Our loss, diet industry's gain

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: Over in Brussels today, the European Union told food and beverage makers they need to do more to stop obesity. About 15 million Europeans are considered overweight or obese. Millions more than that live in the U.S.

Both state and local governments are trying to make us thinner. But as Americans get bigger, losing weight becomes a bigger business. The diet industry is a multibillion-dollar enterprise. One whose existence depends on our failures.

Helen Palmer reports from the Marketplace Health Desk.


HELEN PALMER: One mark of the growth in the American girth is the weight of diet books that land on my desk.

"The Metabolic Plan,""Fat Is Not Your Fate,""The Body Shape Solution to Weight Loss,""Shrink Yourself,""The Reality Diet,""Curves,""The Duke Diet" . . . about $300 worth of books, but just a tiny proportion of the cash the weight loss industry rakes in.

CRAIG PEPIN-DONAT: Well, the diet industry is amazing — it's really a $40 billion rip-off.

Craig Pepin-Donat was a personal trainer, and head of marketing for the 24-Hour Fitness chain. He has a book of his own to point out the diet industry's failings: "The Big Fat Health and Fitness Lie."

PEPIN-DONAT: There are about 70 million people who resolve to lose weight each year — 70 million — yet less than 5 percent of those people will actually attain lasting results.

Many of us can relate. Losing weight's easy, goes the joke — I've lost 10 pounds . . . dozens of times.

That was Brandi Mancuso's experience. She says she tried everything.

BRANDI MANCUSO: All the miracle pills that don't work. I did the Trimspa, Nutrisystem, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, exercise tapes, exercise equipment, gym memberships — and none of it worked.

Mancuso reckons she spent as much as $20,000 trying to lose weight over the last decade — surgery was what ultimately worked for her.

One reason that people find losing weight so hard is that the most powerful market pressures are pushing us to get ever fatter.

That's the view of Bill Weis, professor of management at Seattle University.

BILL WEIS: But the big losers, if we were to stop getting fatter and fatter, would be fast food, soda, junk food sources — those are the big ones, and they have market power.

Weis says the U.S. food industry produces about 3,800 calories of food a day for every American — twice what we need — then spends millions of advertising dollars persuading us to eat it. No wonder we're chubby.

That, in turn, feeds the diet industry's financial success. Market research company Marketdata reckons Americans will spend nearly $60 billion trying to lose weight this year.

Of course, commercial weight loss systems really do work for some people. Take 61-year-old Mary Lou Lenahan. She runs a day care in Massachusetts.

MARY LOU LENAHAN: Jenny Craig is the only one that I have any success with — and I have very good success with.

It costs her, but she says it's well worth it.

LENAHAN: I buy the food every week from them. And you can pick your own menu, and you pick out what you want and the food is very, very good. And now, it costs me about $50 a week.

[COMMERCIAL: Call 1-800-JENNY-20 today and lose 20 pounds for $20 plus the cost of food. Have you called Jenny yet?]

Nutrition experts are ambivalent about commercial weight loss programs. Miriam Nelson of Tufts University:

MIRIAM NELSON: There are some that have been around for a longer period of time and have a good track record. There are others that make an awful lot of money by selling food. And those are the ones that make me a little bit more nervous, because I think that people should be able to eat their own food.

Nelson says the truth is there is no magic weight loss pill or formula, but it can be done.

NELSON: The diet that works best is the one that you enjoy the most and are more likely to stick with. So in the end, it's very difficult to lose weight, You have to eat less and you have to exercise more. Basically, that's the formula.

Which of course, we all know, and don't need a book to tell us.

In Boston, I'm Helen Palmer for Marketplace.

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