Keeping Us Fat- Why Not Losing Weight Is Profitable
Diets don’t work and weight loss supplements don’t work- most are aware of this on some level yet it doesn’t stop Americans from spending as much as $100 billion a year on diet products and books. Studies, and the personal experience of just about everyone you know, have shown that as much as 80% of Americans who lost weight on a diet regained all the weight lost within one year- even when exercise was included in their weight loss routines.[15,16,17] You might think that this bodes well for the 20% who didn’t regain the weight but, but a longer term analysis found that an alarming 97% of those who lost weight gained it all back within a period of five years.  Sobering numbers indeed, but it begs the question why? Why is it that weight loss success rates are not higher at a time when there is more weight loss related information and products available to consumers more than ever before? Studies consistently assert that weight gain is directly related to lifestyle choices and not genetics[11,12,13] so from a purely theoretical point of view the achievement of a healthy body weight is indeed within the reach of every member of our population, and yet for all the information, products and medical knowledge at our disposal there are still 1 billion overweight adults on the planet and that number continues to rise. Could it be that one of the deterring factors to your success in weight loss is that on many levels it is more profitable to have an overweight population rather than a healthy one? The reality, as harsh as it may seem is that this may very well be the case.
Unless you live on a bubble on the far side of the moon, you are bombarded like each and every one of us, by a cacophony of often contradictory information about diet, nutrition and weight loss. A form of propaganda that acts as background noise that effectively drowns out the scientifically supported and difficult to profit from tenets that have helped millions of people get in shape and stay in shape. What it takes to lose weight and keep it off isn’t rocket science, nor does it require an advanced degree in nutrition- just a lifestyle change where you avoid high calorie processed foods, don’t overeat and incorporate a regular routine of exercise that helps increase metabolism. This approach has been validated by numerous studies and just about everyone around the world able to sustain a healthy weight and fitness level, but it doesn’t sell. It doesn’t sell anything, it isn’t immensely entertaining nor does it recommend the use of any pills or powders to get in shape. On the contrary, it is a call for self reliance that comes almost as an act of rebellion against the norms of modern society. One that would in a very real sense serve to cripple the American food industry as we know it for all intents and purposes. (Read my article- The Economics of Obesity- Why The Food Industry Needs Us to Overeat).
In a way, given the fact that over a quarter of a million Americans die each year from diet and obesity related disease it would be no stretch to say that any attempt to misinform the public regarding weight loss information should be considered a crime. That being said the first step in solving a crime is an understanding what incentives would bring about its execution. Cicero’s question of ‘Cui bono?’ or who stands to gain is often used by investigators as a means of identifying the perpetrator of any crime and in this case it is hard not to notice that our overweight population is worth billions to the diet and fitness industries, food industry, medical and pharmaceutical industries and interestingly enough the media at large. A sizable list of usual suspects and in this article we will examine the evidence that implicates on many levels that their actions may be more towards the promotion of a fat and out of shape society rather than a healthy one.
How The Diet Industry Profits From Keeping Us Fat: The Psychology of Creating Repeat Customers
The diet industry banks on a two phase approach to to keeping the sales of their products as high as possible for as long as possible. The first step is to provide consumers with an easily quantified solution that will make them see some fast reductions in their body weight. The second and most insidious phase is to ensure that when the weight lost is regained- as it always will be- that the consumer is programmed to place the blame on themselves and not on the system that is ultimately responsible for their failure. It’s an ingenious strategy, as it manipulates the vulnerabilities of someone intent on losing weight and creates the most important part of the success of any retail marketing plan and that is the creation of a repeat customer. Rooted in tried and tested behavioral psychology, the fact that you lost weight losing a particular system will remain firmly in your mind as a tangible and positive occurrence. One that you will associate with whatever product or system that caused it. Since we spend years feeling miserable about ourselves for gaining weight, the increasing numbers on the scale are thus automatically attributed to our own fault when we are unable to sustain the diet or exercise program over time. The use of before and after photographs and celebrity endorsements all work to create what is called a ‘halo effect’ around the product and serves to shift any possible failure away from a fundamentally flawed system and back to you the consumer. The halo effect also helps you to focus on the fact that when you started using the product you did indeed lose weight and so in spite of past failures, you will try it again in the hopes that this time you, and not the product or system, will be able to keep the weight off. A vicious cycle that has the remarkable ability to create failures and staunch advocates at the same time.
Diets like Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers, The Zone Diet, The Atkins Diet, The Ornish Diet, The South Beach Diet, Slim-Fast, and the always popular Subway diet all use the above mentioned strategies and enjoy continued success in spite of abysmal long term success rates. All the diets mentioned require significant investments on your part, as figures from a Forbes report showed that the average cost of a weight loss diet was $85.79 a week! That’s more than $30 more than the $54.44 that the average single American spends on food!  Not only is it expensive but as we said earlier, the real profit comes from your failure and the fact that your lack of success makes you morel likely to be a long term customer. You might think it strange that our society allows for such a dishonest industry to continue to prey on the failure of their customers- but it must be remembered that government economical policies are in place to see to it that the American economy continues to grow. Powerful lobbying measures aside, stopping a multi-billion dollar industry certainly would not be good for business. What is strange is the powerful effect of the marketing engine behind weight loss diet systems as they effectively distract you from the logical conclusion that the very existence of so many different systems actually highlights their inherent ineffectiveness.
If only one diet system, self help book or workout DVD could provide a safe and effective way for everyone to lose weight and keep it off, then all the others would be out of business.
When viewed from this perspective, you can clearly see that regardless of what you read or see in the infomercials, no diet or exercise program has any incentive to help you lose weight permanently. Those companies have CEOs who, as is in the case of any other industry, are tasked with increasing profits for their shareholders- not seeing to it that your waistline is trim and that your risk of obesity related disease is decreased by using their product. Doing so means failure on your part, as it is the only way to keep their coffers overflowing.
How The Medical Industry Profits From Keeping Us Fat
You might think that the medical industry as a whole would be above any venal desires to keep the population at large overweight and out
of shape, but it does. Surgical procedures are the ultimate quick fix for weight loss and not surprisingly the number of active surgeons performing bariatric weight reduction operations jumped nearly 500 percent from 168 in 1993 to 860 in 2003. Not surprisingly the number of gastric bypass surgeries climbed more than 600% during the same period.  At an average cost of $30,000 per procedure , fees paid mainly by health insurance providers or government health benefit programs with your taxpayer money, it is easy to see how profitable it is for this segment of the medical industry. Liposuction is the most popular form of plastic surgery for men and women combined, with over half a million women electing to have the procedure each year. At an average cost of $2500 per procedure it doesn’t take much in the way of arithmetic to see that liposuction is indeed a huge cash cow for the plastic surgery field. Less than 5% of all medical doctors ever take a course in nutrition, and you won’t see any changes in those numbers any time soon as preventive nutrition will never be a fast growing field as long as solutions to existing problems are more profitable. A pessimistic outlook, to say the least, but true nonetheless.
Equally profitable in a world of growing waistlines are prescription diet drugs. Physician prescribed appetite suppressants and fat absorption inhibitors net millions of dollars for the drug companies that make them while the doctors writing the prescriptions are creatively rewarded for their brand loyalty in ethically questionable ways. Research has shown that while over the short term prescription diet drugs can help reduce weight and potentially reduce temporarily reduce health risks in obese individuals, the benefits are always short lived as there is no concurrent change in lifestyle. Interestingly enough there are currently no studies to determine the effect of these medications over the long term and once again there is the suspension of logic required for their success as it is only rational that if they were truly effective a single pill would have stopped the obesity epidemic a long time ago.
How The Pharmaceutical Industry Profits By Keeping Us Fat
Unfortunately it is not only the diet and weight loss branches of the pharmaceutical community that profit from you being overweight and staying that way. We know being overweight or obese increases the risk of coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, dyslipidemia (high cholesterol or triglyceride levels) and stroke . Thus it should be no surprise that Lipitor- a statin drug designed to reduce cholesterol was the number one best selling drug not only in the United States in 2006 but in the entire world with an impressive 14 billion dollars in US sales alone for the pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer! To put things in perspective, in the United States, Lipitor made more than twice as much as the nearest other drug, the asthma medication Advair. Not surprisingly several other drugs in the top ten were also used to treat obesity linked diseases such as Plavix by Bristol-Meyer Squib, Norvasc, (another Pfizer drug) and Diovan altogether netting 60 billion dollars in the United States alone in 2006.[7,8] What is cause for concern is that the biggest pharmaceutical companies all profit mainly from diseases related to obesity, companies that have a major role in shaping public health policy- which has failed painfully to curb our growing obesity problem. With literally thousands of lobbyists in Washington, DC and an estimated $855 million spent on lobby activities from 1998 to 2006, pharmaceutical companies spend more than any other industry to ensure that their interests are protected.  Interests that focus on increasing profits for their shareholders and not on improving overall public health. Many have criticized the pharmaceutical industry on focusing solely on making drugs that profit from current health problems and not ones that solve them.
How The Media Profits From Keeping Us Fat
It isn’t only the muscle and fitness magazines packed with weight loss product propaganda that profit from an overweight population eager to learn how to be slim and trim, it’s every part of American media- from the news to talk shows. Ask any publicist in how to get on TV and they will tell you that the key stories are weight loss, sex and aging. These issues have always captivated large audiences and the obesity epidemic has given birth to a slew of weight loss reality shows in addition to the bombardment of mostly useless diet and weight loss tips that clog the airwaves. By making weight loss information a form of entertainment the media does more to confuse those seeking credible information on how to improve their health more than anything else- but it does increase ratings- which increases their profit margins. Unfortunately, the message of healthy lifestyle, exercise and balance isn’t sensational nor is it sexy enough to entertain the masses so a new and exciting new diet, breakthrough, study, exercise or system has to be introduced all the time. The result is a confused public that stays fat but tunes in to see what they can try next to get into shape.
Such emotional manipulation impacts women more than any other segment of society and the media uses this to their advantage. Every women’s magazine faces the challenge of what to print to keep their readers in thrall and so every month they promise new and innovative ways to lose weight.
Research has shown that women’s magazines have over ten times more ads and articles promoting weight loss than in mens’ magazines.
Not surprisingly over 75% of women’s magazine covers include at least one message about how to change bodily appearance by diet, exercise or cosmetic surgery. Numerous women’s rights groups have also drawn attention to the fact that women’s magazines consistently highlight women whose body types do not represent in any way that of the average reader, and that studies have shown that such depictions may be one of the factors leading to higher incidences of eating disorders and body image dissatisfaction among women.[18,19] You might think that such information would prompt the publishers to change their content in the name of doing what is best for their readers- but such an approach would reduce overall sales and as we have outlined before, the interest of the consumer is always secondary to the shareholder. Behavioral studies have shown that idealized images create in us not only the desire to be like them, but also increase sales, and as long as rail thin models and weight loss solutions keep the profit margins rising, we should not expect changes anytime soon.
How The Food Industry Profits By Keeping Us Fat
The list of industries that make billions from our weight problems is a long one and include as well the food industry which has shifted towards the manufacturing of ‘low fat’, ‘reduced sugar’ or ‘organic’ products to benefit from our collective increases in girth. The problem is that those very foods are the problem. In 2010 there are more foods labeled ‘natural’, low fat’, ‘diet’ and ‘organic’ than ever before in our history yet we aren’t any healthier. Our obesity problems continue to increase while studies on cultures that do not consume the so called ‘healthy foods’ found in the mid aisles of most organic minded supermarkets find that such populations do not suffer the weight problems that we do here in developed countries.
Over the past twenty years I have realized that half of the work required to help people lose weight comes teaching them that our very culture is unfortunately part of the problem. Try to live a healthy lifestyle where you eschew processed foods, exercise and limit or eliminate alcohol from your diet and you immediately become a social pariah. This in itself is a tremendous barrier to overcome when your peers are influenced by so many conflicting messages but it is one that must be crossed if you wish to get in shape and stay that way in our society. Acts of rebellion have always been important instruments of change throughout history, and the individual act of living a healthy lifestyle has very much become a rebellion against modern society.
Sources & References
1. The diet business: Banking on failure. (BBC News World Edition, Feb 5 2003).
2. World Health Organization
4. The American Bariatric Society
5. Facts On Platsic Surgery- Dustyinfo.com
6. NIH, NHLBI Obesity Education Initiative. Clinical Guidelines on the Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Adults.
7. Source: MedAdNews 200 – World’s Best-Selling Medicines, MedAdNews, July 2007
8. Herper, Matthew and Kang, Peter (2006-03-22). “The World’s Ten Best-Selling Drugs”. Forbes.
9. Center for Public Integrity
10. The Canadian Women’s Health Network (Body Image and the Media).
11. Booth FW, Gordon SE, Carlson CJ, and Hamilton MT. Waging war on modern chronic diseases: primary prevention through exercise biology. J Appl Physiol
12. McMurry MP, Cerqueira MT, Connor SL, and Connor WE. Changes in lipid and lipoprotein levels and body weight in Tarahumara Indians after consumption of an affluent diet [see comments]. N Engl J Med 1991
13. Eaton SB and Konner M. Paleolithic nutrition. A consideration of its nature and current implications. N Engl J Med
14. Allison DB, Fontaine KR, Manson JE, Stevens J, VanItallie TB. Annual deaths attributable to obesity in the united states. JAMA. 1999
15. Stunkard AJ, McLaren-Hume M. The results of treatment for obesity. Arch Int Med 1959
16. Kassirer J, Angell M. Losing weight—an ill-fated New Year’s resolution. N Engl J Med 1998
17. Wing RR, Hill JO. Successful weight loss maintenance. Annu Rev Nutr 2001
18. Hill AJ, Draper E, Stack J: A weight on children’s minds: body shape dissatisfaction at 9 years old. Int J Obes 1994
19. Andrist LC: Media images, body dissatisfaction, and disordered eating in adolescent women. MCN Am J Matern Child Nurs 2003
Kevin Richardson is an award winning health and fitness writer, natural bodybuilding champion, creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training™ and one of the most sought after personal trainers in Manhattan. Get a copy of his free weight loss ebook here.