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Why do people buy millions of diet books from fat authors?
Last week, millions of Americans made a New Years’ resolution to lose weight. By next week, many will be falling off the wagon. They will continue to be part of a national tragedy in which 65 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. Medical studies keep pouring in, but they rarely show what works – just what doesn’t. Thus a report in the January 4 Annals of Internal Medicine was slightly more helpful than most in its evaluation of ten of the nation’s most popular weight-loss programs. It found that for nine there was either no evidence that they worked or, indeed, evidence that they didn’t. One lonely plan, however, Weight Watchers, was somewhat effective.
Yet even the Weight Watchers results were hardly spectacular. In the single study worth evaluating, members lost only 5 percent of their initial weight (around 10 pounds) and kept about half that off for at least two years.
So where does a heavyweight turn? Currently-approved weight-loss drugs are just better than nothing, though one that may be available next year (called Acomplia) will be the best yet judging by tests so far.
Fad diets STILL don’t work. It appears even the low-carb craze – sparked by a July 2002 New York Times Magazine article by Gary Taubes that was essentially an advertorial for Atkins – is dying. According to the research firm NPD Group, the percent of Americans following low-carb diets like Atkins, South Beach and The Zone fell by half just from last January to September. The Atkins empire, a.k.a., Atkins Nutritionals, began laying off 40 percent of its employees in September.
The medical literature shows why. Short-term studies seem to vindicate Atkins. But representative of longer ones is that which just appeared in the January 5 Journal of the American Medical Association. It found that half of the Atkins dieters couldn’t stick with the program for 12 months. Among those who did, although their beginning average weight was a morbidly obese 200 pounds their loss at six months was only 13 pounds and six months later it was merely eight pounds.
Resistance training might not make give you a body like this, but it will help you burn fat around the clock.
Some of my readers have wondered (often in nasty language) why I have been so critical of Atkins. After all, he is rather dead. But his older books continue to sell, and through the miracle of modern publishing he somehow keeps producing new ones. If "The Peanut Butter Diet" (and there is such a book) had sold more than 45 million copies as Atkins books have, I’d have repeatedly slammed it too. But people like fad diets because they promise magic – literally a free lunch, at least as far as calories are concerned. How else to explain the incredible success of diet books from gurus who are (or were when they died) fat themselves, including Atkins, Andrew Weill, and "Dr. Phil" McGraw? Taking weight-loss advice from these fat cats is like receiving religious tolerance lessons from Osama bin Laden.
This year, why not resolve to try a new tack? Instead of putting so much emphasis on input, try putting more on output. (Note to editor: Can I write "exercise" in a family newspaper?) Consider information collected from the National Weight Control Registry, a group of about 4,000 people who lost an average of 60 pounds and kept off at least 30 pounds for more than six years. They do limit their calories to about 1,800 per day, but over 90 percent also regularly exercise.
More weight-loss specialists also seem to be realizing the advantages of resistance exercise – free weights or machines with steel plates, rubber bands, or bendable plastic rods. With aerobic exercise, you burn calories while doing it. But with resistance training you build muscle tissue that revs up your metabolism so you burn more calories 24/7. I attribute most of my 35-pound weight-loss (maintained for seven years) to Bowflex, though I also bike ride about 35 miles each week and watch what I eat.
Having begun with words of discouragement, I conclude with the opposite. No matter how often you’ve failed to lose weight there is no law – physical or otherwise – saying you won’t this time. If you fall off the wagon, dust yourself off and get back on. And remember that while the growing obesity epidemic is the concern of health experts; your concern stops at your own waistline.