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News from the Front

by Jane R. Hirschmann

The war is on! A recent headline in Bloomberg News, an international paper which reports on financial markets, read "Industry Spotlight: Diet Plans Hunger for Cure for Slim Profits." According to this report the diet industry is hurting. Music to our ears.

Robinson Clark, who wrote the piece for Bloomberg News, reports that Jenny Craig® saw a drop in new enrollments last year reflected by an 84% decrease in earnings, from 25 cents a share a year ago to 4 cents a share now. Weight Watchers™ is also in trouble with a 10% drop in subscriptions in 1993. Meanwhile, Nutri/System®, the third largest diet chain, closed upwards of 300 centers in 1993. In all, the top 11 commercial chains now operate 14% fewer weight-loss centers than they did three years ago.

While commercial weight-loss programs are suffering, however, meal replacements, pills and anti-diet frauds are prospering. It is good business to claim that you want to "Stop the Insanity" and then turn around and offer another rigid diet plan. Susan Powter has grossed more than $100 million since 1992!

What is in store for the consumer? Nutri-System's CEO says, "Weight-loss centers have not kept up with changing consumer tastes, and don't offer positive lifestyle programs along with the more difficult cut down on eating plans." So there you have it. The best business plan is to cloak diets in more appealing garb.

John LaRosa, publisher of the Diet Business Bulletin, thinks the wave of the future is to open centers which offer more than diets. Capitalize on the fact that an enlightened public wants more for less money, he suggests. Offer health screening, stress management training, counseling, exercise, classes in nutrition and food planning. Make alliances with health facilities, hospitals and employer programs, and voilà, you will turn a profit.

On March 9, 1994, an article appeared in The New York Times entitled "Customizing a Diet to Stop the Yo-Yo." It reported on a center much like the one John LaRosa described as the prototype for the future survival of the diet industry. It is a weight management center which tailors individual plans for losing and maintaining weight and employs a team of physicians, psychologists, exercise physiologists, cooking instructors and stress management experts. The motto of the center is that weight loss is a lifelong proposition. Once again the old message—control rather than cure.

Bloomberg News also reported that "A nascent anti-dieting movement appears to be gaining a foothold. The number of people concerned with losing weight in the U.S. has leveled off at about 51 million." Since the number usually quoted is 80 million, that indicates a huge drop. In this article we are called "anti-diet preachers." Perhaps when you garner billions of dollars—like Jenny, Jean or Susan—you're considered an entrepreneur rather than a preacher.

Given this news, what is the task ahead? The political goal of The National Center for Overcoming Overeating is to join with others on the anti-dieting front to put the diet industry out of business. Imagine the day when if a doctor hands you a diet to follow because she or he thinks you need to lose weight, you file a malpractice suit. You file this suit because dieting is now considered extremely dangerous to your physical and mental health. Imagine what it would be like if no one in your immediate circle of friends or colleagues ever chatted about what was wrong with how they looked or how much weight they needed to lose. Imagine no one understanding the phrase "I pigged out."

As we move ahead to bring the diet industry to its knees, we must be alert to the many ways in which the anti-diet slogan is easily co-opted. Recently we were asked to give a talk at a diet industry conference aimed at helping the industry get back on its feet. The organizer of the conference could not understand why we refused to speak. His logic went like this: Wouldn't it be better for Jenny Craig, Nutri/System, Weight Watchers, etc., to hear from you? You could humanize their services. After all, they are not going out of business. With your input, couldn't they give better service and do less harm? We tried to tell him that we did not want to give the diet industry the tools to be less harmful to women. We want to render them altogether harmless. To do that we must get millions of women to stand up and say, "No More. No More Diets and No More Self-Abuse!"

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