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The Institutional Problems With Weight Loss

In the late 2000s a company named Sensa entered the weight loss market, promising a product that would finally help people lose weight. You’d sprinkle Sensa crystals onto your meals, just like you would salt, and your appetite would be significantly reduced. You could still eat your favourite foods without counting calories; the crystals would ensure you just didn’t eat as much as before. It was a breakthrough in dieting biotechnology… or so it claimed. There was one problem. It didn’t work.

In 2014, Sensa was charged with deceptive advertising by the Federal Trade Commission and was ordered to pay $26.5 for customer refunds. It wasn’t the first time and certainly wasn’t the last time a weight loss scam appeared on the market. Given that over 1 billion people worldwide are obese and the problems of overweight and obesity cost the global economy trillions of dollars per year, failures in weight loss are very much an institutional problem embedded in business, education and society.

For many people the system has let us down for far too long. Whether it is fat loss or health in general, the volume and complexity of contradictory information from so-called reputable sources will make your head spin. Add into the mix the plethora of influencers, many of whom are on steroids, and who have little-to-no qualifications, education or training in any health-related discipline, advice is packaged for the purpose of views and sales, not utility.

For those yo-yo dieting for years on end, losing weight and regaining it, the blame is often placed on the dieter themselves for their lack of willpower and ‘not wanting it enough’. The demoralisation is compounded by having put in so much effort, only to be worse off than when they started, and being bombarded by success stories of people who’ve supposedly lost weight and kept it off. Not only is misinformation a problem, but the packaging of products is also a culprit. Innumerable books, pills, powders and training programs claim to be the weight loss product you’ve been waiting for.

A clickbait weight loss ad that says "How I lost 25 lbs of fat in 2 weeks with this new weight-loss miracle herb!". Image of a before and after waistline, showing considerable weight loss.
If you see an ad like this, run far away.

The system lets us down further when we learn that the health institutions we trust are compromised. Between 2010-2015, Coca-Cola contributed $3.2 million to the American College of Cardiology, $3 million to the American Academy of Pediatrics, $1.8 million to the American Cancer Society, $1.1 million to the American Dietetic Association and $672,000 to the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. Can we trust our institutions to provide credible information if they’re being lobbied by Big Soda?

While there are certainly health practitioners out there whose aim is to provide the public with accurate, up-to-date weight loss information, many are drowned out by those offering quick, unsustainable solutions. A possible consequence is brain drain of competent professionals in an industry that’s increasingly being seen as corrupt. The personal trainer industry is a relevant example. While there are PTs who’ve gained knowledge, experience and qualifications, bolstered by having worked with a plethora of clients, there are also a considerable number of PTs who lack knowledge and expertise. Having acquired their qualifications through diploma mills, the outcome is a batch of personal trainers who have no real grasp of training, nutrition and the behavioural aspects weight loss.

A PT’s job should be to help and teach their clients how to lose weight sustainably. Unless motivation and accountability are the primary factors in hiring a PT, the PT’s job is to train clients up to a point where they don’t need a trainer anymore. However, there’s an inherent conflict of interest when the client is the PT’s source of income. Why would a PT educate a client if it means the PT loses money? Its a regular sight at commercial gyms to see clients train with PTs for months and even years on end without any noticeable progress. A solution to this chronic problem involves making personal trainer qualifications more exclusive, requiring more years of study and experience to earn the responsibility to make decisions that impact a client’s health. Ultimately PTs will gain more business by developing reputations as professionals who help clients achieve sustainable weight loss, even after they stop working together.

Personal trainer with a client doing crunches.
Many personal trainers have been criticised for not having sufficient knowledge to help their clients.

Weight loss is also a problem when society works against the people. Unicorns such as Uber and DoorDash are hailed for their convenience and serve as examples of disruptive technologies, but their impact on further entrenching our sedentary lifestyles is neglected. Many of us live in ‘obesogenic’ societies. We have access to highly processed, palatable, high calories foods within a short distance of our homes and workplaces; a stark difference to the food availability of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Our environment is geared toward overconsumption, particularly when healthy diets are more expensive than unhealthy ones.

This leaves many people having to traverse a sea of complex information and advice that is either unintentionally inaccurate due to a lack of expertise or deliberately so as a result of corporate funding. Unscrupulous businesses leech on desperation, compounded by multiple failures of nutritional products and exercise programs that claim to be the holy grail of weight loss. And society continues to facilitate unhealthy eating and overconsumption. While sustainable weight loss is certainly achievable, there are a variety of institutional problems the world has to overcome before overweight and obesity can be kept in check and the trillions of dollars spent on this epidemic can be saved.

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