Weighty Matters

CAROUSEL - Security guards at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan are seen dressed as Afghan nationals. The guards reportedly used the costumes to patrol the streets of Kabul, even though they are not trained or authorized to do so.
CBS
It's a new year, which means dieting seems to be on everyone's plate.

For many of us, says Tracy Smith on CBS News Sunday Morning, losing weight is the same resolution we made last year.

And no wonder.

You've heard the numbers – 64 percent of adults in this country are either obese or overweight. That's about 175 million people.

We're fat, and getting fatter every year. The average American adult today is seven to ten pounds heavier than in 1990, tipping the scales at 180 pounds for a 5 foot 9 inch man and 154 pounds for a 5 foot 4 inch woman.

Even President Bush, one of the fittest presidents ever to jog around the White House, has been informed by his doctors that he's a little chunky. After his annual physical, Mr. Bush said, "My New Year's resolution has become apparent after getting on the scales."

But if the president turns to one of the popular diets for help, the odds he'll lose weight and keep it off are -- slim.

A report out Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that, while most diets can be moderately successful if followed for a year, hardly anyone does: Fully 75 percent of people who start a diet give up, long before a year is up.

And so, while the latest fad might tantalize you with visions of looking like a model, most of us, no matter how hard we try, or how much we spend, still look like, well, not a model, to be sure.

Perhaps no one knows the truth behind the fiction of those images better than model Christine Alt. In the 1980s, Christine and her supermodel sister, Carol Alt, had the look most women could only dream about: very slim.

But for Christine and, she says, the public, that perfection was an illusion. "I remember one time," she told Smith, "going about ten days without eating. I lived on flavored seltzer water."

When she was a size 4, Christine Alt says, "I felt very tired. I was very crabby. My family had a nickname for me I can't repeat on TV. It rhymes with 'witch,' " she laughed. "I was tired, I was irritable. I was hungry all the time. I was very, very unhappy."

Christine Alt stopped starving herself, went from a size 4 to a size 14, and began a second career -- as a "plus-size model."

And says she's happy and healthy now.

Americans, she believes, aren't failing their diets -- diets are failing America: "It's a moneymaker. They prey on our desire to be something that we will never be. …And even if we lose 40 or 50 pounds and get down to the size we've always wanted to be, the odds of us staying at that size are so remote. Because once you get off that diet and start eating like a normal person, you are going to gain weight back."

Still, notes Smith, no matter what size we are, at some point, many of us look at ourselves and think, man, I really could stand to lose a few pounds.

But with evidence mounting that most popular diets just don't work in the long run, a growing number of Americans, tired of obsessing over the few pounds they never seem to lose, are taking a radical new approach: They're mad as hell, and they're just not going to diet anymore."

"The word 'fat' to me is not a dirty word," says Wendy Shanker, author of "The Fat Girl's Guide to Life." "I love the word 'fat.' "

So, asks Smith, "I can call you fat, and you're fine with that?"

"Well, I am fat!" laughs Shanker. "I would like to be able to use the word 'fat' just like you use the word 'thin.' Thin means not a lot of fat on the body. Fat means a lot of fat on the body."

Wendy Shanker, says Smith, is a pioneer of sorts. She's fat -- and happy. That may sound insensitive, Smith observes, "but I assure you she doesn't mind. She uses the 'F' word herself – proudly, in the title of her book."

"I wrote this book," Shanker says, "because I had to. Because I was so angry, and because I felt it was so important for people to hear the message that I was finally hearing for myself. When all you hear in your life is that you're not okay, and that you're ugly and you're lazy and you don't work hard enough, you don't care much, and you could be better, then for somebody to say, 'No, you're good. You're good!' is radical."

What's radical is her conviction that for most people, diets are doomed from the start, because they're rooted in denial. "That's like, Biblical. That's, 'Hey, Eve, don't eat that apple,' " Shanker laughs. "It's the first diet in history, by the way. …(it wasn't) too successful. It's led to some problems."

Her book, which preaches living an active, healthy, though not necessarily "and thin" lifestyle, hs struck a chord.

Shanker says she's gotten hundreds of letters and e-mails: "They're just so incredibly moving. A woman said to me, 'My self-image is not perfect. But now, when I look in the mirror or think something self-loathing, there's a little Wendy in me that tells me enough of that. You are fine the way you are. Thanks for being the angel on my shoulder. We have much better things to do than worry about our abs. Let's change the world.' "

And, reports Smith, Shanker's not alone.

Glenn Gaesser of the University of Virginia urges, "Don't diet. Really: Don't diet. This has been proved time and time again, that it's just not successful in the long term. If diets were successful, we wouldn't need to make New Year's resolutions every single year."

Gaesser is an exercise physiologist and author of "Big Fat Lies: The Truth about Your Weight and Your Health."

"The biggest (lie)," he says, "is this notion that we have to be thin to be healthy. It's just not true. Healthy bodies come in all shape and sizes."

With abundant proof that, as the diet industry grows, so does our nation's waistline, Gaesser says it's obvious that it's time to stop thinking pounds and concentrate on fitness.

"Take a fat person with health problems," Gaesser advocates, "and put them on a lifestyle program that involves, let's say, some brisk walking, moderate intensity activity, clean up their diet, add more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and so forth; reduce a lot of saturated fat and junk food, and you will find, in a very short time, typically in a matter of weeks, their health's greatly improved. …yet, they still remain, by definition, overweight or obese. …It's easier to get a fat person fit than it is to get a fat person thin."

But before you throw your diet out the window, says Christine Alt, remember: There's no free lunch, and the "no diet" approach isn't a license to binge: "Let's be realistic here. If you have health problems and your doctor says you need to lose weight, then let's listen to what the doctor says. But if you're healthy, and somebody else is saying to you, 'You know, you got a pretty face. If you lost ten pounds…,' but you're happy with yourself and you have a healthy attitude, forget about what that person says. You know? Just live your life and don't let weight become such an obsession."

Most of all, say the Alts and Shankers and Gaessers of the world, we need to adopt a new approach to weight and fitness: one that isn't about denial, but instead is a gift -- to yourself -- one that can last a lifetime.