ONE VOICE, however plump, might not be heard in the wind of a $33-billion industry, but let me try: Isn't it time for somebody to suggest that losing weight is the wrong approach to fitness? I know, I know. You will say that it is foolish to buck a trend that represents $5.5 billion in annual weight-loss programs sponsored by doctors and hospitals, or to suggest that the 2,600 hospital weight-loss centers might be used to better purpose. But you would also think that with that much money thrown at the problem, we'd be losing weight. Yet we're not. The evidence, rather, grows that we're not shrinking. Consider:
As the National Center for Health Statistics reminds us, about 90 percent of those who lose 25 pounds will gain it back within two years. Even worse, only 2 percent of dieters retain their desired weight after seven years.
Fifty to 60 percent of all women consider themselves overweight. That's up from 44 percent just half a decade ago. With the majority of the female population and a quarter of the male population dieting, you'd think we would know how to do it by now.
Every week there's a new best-selling method. And we are willing to try everything from "The Three-Week Trance Diet" to "More of Jesus, Less of Me." We risk death, develop gallstones and still haven't admitted that if diets really worked, we wouldn't continue to be drawn to waist wraps and vibrating belts, Fat Magnet pills and sauna suits.
The More You Diet, the More You Diet Increasingly, research proves that food intake and weight gain are not necessarily related. One study showed that rats who had surgery grew fatter than rats without surgery, even on the same diet. And rats that had been starved for four days needed only one day to make up the loss. Concluded the editor of The Harvard Medical School Letter, Dr. William I. Bennett: Dieting as a therapy for obesity is about as effective as the 19th century practice of treating pneumonia by bloodletting. "Obesity is a chronic relapsing disease," he declared. Dr. Kelly Brownell, co-director of the Obesity Research Group at the University of Pennsylvania, summed up the problem even more starkly: As for curing obesity by reducing weight to its ideal level and maintaining it for five years, "a person is more likely to recover from most forms of cancer."
Studies increasingly pin the blame for obesity on genetics.
Identical twins raised in different environments, eating widely different diets, turn out remarkably identical in weight as adults. (Identical twins, incidentally, tend to gain weight in identical places.)
Four years ago Dr. A. Harold Lubin, the American Medical Association's director of food, nutrition and personal health, stated that "human fatness is under substantial genetic control." The same year, University of Pennsylvania researchers concluded that 80 percent of the body mass index is due to genetic factors, and genes' importance stays stable throughout adulthood. Other studies have confirmed that on identical diets one person can gain almost three times as much weight as another.
Weight gain is also clearly tied to age. A decade-long study by the Centers for Disease Control concluded that most people get fat between ages 25 and 34. After age 55, weight levels begin to decline. And women are at substantially greater risk for gaining weight during adulthood than men (though they also live longer). We know all this and yet dieting seems so seductively simple: Just reduce your caloric intake or increase your caloric expenditure and you will lose weight.
It turns out, though, that it's sort of like saying that if you jump a lot, you will increase your average height. The only thing that seems sure nowadays is that the more often you diet, the harder it becomes to lose weight and the more quickly you gain it back. According to the American Dietetic Association, "with each successive diet, it takes twice as long to lose weight each time, yet only one third the time to regain the lost weight back again." Fat protects itself. Nutritionist Johanna Dwyer, professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, quotes the old joke that the reason the diet industry is such an attractive investment is that "it has such a great repeat business."
We try. We all try. Half the population, at least, drinks diet sodas, uses low-calorie and sugar-free products. Twenty six percent of the soda consumed is diet soda -- that's 47 gallons per person per year. Dieters have been estimated to spend $423 to $4,714 a year to lose weight. Jaw wirings account for 30,000 operations a year, liposuctions 100,000.
Standing Tall, an Inch at a Time
So what to do?
Perhaps it is simply time to change our perspective -- to think less about width and more about length, to go from latitude to longitude. In my case, for example, medical charts reveal that like many Americans, my height is out of kilter for my weight. Furthermore, recent medical research warns me that short women are more susceptible to heart attacks than taller ones. So I'm starting on a new fitness program: I'm going to grow taller.
I know it's not going to be easy, but changing one's shape never is -- for years I've tried to change my width. As for changing height, I've seen it done and I've even had some history of success myself.
I know that in my earlier and more willful years, I went from 4-feet-2 at age 12 to 5 feet at age 15. That's more than three inches a year. Of course everyone says that changing your shape is harder as you grow older -- and as a former dieter, don't I know that! But even in my forties, I managed some amazing growth. Really. After one week at a spa, doing stretching exercises regularly and learning to lift my torso from my pelvis as I walk, I lengthened an entire inch.
The problem, though, was that it stayed with me just about as long as my weight loss stayed with me. Then, like so many other times after a diet, I gradually returned to my shorter state.
This time I am more committed. I know that an inch was only a start, but if I could do it once, why not again? I'm setting goals: an inch a month for six months. Then a maintenance plan. I'm going to think tall, drink milk and eat plenty of eggs and fast food -- after all, that's how Japanese children have grown two inches taller than their parents since World War II (their IQ jumped more than seven points in a single generation, too, but I'm not going to court failure by setting unrealistic goals).
I'm not going to be taken in by such expensive quick-height gimmicks as platform shoes and heel lifts. Nor am I going to such extremes as to sleep with my arms and legs tied to my bedposts. Yoga seems promising. A 6-foot-3 young man I know credits his height to his posture and stretching exercises. He insists that, depending how much you slouch, you can grow up to three inches by straightening your spine. And since my memories of youth are punctuated with the sound of my mother telling me stand up straight, I suspect I have at least a couple of inches ready to uncurl. (A Peruvian study suggests that children whose fathers died or departed grew taller than their peers, but again I don't want to talk about extreme measures.)
My plan probably sounds hopelessly old-fashioned; today it is much more trendy to lose weight than to gain height. Magazines of an earlier era promised that you could stand two to six inches taller in a few weeks. "All ages. No gimmicks," they boasted. Today, instead, we see ads that insist you can "lose up to 30 lbs. in 30 days or your money back," once again "without strenuous exercise" (and offering a free double strand of "faux pearls" as a bonus). Dieting is one of the most popular activities of our era: 65 million Americans are on a diet at any particular moment. But fashions change, and this one has its own destruction built in.
Dieting is not only ineffectual, but according to one friend of mine it is unkind. An astute observer of society, she has noticed that when people try to lose weight, "It doesn't really get lost, it goes to someone else in the family."
I'll start my new fitness program in easy steps, wearing high-heel shoes, growing my hair into a beehive. I'll stand up straight and jump as often as possible. I'll head for hills whenever I have a chance, and stand on podiums. Is sitting on phone books really different from wearing a corset?
I may have to struggle alone at first, but I'll keep hoping that the rest of the world will begin to see things my way. Just a small portion of that $33 billion spent this year on weight loss could next year open untold opportunities -- for growth.
Phyllis Richman is the food critic for The Washington Post.