The Ups and Downs
of Weight Loss
Gaining and losing weight is an American obsession. The first lady, actors and other celebrities gleefully advise us on how best to lose weight, and if you’re honest, you’ll admit your own waistline isn’t the only one that concerns you. As much as we worry about our extra poundage, we love following the triumphs and failures of fellow fat fighters. Weight loss is usually healthful, but it’s also prime entertainment and big business.
It’s not really surprising: Eat foods high in fat and full of sugar and you’ll gain weight. About 24 pounds in a month, in the case of independent filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who also testified to a rise in cholesterol, fatty deposits in his liver, sexual dysfunction and mood swings when he ate only McDonald’s food for a month. Spurlock chronicled the experience in his 2004 documentary Super Size Me. The title refers to a gimmick, since discontinued, in which McDonald’s asked customers if they wanted to be “supersized,” or given the largest servings of soda and french fries in their combo meal for a few pennies—and many calories—more. Even in our fast-food culture, Spurlock’s three-meals-a-day McDonald’s diet is excessive, yet one meal at the chain—a Big Mac, large fries and a large soft drink—can tally 1,430 calories, almost three fourths of the 2,000 a day considered healthy. Fast food’s ill effects are well documented; monkeys, for example, have been shown to gain weight and display prediabetic symptoms when fed diets similar to Spurlock’s regimen. We don’t always heed the warnings, but few who see Super Size Me will glide beneath the Golden Arches with abandon again.
Jackie Kennedy redecorated the White House, Lady Bird Johnson beautified U.S. highways, and Michelle Obama wants kids to eat less and move more. This first lady chose a tough cause: One in three American kids is overweight or obese, and eight- to 18-year-olds average seven and a half hours a day in front of televisions and computers. Only one third of high school students engage in recommended levels of physical activity. To promote her Let’s Move campaign for eating right and exercising, Obama has swiveled Hula-Hoops, danced on gym floors and grown her own carrots at the White House. In 2010 she successfully lobbied Congress to pass a children’s nutrition bill mandating whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruit in school lunches, and in 2011 she introduced the MyPlate design to replace the Food Pyramid as a guide for eating healthy portions of fruits, vegetables, grains and protein. She also persuaded retail giant Walmart to reduce sugar, sodium and trans fats in its food products. One of Obama’s most outspoken critics, conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, has said, “Bottom line: We don’t like being told what to eat.” Given his waistline, he’d be wise to listen to the first lady.
In 2011 McDonald’s earned first lady Michelle Obama’s praise by announcing it would slim down its Happy Meals, the boxed or bagged repasts geared to kids, which come with a burger, fries, a soft drink and a toy. Happy Meals now include sliced apples and a slightly smaller portion of french fries, and parents have the option to substitute Chicken McNuggets for the higher-calorie burger and low-fat milk for soda. Obama also lauded McDonald’s for its pledge to reduce sugar, saturated fat, sodium and calories in its menu items by 2020.
The Happy Meal shape-up isn’t generating smiles all around, however. Some consumer health advocates say McDonald’s hasn’t gone far enough and have labeled the changes a sham. Other critics demand the chain stop distributing the toys, which lure youngsters to its calorie-laden fare. Many even call for Ronald McDonald, the mascot who markets the restaurants to children, to step down, claiming the spokesclown encourages kids to eat junk food. McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner insists “Ronald McDonald is going nowhere”—and, bad news for the health obsessed, the 96 percent of American kids who say they recognize the famous figure will probably be glad to hear that.
For millions of Weight Watchers dieters, the Golden Arches is tantamount to the sign of the devil. So more than a few members arranged their carrot sticks into pentagrams when the program announced it was actually teaming with McDonald’s. The deal has so far been initiated only in New Zealand, where Weight Watchers gave its seal of approval to the Filet-O-Fish sandwich, Chicken McNuggets and Sweet Chili Seared-Chicken Wrap. Each item is allotted 6.5 points in the Weight Watchers counting system, which assigns specific values to different foods and permits each member a daily total. In general, participants are allowed 18 to 40 points a day, depending on such factors as gender and current weight.
How does Weight Watchers’ commitment to healthy eating jibe with the fast-food chain’s famously fatty, unhealthy fare? A Weight Watchers nutritionist explains, “Our philosophy is that all food can be part of a healthy, balanced diet taking into account portion control and frequency. We have worked hard to help guide people when they are eating out.” Given that McDonald’s serves 68 million customers daily, that may just be code for “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
Millions of people worldwide belong to Weight Watchers International, ranked the best commercial diet plan by U.S. News & World Report in 2011 and 2012. Weight Watchers favors healthy eating, exercise and sustainable weight management over rapid-fire results. People obsessed with dramatic weight loss, however, are a targeted demographic for The Biggest Loser, the wildly popular NBC reality show that follows obese contestants who compete to shed the greatest number of pounds and gain a cash prize. The show is broadcast in 90 countries, and the franchise has branched out into games, resorts and its own commercial diet plan. Even Michelle Obama got on the Biggest Loser treadmill to lead contestants in a workout at the White House.
Weight Watchers dieters are encouraged to lose a pound or two a week until they hit a target weight they can maintain with healthful food choices and exercise. Biggest Loser contestants drop upwards of 10 pounds a week, sometimes as much as 30—extreme losses that health experts warn are dangerous and almost impossible to preserve. No matter how much weight dieters lose or how they do it, a surefire winner is the American diet industry, a $35-billion-a-year enterprise and gaining.
Oprah Winfrey is perhaps the most famous dieter of all time. Television viewers followed the ups and downs of her scale’s needle for the 25-year run of The Oprah Winfrey Show. In 1988 she wheeled onto the set a wagon loaded with 67 pounds of fat to demonstrate how much weight she had lost. After a few more fleshy fluctuations, she showed off her toned 160-pound body in 2005 but in 2009 admitted to being back up to 200 pounds.
Winfrey’s challenges resonated with Erik Chopin, the winner of The Biggest Loser’s third season. Chopin dropped 214 pounds on the program but later revealed on Winfrey’s show that he had regained half the weight and tipped the scales at 315 pounds. Other Biggest Loser contestants also appeared on Oprah, pulling in viewers as they discussed their struggle to stay svelte, more often than not a losing battle. Not among Winfrey’s guests was former contestant turned motivational speaker Bill Germanakos, who lost 164 pounds and gained $250,000 on The Biggest Loser and has kept the weight off. He says of the show, “It’s not meant to teach people what to do.… It’s entertainment.” The program’s millions of viewers would certainly agree.
Diet plans and formerly fat actors are a good fit. Sitcom stars Kirstie Alley and Valerie Bertinelli have touted the Jenny Craig weight-loss program, and singers Marie Osmond and Janet Jackson have shilled for Nutrisystem. Jennifer Hudson, an Academy Award winner (for Dreamgirls) who first gained fame as an American Idol contestant, shed 80 pounds on the Weight Watchers regimen and has served as the company’s spokesperson.
It seemed only natural that Hudson would plug Weight Watchers on The Oprah Winfrey Show, sharing her slimming story with the world’s most prominent diet backslider. The megastar host is also a powerful voice against emotional overeating. Tears flowed as Hudson discussed the 2009 birth of her son, David, and the loss of her mother, brother and nephew in a 2008 shooting. Most of the airtime, though, went to a happier description of Hudson’s switch to sensible eating and exercising, and the audience went wild when she revealed that she had gotten more than 70 friends and relatives onto the Weight Watchers bandwagon. Not to be outdone, Winfrey gave each member of the audience three one-year Weight Watchers memberships to share with their friends.