The Obesity-Industrial Complex of North America

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The relentless obesity epidemic in North America has turned into a cash cow for fast-thinking obesity ‘experts’ scattered all over the continent. These ‘experts’, make Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex look like a walk in the park. Most of these weight-loss messiahs are either physicians, or paramedical professionals who run around North America with their bullhorns touting their discovery of the Holy Grail of obesity cures. Their work is made much easier as the stigma associated with obesity forces most obese people to cling to the promises of these ‘experts’ like a traveler clutches his water bottle on a trek across the Sahara Desert.

Dr. Atkins ruled the airwaves from the seventies through the nineties, until it was discovered at his death, that his biophysical profile and health records did not match all the highfalutin promises of obesity cure and cardiovascular health that he dished out to his teeming followers, who spent their hard-earned dollars and savings snatching up his books and products from store shelves across the country. His sky-high influence hit rock bottom after that discovery.

Then Dr. Phil, a tough-talking psychologist, one of Oprah Winfrey’s protége who had no training whatsoever in obesity research suddenly became the obesity ‘expert’ of North America. This psychologist, oblivious of research findings on the genetic and environmental underpinnings of obesity, loudly claimed that obesity was due to poor exercise of willpower.

He dished out advice, wrote cookbooks, promised obese people instant cures for their weight problem. And the crowd trooped after him like the unsuspecting children followed the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Then one day, it hit the somnolent public that this man wasn’t as skinny as a Kenyan marathoner. In fact, as they took a closer look at him they noticed that the more he peddled his obesity cures, the wider his gait got. And their jaws dropped.

Suddenly, the infuriated public turned on him and rained lawsuits on him like the arrows of a medieval army. Almost overnight, he stopped writing books on obesity cures, ended his obesity lecture circuits, and went back to hosting shows on dysfunctional relationships and marriages.

North America heaved a sigh of relief, but not for long.

Now, another of Oprah Winfrey’s protégé has taken over the airwaves and is dishing out advice on obesity remedies and how to attain the shape of runway models  with his prescriptions. Dr. Oz discusses products on his shows, but says that he does not endorse products. However, as soon as he mentions a particular weight-loss item on air, the gullible public breaks out in a stampede and empties all the grocery shelves across North America of these products.

He claims that he does not want to endorse products because of conflict of interest. But, is that true? For as soon as he is done discussing one of these products, the manufacturers cut out the appropriate segments and start spamming the entire nation with infomercials claiming that America’s top doctor has endorsed their products. Then the vicious cycle sets in, for these companies and/or their affiliates now find a reason to sponsor and promote Dr. Oz’s shows and businesses, while he continues to recommend, but not endorse, more and more products on air.  And thus, the obesity industrial complex grows from strength to strength.

But is the public missing something? How can a top doctor vouch for the efficacy of a product and not endorse it? Why would a ‘top obesity expert’ not publish his research findings in high-impact, peer-reviewed journals and present his ‘groundbreaking research’ on obesity at scientific meetings? Is it really true that his reason for not endorsing these therapies and products is because of conflict of interest? I don’t think so.

Here’s the truth: none of these products will work consistently in the long term. Users can gain some short-term placebo effect from these products, but that effect will not last. This is why he is afraid to endorse these products. He knows in his heart that these products will fail and the irate public will wake up one morning and drown him in lawsuits just like they did to his co-traveler, Dr. Phil. So he is playing it safe, but still making money for himself and his sponsors and in the process keeping the obesity industrial complex going.

Every scientific researcher working in the obesity field knows that adiposity is a complex problem. Without going into the complex regulatory systems that control body weight and the role of fat cells in human metabolic pathways, I can tell you that no researcher has all the answers to the obesity puzzle.  The only difference is that these intelligent researchers are busy studying the problem of obesity in laboratories around the country, and discussing their research at scientific meetings, while the weight-loss messiahs of North America are running around the continent peddling their obesity-curing snake oil.

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