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April 15, 2007

Is Your Diet Making You Fat?

Susie Orbach thinks so. She wants to overhaul your eating habits; and start a class action lawsuit against Weight Watchers International. The provocative British psychoanalyst, onetime therapist of Princess Diana, and current adviser to the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, talks with Arianne Cohen.

a ham sandwich being weighed on a scale

Photo Credit: James Baigrie/James Baigrie

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Q: Why are you organizing a suit against Weight Watchers International?

A: If dieting worked, you'd only have to do it once. Weight Watchers, like most diet companies, depends on repeat customers. When I went on a Weight Watchers program in the U.K., I was told it had a 97 percent recidivism rate.

Q: But is that the company's fault? Aren't dieters responsible for their own choices?

A: I believe that companies have to have social responsibility. Weight Watchers is saying, "We have a solution for you." But the very solution it offers often promotes compulsive eating. To me, that's false advertising.

Q: What is "compulsive eating"?

A: The definition is really wide: It's not eating in response to hunger, but instead eating with regard to a set of rules, which you then break. You might decide not to eat sweets and carbohydrates, and then rebel.

Q: Why do you think that diets should happen just once? I diet every year or so.

A: A diet allows you to lose weight, but it doesn't allow you to change your eating to sustain your weight loss. Weight Watchers' notion isn't connected to hunger or satisfaction. And there are very strong arguments that if you continually put your body into starvation mode, your metabolic "set point" doesn't get reset. Under normal circumstances, if you overeat or undereat, your metabolism slows down or speeds up to keep you at a stable weight. After constant dieting, that set point breaks.

Q: Are you saying that diets set women up to be fat?

A: There's plenty of evidence that diets may contribute to fat storage. So, yeah. Also, diets contribute to compulsive eating and give a sense that food is "dangerous" or "naughty." Deprivation creates conditions for rebellion.

Q: Describe your ideal diet company.

A: I'd have an anti-diet company to help women discover their physiological appetite and how to respond to it, and to understand the emotional meanings of fatness and thinness, because a lot of people are fat in their heads but aren't physically fat.

Q: So if a woman responds to her natural hunger, she'll reach a healthy weight?

A: Absolutely. Unless she's dieted for so many years that her set point is muck.

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