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The Dangers of 'Fad Diets' - 2002-07-18

Studies show rates of obesity in the United States have surged in recent decades, with roughly two-thirds of the population classified as overweight. America's flabbiness has spawned an enormous weight loss industry, from fitness and weight loss centers to so-called "fad diets" that promise miraculous results. Yet a leading researcher and nutritionist says the fad diets are doing more harm than good.

Turn on the television in the United States and you are sure to be bombarded with advertisements for a dizzying array of weight-loss products and programs. They range from pills that promise to block the body's absorption of fat to diets that advocate reconditioning the body to burn fat instead of carbohydrates.

Dr. David Katz, Director of Public Health Studies at Yale University's medical school, says fad diets are a waste of time and money. "We know they are not achieving miraculous results because rates of obesity in the United States are getting worse and worse," he observed. "So, these diets clearly are not working. There are an awful lot of [charlatans] out there. Many of the popular diets out there are ridiculous. The authors of the diet books are making lots of money, but they are not doing the world any good."

This is hardly news to Rhonda Williams, a middle-aged Miami office worker who says she has tried at least 10 diet plans over the years in pursuit of a slimmer body. She says all attempts to shed weight have ended in failure, leaving her feeling more and more discouraged. "It is disappointing, it is frustrating," Ms. Williams said. "Most overweight people really want to lose the weight and keep it off. And it is hard work, believe me."

And excess weight is not without health consequences. Rhonda Williams says she suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, which makes the need to shed fat all the more urgent. "Now that I am having health problems, I want to get rid of [excess weight]," she said. "I mean, I do not have to be down to 115 pounds (45 kilograms) like I was in high school, but I do want to lose the weight."

David Katz, who came to south Florida to address a national dieticians' convention, says America's obesity problem extends well beyond a lack of resolve on the part of over-eaters. "I do not think people lack motivation," he said. "And I do not think will-power is really the issue, either. I think we are living in a modern obstacle course. If one wants to eat well and be physically active, one has to get through the obstacle course."

The "obstacle course" Dr. Katz refers to includes fast-food restaurants and vending machines, along with long commutes and hectic work schedules that often preclude the preparation of healthy foods and getting regular exercise.

Again, none of this is news to Rhonda Williams, who is on a half-hour lunch break from work. She has just finished a fried chicken sandwich, an order of french-fried potatoes and a soft drink. She says she simply does not have the time to prepare healthy meals for herself or the energy to exercise when she gets home from work.

"I have a treadmill (exercising machine) right there in my family room," she said. "And I sit there in my chair and I look at it, and I say, 'I should be on that treadmill.' But I sit there and I am tired. I have worked all day and I am tired. So I do not do it (use the machine)."

Dr. Katz says, given busy work schedules and people's natural desire for quick, painless results, it is no wonder that Americans are seduced by miracle diets that promise drastic weight loss with little or no effort. But he says successful weight loss requires a fundamental change in habits and lifestyle, which includes improved diet and increased physical exercise. Absent such a change, he says no "quick fix" will work.

"The question is not 'what dietary pattern do we need to control weight?' - because we have decades of research indicating that a diet rich in grains, fruits, and vegetables is good for us," Dr. Katz explained. "The question that needs to be answered is: how does one follow such a diet in an environment where we have tasty, high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar, low-fiber foods everywhere we turn. These foods taste good. They are very hard to resist."

Dr. Katz says, so long as Americans jump from diet plan to diet plan without careful examination of lifestyle issues, the country's obesity problem will continue to worsen.