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article imageReview: 'The Men Who Made Us Thin'

By Alexander Baron     Aug 10, 2013 in Health
In the first episode of a four part series, Jacques Peretti tells us something we all know: diets don't work. Alas, some people never learn.
For those who can receive it, The Men Who Made Us Thin is currently on BBC iplayer. There is a lot in this hour long programme including an exposé of the root of the problem. Peretti has previously tackled the men who made us fat, and it appears the difference between the two is not that great.
As anyone who has ever tried to lose weight will realise, it is indeed possible to do so. People who are grossly overweight can usually take off much or even most of it, with will power and self-discipline. For most of us though, taking off a few pounds or even a stone is a realistic goal that can be attained. The trick is to keep it off, trick being the operative word.
As American psychologist Traci Mann says, the diet industry makes an enormous amount of money, but has very little success to show for it. The same can be said of spiritualism, which was born when two young sisters duped their parents and then the world. That has not stopped the likes of charismatic con man Uri Geller or the ludicrous Colin Fry from growing fat off other people's misery.
In this programme, Peretti covers the diet and weight loss industry on both sides of the Atlantic and the English Channel including celebrity endorsements, fad diets - Atkins and Dukan (Parlez-Vous Francais?) , WeightWatchers and the involvement of food companies, but the really important material appears near the beginning of the programme.
According to Traci Mann, people will take off weight, then will slowly put it on again, and a bit more besides. This will not be news to most people, nor is her empirical proof of this new, because in the 1940s, the ghoulishly titled Minnesota Starvation Experiment run by nutritionist Ancel Keys established this.
This finding was confirmed by another academic half a century ago. Emeritus Professor Jules Hirsch is still going strong today; he tells Peretti that all diets work for a while, but two years down the line...This is because the human body reacts to the reduced intake of food. So why do we have a diet industry, he is asked? Why indeed.
The second important revelation of this programme - and it will be a revelation to some - is the work of statistician Louis Dublin. Dublin worked for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company as an actuary. For entirely legitimate purposes related to his work, he created what in medical terms is an arbitrary average weight at the age of 25, a figure that was applied across the age groups. He did not consider other factors, such as the three body types: ectomorph, endomorph and mesomorph - none of which is mentioned in this programme.
The uncritical acceptance of Dublin's figures - which are related purely to insurance, ie finance - led to the American Government shaping its health policy accordingly, and to the birth of the modern dieting industry. Nothing more need be said, but then came fashion trends that demanded an ultra-thin look, which hooked millions of women on dieting.
The first mass market dieting product was launched in 1959: Metrecal. Peretti meets the woman who wrote the original advertising copy for it, Jane Maas, who says the advertising business fanned rather than created the slimming business.
Fifty-four years on, the flames need little fanning as our governments continue to tell us we are obese - redefining the term to mean just a few pounds overweight rather than grossly so, as it once meant. So should people be bothered if they are overweight? If you want to live forever, check out Aubrey de Grey, otherwise, eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow...
More about Jacques Peretti, Obesity, Dieting, ancel keys, jane maas
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