Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Of Snake Oil and Weight Loss

Valerie Bertinelli is a seemingly very nice women, a decent comedic actress, an admitted drug abuser and the product of a failed marriage that involved infidelity on the part of both parties. She is also the spokesperson for a large weight loss company. Ms. Bertinelli has parlayed her recent public weight loss odyssey into a role on a new sitcom and ubiquitous appearances on talk shows and magazine covers. Ms. Bertinelli is also a shameless shill for a weight loss program that studies show offers little hope to its customers. Now the weight loss company has enlisted the aid of George Costanza to bolster the Bertinelli message apparently fearing another Kirstie Alley debacle.

At first glance I guess I have to question the wisdom of employing a loser/drug abuser and an actor who portrayed one of the most neurotic sit com characters in recent memory to sell products and services to consumers; consumers who are in dire need of medically and psychologically sound advice on how to improve their health. But, in rethinking this whole strategy, I guess it makes a lot of sense.

There is an insidious logic to the weight loss game. The average consumer who is in need of weight loss doesn't really want real solutions. What these average consumers want is false hope and magic acts. They will willingly buy into any message that sells one on the premise that weight loss can be easy and without sacrifice or pain. The reality of why people get fat and the difficult road that lies before them to lose the fat is just too painful for most people to accept. So, why not use sitcom actors to sell them the entertainment they desire. I'm surprised they don't include a laugh track.

Once one cuts through the malaise of what the billion dollar weight loss industry has become it becomes apparent that nothing much has changed, from a scientific/medical perspective about what works and what doesn't. All the goofy exercise machines on infomercials and all the phony diet drugs and supplements work for the people that sell them, but have little impact on resolving the issues of the people that buy them. The real solutions lie within each one of us, not on late night infomercials.

Some people are born to be fat. Some people have genetic/biochemical components to their makeup that imprison them in a body of fat for life. Unfortunately, there is little hope for a three hundred fifty pound adult who was a one-hundred eighty pound third grader. These are the people who have to accept their fate and make the best of it. I had a good friend in college that fit into this category. He spent years and wasted thousands on surgeries, supplement, gadgets and pills over the thirty five years I have known him and he is still a fat adult and will die a fat adult, hopefully a fat old man.

Then there are the rest. Most of us where thin at some point in our lives. Despite growing up in a family where food was plentiful, I managed to stay thin until my middle years. I stayed thin because as a child I played sports and rode a bicycle about ten miles a day to the park, to my friends houses and to the store for my mother. I spent every day at the park. I played sports in high school, in college and beyond. As an adult I continued to visit gyms on a regular basis, took up jogging and still lift weights several times a week. During my adulthood I have had my lapses. I have gained and lost the same twenty pounds of body fat about four dozen times mostly due to my love of food and alcohol. However, whenever the clothes didn't fit just right, I knew it was time to cut down on my eating and ramp up the exercise.

I consider myself fortunate in this regard. I have always had a large portion of self-respect and ego dating to my days as a star athlete and chick magnet. I have considered myself worthy of good care and a hard strong body. I can relate many instances of falls, car crashes and other sundry accidents where I walked away unscathed, thanks to my conditioning. My ego is my cushion of safety.

The majority of the adult population in America is not me. I don't say this to come off as arrogant. I say this to illustrate a point. When a person abuses themselves it is because there is something they don't like about themselves. It could be unfulfilled aspirations, bad relationships, poor career choices, etc. So this underlying regret is assuaged by the consumption of food, alcohol, drugs, excessive sex, excessive shopping, you name it. In psychology these are called immature defense mechanisms. We attempt to defend ourselves from reality by resorting to instant gratification. The cycle repeats itself over and over again, with the regret overcoming the happiness in each instance. This behavior becomes a destructive pattern that is ingrained in our brains and our behavior. Some have an epiphany. A heart attack, a divorce, the fat photo at the cousin's wedding, any number of things can trigger an urge toward change. They may act on this, but unless and until the core issues are resolved, they are doomed to failure.

The basics for losing weight (when I say weight I mean body fat) haven't changed much over the years from a purely biological perspective. To lose weight one must consume less calories than they use for an extended period of time. The devil however, as they say, is in the details. In order to effect any kind of perceptible change in body fat one needs to drastically reduce caloric intake. The body reacts to the lack of food, by slowing the metabolism and learning to live on low calories. There are folks in the third world who do quite well on five hundred calories a day. The body also stimulates the impulse to find food and eat. This is why most low calorie diets last for about two weeks when cannibalism becomes a viable option. Hunger is a cruel mistress.

What about exercise? Gyms are happy to sell you on the concept that you can lose weight through exercise. The problem is that unless you are running marathons the modicum level of exercise that is required to lose body weight is seldom attained if one doesn't alter their consumption of calories while training.

So one would assume that if you combine diet and exercise the objective could be achieved. The only problem here is that with increased exercise the body requires more, not less calories. A thirty minute sojourn on a treadmill while ingesting a twelve hundred calorie complement of food only produces severe hunger and fatigue. One is then left with the prospect of leaving the gym, returning home to the couch and diving into a bowl of potato chips to fight starvation.

So now you have the bad news. Want some more? Losing weight is very, very, very difficult. First of all, dieting is hard in and of itself. Second, getting the right advice and training about diet and exercise is just about impossible given the current state of affairs in the diet and exercise biz. If you think that kid with the on-line $40 personal trainer certificate at the gym knows anything about losing weight, guess again. You can always read Bob Greene's books, but if he couldn't help Oprah, is he really the guy you want to listen to? What about those berries from Africa? I had someone on a blog recommend a book to me written by some guy talking about good calories and bad calories who almost won a literary prize. I didn't realize calories could be personified.

What I know about weight loss and exercise is what I know to be true. I know it is true because I see it work. I will add a caveat here.....it only works for those people who are truly motivated to effect change in their lives and that isn't very many people. Serious weight loss is about diet, exercise and behavioral therapy. These three components overlap and interact in this process and cannot succeed without the others. I have very specific ideas about diet and what needs to be done to lose body fat. I have very specific ideas about exercise, because I was an ACE personal trainer and lived in gyms half my life training and watching elite athletes train. I have very specific ideas about behavioral therapy and how individual behavior can be modified and changed. Nothing easy here. Let me give you a taste, no pun intended. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is going to be successful at losing weight, unless they make aggressive drastic changes in their behavior starting with day one. Nobody is going to lose weight and keep it off unless they are willing to examine their lives and correct the issues that underlie the abuse. Nobody is going to lose weight and keep the weight off unless they are willing to make being in shape and healthy a lifestyle.

Ready for some good news. The initial process doesn't take as long as you would think. I'm talking about losing 5-8 pounds a week. The exercise component is not difficult. At the outset it is very benign and doesn't require a bunch of equipment or a gym membership. The behavioral therapy is something that will make a difference in most every area of your life.

Stay tuned for particulars.

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