“A User’s Guide to Cheating Death” is a documentary series that casts light on increasingly controversial procedures, diets and revived ancient therapies that are being sought by people desperate to dramatically alter their bodies or radically improve their health, and the booming industries that are more than happy to accept their business.
In this series, health law professor, writer and debunker-extraordinaire Timothy Caulfield dives deep into the science, and the social issues behind today’s cutting-edge health trends in order to separate the truly good advice from the excess of high-priced placebos.
Obesity is one of America’s biggest public health concerns. Two thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. The pressure to lose weight is intense and many are turning to surgical means to achieve results. The issue is even affecting children as kids as young as 13 undergo extreme surgeries to deal with their weight. Weight Loss Tourism is a huge market. Places like Tijuana, and Dubai’s Talise Bay offer the most luxurious spas in the world, that double as weight loss packages, including an on-site team of medical doctors, personal trainers and a wellness chef ready to provide personalized care throughout your stay.
In connection with the fourth episode of A User’s Guide to Cheating Death, “Slimming Down”, we asked Tim about why celebrities lead their fans toward questionable dieting methods and why people don’t do enough research.
Q: What motivated you to explore the hot-button subject of dieting/fitness mythology, and what people are willing to do to slim down?
Tim: “This is a complex topic. Obesity is a significant public health issue right now. And despite a great deal of policy attention, the problem isn’t going away. At the same time, there is massive weight loss industry, confusing us about what works, what our motivations for weight loss should be and what it means to be healthy. It’s a mess out there! We hope the show helps to clarify things a bit.”
Q: Why do you think a chunk of people fail to deeply research diet and fitness plans that may have adverse, or zero impact whatsoever, on their health?
Tim: “We would all like a simple answer! We would all like to believe that there is some strategy that would make sustained weight loss easier. Also, the public pressure to slim down is intense. And many of the trendy diets often have intuitive appeal. Perhaps it is some specific macronutrient or eating pattern that is the problem? But can you name a fad diet, even one, that, over the long term, has proved to work?”
Q: Why are celebrities letting their fans down by peddling suspect/fictitious health and wellness methods?
Tim: “Well, some just want to sell products. But I think many probably believe it works. I bet Tom Brady believes his evidence-free diet plan really works and that he is sharing with the world a secret strategy. Remember, celebrities are under intense pressure to look good and, often, stay slim. And they are attractive anecdotes that often have a compelling story about weight loss. But always remember, a testimonial is not good evidence, even if it comes from Tom Brady.”
Q: It seems as if the diet and fitness industry prey on peoples insecurities. What can we as a society do to change the narrative?
Tim: “While we have a long way to go, I seen some improvements in this area. There is growing recognition about the adverse impact of weight bias on individual and public health. Many are taking greater care about how they talk about obesity and how individuals are portrayed. The fact that sustained weight loss is so tough and that we do want to encourage people to adopt healthy lifestyles makes this a tough balance – but I hope we are moving in the right direction.”
Q: What is the weirdest diet or fitness fad you’ve tried, believing it would work for you? What did you learn from this experience?
Tim: “Well, this one wasn’t for weight loss, but it is kind of ridiculous. When I was cycling I was into carbo loading. Remember that trend? I was a mediocre (very) racer with a local Edmonton club. It wasn’t like I was competing in the Tour de France. Looking back, I think it was an excuse to eat lots of bagels and pasta!”