresponds to blood type.
Most offensive are alleged fitness experts who issue such advice as: “Keep your nose out of carrots, bunny. They’re full of sugar. Pears, too—pure sugar.” Meanwhile, they recommend chemical-laden diet soft drinks and salt-choked low-calorie frozen meals. (Thanks, but I’ll take my chances with fresh fruits and vegetables.)
In the end, the advice and products offer virtually no long-term return on investment—measured, of course, in pounds permanently lost. According to a 2006 study reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, most people who participate in weight-loss programs “regain about one-third of the weight lost during the next year and are typically back to baseline in three to five years.”
But you didn’t need a scientific journal to tell you that. Even celebrities who can afford private chefs and trainers lapse back into comfortable habits and regain weight, so why would it be any different for the rest of us?
Allow me to enlighten you free of charge. Here’s why we overeat: Food tastes good, so we eat lots of it. Here’s why we gain weight: We take in more calories than we burn off. Here’s the only way to maintain weight loss: Eat less and exercise more for the rest of your life.
So stop trying to buy willpower. Go out and lose weight gratis if you like. Better yet, eat foods you enjoy, accept yourself the way you are, and stop feeding the diet industry’s false economy.
There’s no getting around it: Diets don’t work for the vast majority of Americans. But before we add to the chorus of diet doubters, we need to consider why so many Americans gain back the weight. It’s easy to blame the diets, but it’s more accurate to blame the dieters.
In an on-demand culture of immediate gratification, the torturous grind of weight loss can be frustrating. We can’t rewind an emerging belly or fast-forward through two hours at the gym. “Americans are looking for that silver bullet,” says Keri Gans, a registered dietician and national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Assn. “But they won’t change their behavior. That’s where the fault lies.”
Many Americans think diets should work like the Terminix man, a one-and-done deal to solve their weight problems. But diet programs are often up front about the challenge of losing weight permanently—and would prove well worth the money if only consumers followed through. If you check out Jenny Craig’s Web site you’ll find a multifaceted approach to weight loss that combines diet, exercise, and an extended weight-maintenance program. Similarly, Weight Watchers (WTW), whose motto is “Stop dieting; start living,” views weight loss as a lifelong undertaking.
Many diet programs market themselves as lifestyle choices, rather than silver bullets. Even the South Beach and Atkins diets—often dismissed as fads—are designed to be permanent. The South Beach Diet requires followers to stay on a protracted maintenance phase to make their eating changes last a lifetime. Even the notorious Atkins Diet—often caricaturized as a two-week binge on sirloin and cheese—is intended as a years-long plan to reduce carbohydrate intake.
The $40 billion Americans spend on diet plans each year is a weighty amount, for sure. But those billions represent aspirations rather than effort. Dieters who want to fit into thinner jeans for more than a few months or years need to find a diet plan that will fit into their lifestyle for just as long. If we’re wasting billions of dollars on fruitless diets, it’s likely the fault lies not with Jenny but with ourselves.Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.
Please send us your ideas for new Debate Room topics. If you're an academic, association officer, or other industry expert and would like to write a Debate Room essay, send us a query. Questions? See the