The rising epidemic of obesity makes the news nearly every day: We are constantly reading or hearing about how Americans are getting heavier and heavier. This in turn subjects Americans to a range of possible other ills including increased cardiac disease, increased chance of stroke, diabetes, and arthritis. It also subjects Americans to a range of fad diets. These latter might seem to be far less pernicious and dangerous than the terrible diseases listed first, but in fact they themselves take a terrible toll on the physical health of those who turn to them time and time again. They also pose costs in terms of mental health and -- and this is no small cost itself -- they also deplete people's wallets. Often, in fact, a person's wallet is the only thing that gets any lighter.
Before I distributed a survey to my fellow students I investigated the subject of obesity in America. (I would like to point out that even though this research is specific to the United States it is in fact true for most of the developed nations in the world. It is even becoming more and more true of nations in the developing world as people across the globe adopt themselves increasingly to Western diets and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle.
Presently, nearly two-thirds of all adult Americans and almost forty percent of American children and adolescents are either clinically overweight or clinically obese (Reid, 2009). Research on the topic of obesity consistently finds that the number of individuals who are overweight, obese, and morbidly obese continues to rise, although the past few years have seen a plateau-ing of the rate of increase.
People wanting to lose weight (and unfortunately this includes nearly all of us at times) are especially vulnerable to pitches from the numerous companies peddling what they promise are panaceas. These companies take in billions of dollars every year because their customers are so desperate to lose weight that they suspend their usual good sense and fail to consider how outrageous the claims of these companies are.
If a car company advertised its latest model as getting 900 miles per gallon and needing an oil change only every eight years, none of us would believe such claims. But when a company promises that just three of its magic pills a day will allow us to eat as much as we want and still lose five pounds a week while we turn into a model just like in the magazine far too many people buy into this equally ridiculous promise.
I surveyed twenty-two people on the topics about which I brainstormed and found that each one of them had a great deal to say about all of these topics. Universally they said that they had paid money for a diet aid even though knew that there was no chance that it would actually work. In an open-ended follow-up question that established whether or not they had indeed paid for a useless product, I asked my subjects what made them pay money for something that had no real value.
The following response came in answer to the above question. The respondent acknowledged that she had purchased a diet supplement or device (such as an exercise machine) at least five times in the past two years and that it was possible that the actual number of purchases was three or four times as high but that she "had just blocked out how much money I actually spend on these things."
"Okay, yeah, I've bought those pills that are made from whatever the latest gimmick fruit is. Like spirulina? I think that is seaweed. Or algae. Something like that that I would never eat. But, you know, that's what made it so appealing. Because it was something that was so "natural." So "natural" that it seemed kind of disgusting actually, and so I told myself that if I was willing to go to the lengths of putting something that looked that bad into my body then it really would work.
And of course it didn't. And -- and I think that this is how a lot of these things work -- instead of getting pissed off at the company and suing them for fraud, which is what I would have done if it had been a computer that was a piece of crap like that -- I blamed myself. I told myself that if I had just tried harder and eaten less and drank more water, then I would have lost the weight. And so that it was my fault.
And then came along the next new thing. Acai berries. Or maybe that was the one after the next new thing. And so I bought it and it didn't work. And of course I blamed myself again.
I don't know how many hundreds, no thousands of dollars I've spent over the last fifteen years. And, you know, if you count the money that I've spent on therapy and anti-depressants, which really I think that you should, it's tens of thousands of dollars. Think of what I could have done with that if I didn't believe every fashion magazine that told me if I lost weight then I'd be happy.
To a survey question about whether the respondent thought that the same "cure" that had failed (and often failed to the extent that the individual does not lose weight at all and in fact gains weight) for them had worked for other people, twenty-one of the twenty-five answered that they believed that other people had had at least "moderate" success with the method.
Another question asked what each individual considered a "successful" diet to be, and the majority of respondents to that question had selected the answered "moderate weight loss at a steady rate." This is the answer that we have each been "taught" to provide by whatever accurate information about nutrition and dieting that we have received. In other words, when asked about what constitutes a successful diet, the respondents were able to answer accurately: A successful diet is one in which an individual loses a small amount of weight (usually defined as one to two pounds a week) by a combination of a healthy diet and regular exercise.
However, when I asked follow-up questions to the survey question about other people's success at dieting, their concept of "moderate" was vastly different from what it had been when they were defining it for themselves.
I know all about how you're supposed to diet. You can't watch daytime TV and not know all about the rules: Lose a pound a week and you'll keep it off. This is what a moderate diet looks like. And "moderate" is supposed to mean something that you're just going to think is just hunky dory. Easy as pie -- which is a very bad joke, I realize.
But the thing is -- and I just don't think that doctors get this -- by the time that you're really serious about dieting, you feel that you don't have a lot of time. You just found out that your blood pressure is up or you get laid off and you have to start job hunting. And so you need to lose weight now and get it over with.
I don't want to be told that I'm going to have to be hungry for the rest of my life. And that's what being on a diet means. I know that that's not the official line from doctors, but it's what's true. I know this for sure.
This is precisely the kind of attitude that Lightsey (2006) found to be very common: Individuals who cannot see themselves as making relatively small changes and sustaining them over a long period of time nonetheless believe that they will be able to make dramatic changes in diet and exercise and sustain these over a significant period of time if they are to achieve weight loss that is itself usually impossible.
Another focus of the survey was whether people who had dieted before understood the danger of constant dieting, producing what is called a yoyo effect wherein an individual's weight goes up and down and up and down just the way a yoyo does. A large body of research has demonstrated consistently that this kind of yoyo dieting is actually worse for an individual than never losing weight at all.
Not only is this kind of dieting emotionally and psychologically taxing, leaving the individual feeling like a failure every time s/he gains back the weight that had just been lost with so much effort. These feelings of failure are exaggerated because usually the individual actually gains back more weight than they had originally lost because of physiological changes that result from the weight loss and gain (Sizer & Whitney, 2003).
Every member of the subject pool answered that s/he had in fact been on a diet at some point in the previous twelve months and all but…