Diet du jour: Who wins? Who loses?

Americans spend $50 billion a year on weight-loss plans and products.

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It's that time of year, when signs of spring abound. Dirty snowbanks have melted. Canada geese are returning to suburban golf courses. And women's magazines are heralding a new season with - what else? - diets and promises of quick weight loss.

"Drop 10 pounds by spring," proclaims Family Circle, touting its "busy woman's diet." Elsewhere, a "can't-fail diet" claims that it will help readers "lose 20 pounds by spring." The cover of Woman's World crows: "Try the new miracle soup diet. Drop 9 pounds this week!" And Woman's Own claims it is possible to "Drop a dress size while you sleep."

What could be easier? Please pass the chocolates.

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Diets have long been a staple of women's magazines, with tantalizing promises of instant weight loss featured next to photos of rich desserts. The Family Circle cover promoting the "drop-10-pounds-by-spring" diet pictures a tempting "rosebud cake" as one of the issue's "divine desserts."

These headlines take on new timeliness in the context of a government-sponsored round table on diets last week. Nutrition experts gathered in Washington to debate the conflicting claims of various weight-loss regimens. High protein? Low fat? Participants couldn't agree, leading one pediatric nutritionist to state firmly, "Diets don't work."

That point of view won't stop the purveyors of weight-loss products and herbal supplements whose ads for "fat blasters" appear in magazines and TV infomercials. "Have you ever seen an overweight fish?" one ad asks. Sea animals never get fat, it explains, because their bodies contain a "fat-fighter" now available in "slimming capsules" that "soak up fat."

What a difference a century makes in attitudes toward ideal weight. In 1880, when plumpness was viewed as a sign of health, an advertisement for a patent medicine called Groves Tasteless Chill Tonic superimposed a man's head on a pig's body. "Makes children and adults as fat as pigs," the ad promised. The product had been on the market for more than 20 years, with 1-1/2 million bottles sold the previous year. Dissatisfied customers could get their 50 cents back.

Today the US Department of Agriculture estimates that Americans spend $50 billion a year on weight-loss plans and products. Yet dietary supplements, unlike prescription drugs, do not have to undergo rigorous testing. In 1994 an existing federal law was actually loosened, making it easier for herbal medicines to be marketed with only minimal standards for quality and safety.

Last fall, makers of the diet-drug combination fen-phen agreed to pay $3.75 billion to thousands of users after it was linked to heart problems. Although a group of Boston researchers challenged those findings, the settlement points up the need for scrutiny of diet drugs.

The government-sponsored diet debate represents one welcome first step in promoting realistic attitudes toward slimming.

In another encouraging sign, some women's magazines are taking a more responsible approach. In Redbook, a cover headline alerts readers to "A drugstore diet pill that can kill you." A McCall's feature, "The surprising diet 10 million women swear by," discusses a spiritually based approach to weight loss. And Ladies Home Journal asks, "Always hungry? Appetite tamers for body and soul."

Restaurant owners must also play a role. In recent years, portion sizes in restaurants have increased dramatically, but for what useful purpose?

As the Western world struggles with dietary excesses, an estimated 30 million people in developing countries die of hunger each year. Another 800 million face chronic malnutrition. One-fifth of the world's children receive too few calories. Yet the United Nations estimates that it would cost only $13 billion per year to provide enough food and clean water for the world's population - a quarter of the amount Americans spend to solve the problem of too much food.

With the right kind of collective effort, a better balance could be possible. What an achievement it would be if, by the time another spring rolls around, the the obsession with fad diets could yield to a concern for the undernourished, for whom "dieting" is an unknown word.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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