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Weight-loss memoirs, TV shows offer hope to people struggling with weight, but at what cost?

| Monday, March 31, 2008

NEW YORK -- Kaeli Madill is obsessed with dieting.

She subscribes to magazines like Self, Shape and Runner's World for their "I-Lost-40-Pounds" success stories. She watches pound-shedding transformations on "The Biggest Loser." She flips through diet books and buys those with glowing testimonials.

"It makes me feel like I can do it," says Madill, 26, who lives in Saskatchewan, Canada and is trying to lose 60 pounds. "If I get discouraged, I look at one of those stories, and say that person did it. That person had results, so in time, I'm going to have results, too."

These days, Madill has plenty of places to find inspiration. Personal weight-loss success stories are cropping up in magazines, on television, on blogs and in long-form memoirs, and seem to be resonating among the more than two-thirds of Americans who are overweight or obese.

Actress Valerie Bertinelli, who lost 40 pounds on Jenny Craig, was No. 1 on the Publishers Weekly best-seller nonfiction hardcover list last week for "Losing It: And Gaining My Life Back One Pound at a Time."

"Part of what draws you to a memoir is your ability to empathize and relate to these people and their lives," says Liz Perl, vice president and publisher of Rodale Books, whose many titles include "South Beach Diet" and "The Abs Diet."

"Clearly, many Americans can empathize and relate to what it's like to lose control of your weight and your health."

While diet experts acknowledge the stories can be inspiring, they say reading and watching so many testimonials also can be problematic.

Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, says he sees opportunity and risk. The narratives might inspire people to shed pounds themselves -- but the weight-loss techniques shown in books and elsewhere might not be nutritionally safe.

There is no "one size fits all" approach to weight loss, says Dr. Robert Kushner, medical director of diet.com's premium membership, who worries people might try to pattern themselves after the successful dieter.

"You can follow one program after another, and none of it works for you," he says. "You can end up being more frustrated. There's no filtering (with these stories). There's no one saying, 'Results vary; this may not work for you, read it with caution.' "

To their credit, some of the memoirs stay away from endorsing diet and exercise plans.

Susan Blech, who documents her 250-pound-and-counting weight loss in "Confessions of a Carb Queen," writes about her binge eating along with the Rice Diet Program she followed --where participants eat at "The Rice House" but don't center their diet on rice. She notes that some parts of the program did not work for her and that she is not getting "monetarily paid" by the outpatient treatment center in Durham, N.C.

In "Hungry: Lessons Learned on the Journey from Fat to Thin," Allen Zadoff writes about his overeating as a part of a larger problem -- an undiagnosed food addiction. And Jennette Fulda, author of the upcoming "Half-Assed: A Weight-Loss Memoir," writes that she doesn't want people to believe there is "one magic cure-all diet."

But many magazines do offer specific diet and exercise plans, along with details about how a person lost weight.

Most of this obsession stems from frustration, say diet experts. About 41 percent of Americans are trying to lose weight, according to a Consumer Reports telephone survey conducted last year. Most people who lose will regain. So, when someone loses a large amount of weight, it's almost as though she has broken a code.

Yo-yo dieter Trista Blouin, 35, of Pensacola, Fla., has been dieting since she was 16. Her library of diet books dates back to Susan Powter.

"It's very discouraging," says Blouin, whose goal is to lose 70 pounds. When a new book comes out, "I think to myself, 'Maybe this will be it.' "

Discouragement could be a byproduct of so many success stories focused on huge -- and unusual -- amounts of weight loss, Kushner says. He also takes issue with shows like "The Biggest Loser," because they make weight loss a competition.

"I think that is the antithesis of what we are trying to convey as a health-care community," says Kushner, also a professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "Weight loss is not a game or a sport."

Most of the memoir authors say their goal was to inspire -- not dish out dieting advice.

"I think whether it be Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, whether it be any diet program, it's about building a community around you and leaning on your friends and your loved ones," Bertinelli said in an interview.

"I spent so much time going through all of the hardships thinking I was so alone," she added. "Had I just reached out, I would have realized I wasn't as alone as I thought I was."

Blech echoes that sentiment in her author's note: "I've written this book with my sister, because for a long time, I felt very alone, and no one should feel that alone and scared and ashamed."

"This is a book that is not only going to help people but inspire them to want to live the kind of life they want to live," she says in an interview.

In the long run, it's clear that dieters need more than inspiration to be successful, says Judith Beck, author of "The Beck Diet Solution," which teaches cognitive techniques to help people stay on a diet, lose weight and maintain the weight loss. The inspiration may last days and even weeks, but what happens when dieting gets hard again?

"It's a bit like reading inspirational biographies of musicians," Beck says. "It might inspire you to learn how to play the piano or conduct the orchestra, but unless you learn the skills of how you do it, it's not going to matter very much."

Fat no more

A new crop of weight-loss memoirs capitalize on a national obsession:

"Joining the Thin Club: Tips for Toning Your Mind after You've Trimmed Your Body" by Judith Lederman and Larina Kase (July 2007): Lederman, who lost 80 pounds, and Kase, a clinical psychologist, dish out tips including how to create new goals, deal with food cravings and shop for a new wardrobe.

"Winning After Losing: Keeping Off the Weight You've Lost -- Forever" by Stacey Halprin (May 2007): Actress and author Stacey Halprin shares her story of losing more than 350 pounds through surgery and offers a "unique and practical" program with advice from experts on maintaining weight loss.

"Half-Assed: A Weight-Loss Memoir" by Jennette Fulda. (May 2008): Fulda, who blogs at pastaqueen.com , writes about her 200-pound weight loss. She focuses not on dieting -- but adopting a healthier lifestyle.

"Losing It: And Gaining My Life Back One Pound at a Time" by Valerie Bertinelli (February 2008): Bertinelli, who lost 40 pounds on Jenny Craig, writes about her life as an actress, wife to guitarist Eddie Van Halen, motherhood, her relationship with her family and her public struggle with weight.

"Hungry: Lessons Learned on the Journey from Fat to Thin" by Allen Zadoff (November 2007): Zadoff chronicles 28 years of fighting a war against "food, fat and my body," detailing his relationship with food, his diagnosi s as a food addict and the strategies for recovery that led to his 150 pound weight loss.

"Moose: A Memoir of Fat Camp" by Stephanie Klein (May 27, 2008): Klein shares her experience growing up as an overweight child, with cruel classmates and a thin mother.

"Confessions of a Carb Queen: The Lies You Tell Others & the Lies You Tell Yourself: A Memoir" by Susan Blech with Caroline Bock (December 2007): Blech writes an open and honest account about her life as a morbidly obese person, touching on taboo topics like eating binges and sex as a fat person. She chronicles losing 250 pounds.

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