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A diet for fast weight loss is a pipe dream. So why do we all keep buying in?

Many of us want to lose weight without making permanent changes, because we view thinness instead of health as a success.
Image: Weight scale
Feet standing on weight scaleiStockphoto via Getty Images

There will always be someone ready to profit off the desperation of consumers, and that is precisely what any given get-thin-fast scheme intends to do. Whether it is a bottle of caffeine pills masquerading as fat burners, a series of drinks masquerading as a “detoxification system" or a multi-level marketing system so egregious that the FTC had to step in and levy fines against its creator, there is always someone looking to convince a person with a weight loss goal that there is an “easy” way to do it, and — for a load of cash, of course — they’ll show you how.

The scams are alluring because they’re promising something that can rarely be accomplished in real life: Weight loss with minimal effort.

It’s difficult to accept the truth because, to our eyes, the weight gain happened with minimal effort — a pound here, a pound there. Combined with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and a slowly decreasing metabolism that accompanies getting older, there is a sense that it should “fall off” as effortlessly as it came on.

This sense that weight loss should be effortless is magnified by persistent social obsession with thinness. Not only do we, as a culture, give unearned privileges and benefits to people simply because they are thin, but we also treat being overweight as a personal failure. A larger sized body is treated like its own scarlet letter.

Get-thin-quick schemes, which often manage to be excessively expensive as well as requiring extreme degrees of deprivation and unsustainable amounts of exercise, then seem like a way to rid ourselves of the vestiges of our sins and suffer for having committed them. There is this notion that remarkable results can be had, and that perhaps what’s wrong with us is that we haven’t gone far enough to get them.

What starts out as, at best, a search for the right answers to a healthy lifestyle turns into a desperate feeling of being willing to do anything to just lose the weight. Maybe we do need to “suffer,” we think. Maybe we do need to go to remarkable lengths in order to achieve that success of "thinness." Perhaps we just need to give up chewable food for four weeks in order to see the results we crave. For too many of us, after all, that’s what we did the last time we were able to make the scale move, and never mind the fact that we gained all that weight back immediately afterwards.

That’s what’s most troubling about the fever pitch of weight loss dogma — and I say this as a personal trainer and nutritionist who has had a weight loss journey of my own: The people who find themselves gravitating to these get-thin fast schemes were often in the same situation before, several times over. The yo-yo dieting cycle, encouraged by the media and exacerbated by people's lack of knowledge of what a healthy diet is, results in people losing a few pounds, slowly gaining it back plus a few more pounds, and then feeling an increased pull to lose even more next time. But with each swing, they feel as if they must do more than they did before to lose slightly more weight and really keep it off.

That is where the desperation, and the pull of the get-thin-quick scam comes in.

But many of the “lose 7 pounds in 7 days!” quotes we see on the covers of magazines aren’t entirely accurate, realistic, or feasible for the everyday person — much like most of our discourse around weight loss.

The diets contained in those pages can produce several-pound losses on the scale, but it’s not because of something magical that took place within those seven days: Many of those diets are simply high-fiber powerhouses, offering much-needed support to people who frequently need help being "regular" after long periods of eating high-carbohydrate diets rich in processed foods instead of vegetables. Anyone who hasn’t had a bowel movement in several days — which can happen to people who eat a lot of meat and potatoes and not a lot of salads — who then eats mostly vegetables for a week is bound to experience a drop on the scale.

It’s the exact same story for the diuretic tummy teas that are flooding social media, the detoxes that promise you a “slimmer waist” or anything else that simply encourages you to evacuate your bowels.

The trouble is our tendency to see weight loss as a goal unto itself, instead of understanding that the goal is to define healthy living in a sustainable way that helps us avoid the yo-yo dieting cycle. We can’t keep treating a diet as simply something to take on in pursuit of a weight loss goal, to be ditched when we get there.

We have to change the way we talk about weight and fitness in this country. The gym is important — not merely because it can produce weight loss, but because it helps to preserve one’s quality of life. Proper nutrition is important — not because of its ability to produce weight loss, but because heart health is essential to longevity, and can be negatively impacted if we aren’t careful. And yes, weight loss can happen if we change what we eat and regularly exercise, but only if we engage in it consistently as a proactive act of self-care, not in reaction to feelings of pressure after a series or lifetime of indulgences.

We have to stop viewing diet and exercise as a punishment for our prior comfort, and start seeing them as a way of achieving comfort in the long-term. Not only do our bodies suffer from this, but so do our psyches... and our wallets.