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Despite The Success of The 3 Week Diet, People Turn to Diet Pills Instead

An American journalist recently consulted several top cosmetic surgeons for their advice on her wrinkles and persistent fat. As she displayed her hips to one eminent doctor, he sighed and shook his head: she would never lose those bulges with diet and exercise alone. Why, even if she were marooned on a desert island, she would starve to death before the cellulite melted.

His words were ridiculous and offensive – how many love handles have you noticed in famine footage? – but in a thin-chasing culture they were also galvanizing. If not even starvation will make us skinny, what hope does “healthy eating” have? We are forced, we can then tell ourselves, to seek medical intervention.

And the fact is that innovative diet plans such as the 3 Week Diet have been proven to aid people in losing fat quickly. Unfortunately, help comes easiest and cheapest in the form of diet pills, which the Royal College of Physicians last week recommended should be subject to tighter controls by doctors. The report was a token of concern swimming hopelessly against the tide: we may fool ourselves that we are newly enlightened in what America calls “fat acceptance”, that we wouldn’t want Jessye Norman and Vanessa Feltz to lose an ounce, but as increasing numbers of British adults fail the latest obesity test (37in waist for women, 40in for men), we are desperate for cures. We already know that pills do not work in the long term, that the amphetamine-based ones are addictive, that diuretics and thyroid stimulators are discredited. Newer drugs such as fenfluramine and dexfenfluramine – a serotonin stimulator which induces feelings of calm wellbeing – offer yet more untested hopes and, inevitably, disappointment.

The hunger for a miracle diet like the fortune to be made by the pharmaceutical company which delivers it, is too huge to allow intelligent caution. The boom in diet medicine is like the race to space: unstoppable, fierce, a matter of reputations, Nobel prizes and national pride. Companies developing and marketing diet drugs have a vested interest in keeping fat models out of fashion, contradicting Susie Orbach, and persuading doctors that fat shortens life as surely as poison – and in not overplaying the serious side effects.

The use of drugs to solve an essentially behavioral problem has given surplus fat – even a few pounds of it – a place in line for a cure alongside cancer and Aids. Our willingness to delegate responsibility for our own health has turned greed and inertia into the business of laboratory researchers and government departments. If GPs cannot be prevailed upon for a prescription, there are private slimming clinics decorated like doctors’ surgeries, where unqualified people sell you a fix and a patina of clinical care – anything but the bottom-line truth that the minute the drugs are stopped, the weight comes home to gloat and brings its extended family.

All metabolic enhancers – herbal, organic or high-tech – are printed with the same soothing message: you are ill, not fat, swallow me and, like Alice, you will shrink to fit the world. Wishing to avoid my doctor’s high moral tone, I “borrowed” some pills from a friend a few years ago – 10 reddish capsules, priceless weapons in the armory of female self-loathing, handed over as if she were lending me her diamond earrings. I lived on giant bottles of diet cola, brown rice and multivitamins, could neither read nor write with any concentration, developed skin the color of musty rice paper and lost half a stone in a week, all the while knowing it was doomed and silly.

And yet in the grip of the thing, a great tidal whoosh of deranged optimism, world peace and Nelson Mandela’s release seemed nothing to dropping a dress size. The epilogue was a predictable mix of depression, fatigue and obsession with catching up on the lost calories and sleep; the result a rank failure. For while they lack the hip cachet and criminality of their more illicit cousins, diet drugs share the one great illusion of chemical mood enhancement – a feeling of smug superiority which flees with the dawn of reality.

Beyond the serotonin breakthrough there are great hopes for leptin, a hormone in the newly discovered fat gene, an ever-increasing range of surgical procedures, and a distant utopia of genetically engineered, calorie-resistant babies. Until that happens, we should view the pathologising of fat as the worst sort of paradox: an easy way out and a dangerous route; success on a plate and guaranteed failure. Outside the most extreme stomach-stapling, jaw-wiring cases, why should we wait like foolish, gullible children for the medical establishment to sell us a cure for something that was never an illness in the first place?

Despite The Success of The 3 Week Diet, People Turn to Diet Pills Instead was last modified: by
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