The Diet Industry: Is it all just a lie?

by pharmacy on August 17, 2011

It’s hard to believe that the diet industry rakes in so many billions of dollars a year, but it does. Upwards of $40 billion in the U.S. alone. In the meantime, Americans just keep getting fatter and the number of diabetics keeps growing. Millions of people rush to buy prepared frozen dinners, weight loss shakes, and the latest extract of miracle food the health guru du jour is pushing. Even as the global economy takes a nosedive, the diet industry continues to soar. Why haven’t consumers wised up?

A careful read of nearly every diet offering on the market reveals the truth about dieting: In order to succeed, you must eat fewer calories, drink plenty of water, and get more exercise. If they all say the same thing, what’s the point of the diet product (or book, video, program, food, supplement, etc.)?

Dieting can be confusing. People who are supposed to be experts say whatever benefits them and sells their products. Anyone who explains that carrots are bad because they have high sugar content and then tries to sell you a juicer to make carrot juice should be considered insane. Any product that is advertised as a low fat diet food, but is loaded with sugar or salt, should be avoided like the plague.

In 2006, a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine reported that most participants in weight-loss programs “regain about one-third of the weight lost during the next year and are typically back to baseline in three to five years.” But you already know that. Two famous examples of ongoing weight loss battles are on TV every day. If Kirstie Alley and Oprah Winfrey, with their personal trainers and personal chefs keeping them in line and TV viewers to keep them accountable, still can’t keep the weight off after a well-publicized program, how can the ordinary consumer?

 The money people lay out to purchase diet products and programs really just buys them hope, dreams, and aspirations. Dieters want to believe. They want to be inspired. They want to learn to set achievable goals, even though past experience tells them they are unlikely to be successful. They want weight loss to be short, painless, easy, and permanent.

As a pharmacist, this does not represent an ethical dilemma for me. My goal is to help people, and ultimately the diet products on my shelves are unlikely to do that. But the products inspire dieters, and the underlying message packaged with most of the products really is helpful. So unless I think a product is actively harmful, I don’t advise against it. But if a customer asks, I point to the part that says eat less, exercise more, and drink lots of water. I tell her to be sure and follow the directions to the letter, and then invite her back in to report her progress so I can cheer her on and address any concerns. If the product doesn’t work and she winds up eating healthier and getting more exercise, it’s still a success in my book. But if she asks for advice about diet products, I will direct her to the cooler where we keep the water, and tell her to leave her car at home and walk in to pick it up. I have to be honest. What would you do?

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