Closeup/Health

A lean and hungry look

Who cares about being fat? Who doesn’t?

Kaspars Dzeguze July 24 1978
Closeup/Health

A lean and hungry look

Who cares about being fat? Who doesn’t?

Kaspars Dzeguze July 24 1978

A lean and hungry look

Closeup/Health

Who cares about being fat? Who doesn’t?

Kaspars Dzeguze

Janine MacDonald was helping with the dinner dishes at her mother’s home in Burlington, Ontario, when it began the second time. The lightheadedness, the faintness that had overwhelmed her the previous day was returning with a rush. The 25-year-old woman slumped to the floor and drifted into unconsciousness. At nearby Joseph Brant Hospital, Dr. Edward Kwong was on emergency duty when the ambulance brought her in. He noted her deteriorated condition—he would later testify at the coroner’s inquest that she was on the border line of starvation—though the immediate problem was with her heart.

The beat was weak and remained stubbornly erratic despite Kwong’s efforts to correct it. At 5:45 the next morning, October 24, 1977, it failed altogether. An autopsy revealed that myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, was the immediate cause of death. But the inquest held at the end of May this year confirmed in detail what Kwong had surmised at a glance— the woman was indeed starving when she died.

Starving, in fact, on a self-imposed diet of tea, coffee and water, supplemented only by eight tablespoons a day of liquid protein—a vile solution often made from chewed-up hides of pigs and cattle—which has erupted as the biggest fad diet since the “rainbow pills” (a spectrum of uppers and downers) of a decade ago. The diet was based on a cover-to-cover reading, her mother recalled, of the liquid protein dieter’s bible, the ironically titled The Last Chance Diet, by Dr. Robert Linn, an osteoid path (not MD) whose approximation of a

1970 Harvard medical school experiment

I has become a best-seller with over two mil-

lion copies in print.

Another fad diet, the latest in a string to have caught the fancy of North America’s thinness-obsessed millions. More dangerous than most, perhaps—at least 44 liquid-protein-related deaths were reported in the United States last year—but nonetheless typical of the popular misconceptions that bedevil experts in the field of weight control: Dr. Norman Saunders, for example, supervising pediatrician at the adolescent clinic in Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. He’s frightened by liquid protein diets and chagrined by fads that dangle the promise of easy ^thinness. “There seem to be millions of bopks, all professing to have the magic solution, the easy answer,” laments Saunders. “That offends me. There should be more professionalism among doctors. They know—if they know anything at all—that long-term weight loss can only be gained by hard work and by being hungry.”

The trouble is, even Janine MacDonald’s diet was a success.. .of sorts: she was down to half the 278 pounds she weighed before starting her diet, five months previously. The Burlington inquest brought out similarities to the American deaths, especially 15 of the 44 for which there was no apparent medical examination. All 15 were women who’d been on liquid protein an average of five months; the majority had experienced lightheadedness or fainting while losing an average of 83 pounds. Of 13 autopsies performed, seven showed evidence of myocarditis. Even so, medical experts directed the Burlington coroner’s jury to conclude there was “no clear cause and effect” between her diet (a liquid sold under the name Pro

Win, prepared by the C. E. Jamieson Co. of Windsor, Ontario ) and her death.

The jury did, however, recommend immediate action to warn the public of the potential dangers. It might as well try to separate the children of Hamelin from their Pied Piper. For even as the five jurors deliberated, Canadians across the country were tinkering with their bodies like so many weekend mechanics tuning the car, all in pursuit of the elusive goal of thinness. And most often, it’s the marginally obese—those carrying 15 to 25 pounds over their ideal weight—who hopscotch from one fad diet to another, despite the fact that Health and Welfare Canada has included the most popular among them on its list of “diets not recommended.” These include Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution, the Mayo Clinic Diet, the Calories Don’t Count diet and the Drinking Man’s Diet, as well as those perennial ladies’ favorites, the grapefruit and banana diets.

Though MDS are up in the air about the health dangers of moderate overweight— anything up to 20 per cent over “ideal” weight is no longer considered to affect longevity seriously—fashion arbiters are more determined than ever that fat defines the social pariah. That much was clear decades ago, when the Duchess of Windsor

ruled that you “can’t be too rich or too thin.”

Advertising has turned this faith of the rich into an opiate for the masses. It’s the Johnny Appleseed of the thinness movement, for regardless the product—lingerie or cement blocks—it’s sold by exceptionally slender models. During the tumultuous ’60s, even the “uglies” made it into some advertising prominence—to the extent that there was a modelling agency specializing in unattractive faces. But the fat—never!

In North America, the rewards for physiological conformity are handsome. Few can resist the pressure when osing a few pounds promises a new life. Consider what it did for Peggy-Anne Parsons. The resident of Gander, Newfoundland, signed up with Weight Watchers to learn sensible eating habits; she ended up losing 45 pounds and becoming Miss Newfoundland as well as semifinalist in the 1978 Miss Canada pageant. Why be a fat ugly duckling, the reasoning goes, when you’re really a slender swan?

Even AÍ (King of Kensington) Waxman’s comfortably paunchy portrayal of comfortably married Larry King has been upset by fashion. The new season depicts him as a bachelor, so his CBC contract requires Waxman to shed pounds to conform with the image and lifestyle associated with bachelors. And life at the top isn’t immune: viceregal Pauline McGibbon, lieutenant-governor of Ontario, is fond of the diet drink Sugar Free Tab, 80 per cent of which is consumed by the weight-conscious, and only 20 per cent by diabetics.

Even thin Canadians line up with the fat in the assembly-line offices of “fat doctors,” paying any amount and running un£ known health risks to shed a few pounds. 3 Many swear by their daily injection of HCG 2

(human chorionic gonadotrophin), about which the only thing that can be said with certainty is that it’s derived from the urine of pregnant women. For some people, HCG does “mobilize” fat that other diets don’t touch, but the $50 to $60 cost for a week of injections may be eclipsed by as-yet-unknown health complications.

For some people, try as they might, nothing works. Not willpower and fasting, nor HCG or any of those oils distilled from very slender snakes that are peddled by charlatans, medical and otherwise. Dr. Gilbert A. Leveille, of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Michigan State University, has reaffirmed the notion of metabolic differences as the factor which predisposes some people to be overweight and others thin while most are “normal.”

It’s when the body wants to go the luxuriant, fleshy way of a Reubens model that thinness necessitates a grim civil war with oneself, like Suzanne Thyer’s. The 25year-old Willowdale, Ontario artist and illustrator chooses to weigh 125 pounds though her body wants to weigh more. “I hate sitting in a bathtub and having ‘things’ floating around me,” she explains. “The problem is, I’m a thin fat person—naturally overweight. If I ate a normal diet I’d gain 20 pounds right away. My body’s natural weight seems to be 145. Friends still can’t believe how little I eat. Sometimes it gets me depressed.”

She has coped with the full range of weight problems all her life. In junior high school, she was so thin her nickname was “TV legs.” She had a brief respite as an attractive teen-ager of normal weight until she suddenly ballooned by 25 pounds. They’ve hung on her like an albatross ever since, leading her to crash diet and finally to the strenuous exercising which is now a way of life. She became strong enough to “dead-lift” a 180-pound barbell and spend

a year as an instructor at Vic Tanny’s.

Metabolic differences are entirely capricious and unjust. A naturally thin person can overeat consistently, but his body will simply refuse to process anything that's excess to its requirements. That may explain why Yanka, one of Canada’s top fashion models, finds it far easier to maintain the same weight as Suzanne Thyer—125 pounds—even though she’s fully four inches taller. Moreover. Yanka is relaxed and philosophical about her weight: “It might sometimes be handy for me to be five pounds lighter, but the aggravation to lose them isn’t worth the results,” she says. “People should enjoy life—so it’s no good being skinny but unhappy.”

Unhappiness is a mild psychological side effect to dieting that even normal, healthy people experience, according to Dr. Paul Garfinkel of the Psychosomatic Medicine Unit of Toronto’s Clarke Institute of Psychiatry: “Irritability and depression are common; often they’re the reason why people stop dieting.” What alarms Garfinkel and his colleagues is not the vast majority who can’t stick to a diet—fewer than five per cent of the obese people who ever go on a diet keep their weight off for a minimum of two years—but the evergrowing minority of schoolgirls in the 12to 25-year range who set out to lose just five pounds but never stop.

Anorexia nervosa is a self-imposed starvation through which young women

attempt to show their mastery of themselves—often in the hope that they can keep their bodies from accelerating down the road to unwanted womanhood. The condition affects about one schoolgirl in 100, Garfinkel says, and seems to be on the rise.

Many of the girls, who are almost invariably from upperand middle-class homes, have starved themselves to 70 pounds and still insist they’re too fat, Garfinkel says. “Both anorexics and the obese have a body-image disturbance: they don’t see their body size for what it is.”

“Liberation” has done nothing to release women from their bondage to fashionable thinness, if only because women are more inclined to fat than men. The data published in 1973 from the extensive Nutrition Canada survey showed that at least half of all Canadians are overweight; among women over 40, that figure is estimated at 65 to 87 per cent. What’s more, it’s growing all the time because average weights have increased, even in the past, fat-conscious decade—one pound for women and four for men, according to a 1977 U.S. Health and Welfare report. So there’s always a market for new fad diets, which appear like miracles every year or two, sweeping before them all the disillusioned fatties who were left as obese as

ever by the last, passing miracle. But fad diets, HCG and liquid proteins are, for most people, nothing but an exotic replacement for willpower.

It takes so little. The difference between the eating habits of normal and moderately overweight people almost defies measurement. Dr. Roy Shephard, professor of applied physiology at the University of Toronto, says that overweight in middle-aged people is typically “the result of a very small error—about 0.1 per cent— in matching what you eat to your energy needs.”

In fact, the overweight and the normal more often than not eat the same amount. The difference lies in the degree of activity. One study found that obese girls playing tennis are in motion 50 percent of the time, thin girls 90 per cent.

But abstinence and activity are the two cardinal sins of dieters in a consumer society. As Dr. George V. Mann of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, dourly observes, “The Holy Grail of Western medicine is a safe and comfortable way to lose excessive body fat . . . (one which permits) the fat fellow to continue his sloth and gluttony even as the treatment works.” That in a capsule is what the “fat industry” is all about: in a society based on consumption, it’s no wonder at all that the process for arriving at less fat should involve the purchase of more food than before: diet foods, appetite suppressants, and

of course liquid protein. Therapies of abstinence are not encouraged since they make no contribution to the industry. You can even pay not to get fed in a “Fasting Manor” that opened in Toronto a year ago.

Ben Lampert understands the fat industry as well as anyone. In the past two years he’s opened two Dieter’s World shops in Toronto which are crammed with the books, foods and appliances that the fat industry spews out in ever-greater abundance. “We’re not living in a moderate society,” explains the slender 30-year-old who has shed 40 pounds since he was “the original cookie monster” working as a product manager for Peek Frean. “Neither I nor my customers believe in self-denial. I won’t give things up, but I will substitute other things in their place. Why should I eat less when 1 can eat practically as much low-calorie diet food as I want?”

The value of the weight-control market in the U.S. has been estimated at $12 billion annually, encompassing clinics, spas, “fat farms,” diet books and pharmaceuticals, as well as therapeutic foods like liquid protein which came from nowhere to become an estimated $40-million-ayear item in the U.S. Dr. Gerard Leonard, who’s run a fat clinic in Montreal for 15 years, estimates the cost of losing weight at $8 to $ 10 per pound, “if you're really doing it.” On the basis of 15 pounds average overweight for half the country, the Canadian bill for reaching normal weight

would conservatively be $1.5 billion.

But there’s more to the fat industry than medical and pharmaceutical costs— the latter amounting to more than $120 million for anti-obesity preparations in 1977 for the U.S. alone. Many lines of diet foods swell the industry’s annual sales to mammoth proportions, especially since— as Lampert notes—the customers include not only those who are overweight but also those narcissistic calorie counters who are working hard to make sure they never get there.

That accounts for the staggering figure of 70 per cent of the people in a New York

survey who admitted they were concerned about their weight.

Consider one small part of the industry: Fifteen years ago. Weight Watchers began as a.kaffeeklatsch in Queen’s, New York, for women who wanted the AA-type support and reinforcement from their fellow fatties while they went about the lonely business of growing thin. Now the mammoth H. J. Heinz food company has offered $95 million to buy out Weight Watchers International (which has given courses and lectures to seven million people in 22 countries in sensible eating) and Foodways, a diet-food manufacturer licensed to use the Weight Watchers brand name. Heinz has seen the future, and the future is clearly fat. Inevitably the successor—the son of liquid protein fasting— is already in the works in the mind of some doctor or hustler. It may one day top the

4A million paperback copies of an all-time best-seller like Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution.

The new diet may even contradict the ones that went before, but that doesn’t seem to disqualify it or cast doubt on the competence of its author. Hobby dieters seem to accept as inevitable that one year’s best-selling diet will be displaced by another. It’s not even necessary to know whether the new fad will be a book, a food substitute or a “potentially hazardous” food theory—which is the American Medical Association’s opinion of the Atkins diet. To be a best-seller, it will invariably offer a fast, easy way to be slender—and maybe ht as well—w'ithout strain, effort or willpower, all in five or 10 minutes a day.

It’s enough to make Suzanne Thyer twist barbells into pretzels. Her whole life has been proof that perpetual motion is the price of slimness—and perpetual hunger, too. “It really bugs me when books and ladies' magazines claim you can have a fabulous figure with 10 minutes daily exercise. It’s just not true—not even if it's all strenuous cardiovascular exercise.”

Thyer exercises a minimum of four times a week—she runs, box-steps, swims and lifts weights—and still tends toward fat. “I’m on a diet for ever and ever,” she laments, “every day of my life. I’ll never get to eat desserts or sweet stuff, much less to drink beer, which I love more than anything in the world. I see thinness as a way of life.” Ä?