The economics of weight loss
Tomorrow’s recording of Slate Money will concern New Year’s resolutions. We’re talking about gym memberships and health classes, Fitbits and other “quantified self” devices, and the economics of Weight Watchers and other weight loss industry companies.
I’m in charge of researching the weight loss industry, which was estimated at $64 billion in 2014. That’s huge, but actually it’s dwindling, as people formally diet less often and instead try to informally “eat healthy.”
In fact, Weight Watchers is an old person’s company; the average age is 48, and Oprah’s recent help notwithstanding, younger people are more likely to be interested in quantified self devices which can track calories burned and so on than they are in getting together in person and talking with people about the struggle.
Also, Obamacare doesn’t cover weight programs outside of a doctor’s office, so that has dried up funds as well.
This is good news, because there’s really no evidence that weight loss programs work long-term, but they are expensive. They keep doing studies but they never come out with any positive results beyond 12 months. That’s because they don’t have any evidence.
For example, if I joined Weight Watchers, I’d pay $44.95 per month, although I get refunded if I lost 10 pounds quickly enough. I’d be able to go to meetings two blocks away from my house every Wednesday. The plan will auto-renew and charge my credit card unless I cancel it, which is tantamount to admitting defeat. I’m wondering what the statistics are on people who are paying monthly but no longer attending meetings.
If you want an extreme example of the current dysfunction around dieting, look no further than the show The Biggest Loser, which the Guardian featured recently with the tag line, “It’s a miracle no one has died yet.”
So, given how much money people put into this stuff even now, why are they doing it? After all, if we were expected to pay a doctor to set the bones of our broken leg, but it only worked for a few months before our leg started breaking again, we’d call the doctor a quack and demand our money back. But somehow with diets it’s different. Why?
I have a complicated theory.
The first level is the “I’m an exception” law of human nature, whereby everyone thinks they somehow will prove to be an exception to statistical rules. It’s the same magical reasoning that makes people buy lottery tickets when they know their chances of winning are slim, and they even know their expected value is negative.
The second level is entertainment. This is also taken directly from the lottery mindset; even if you know you’re not winning the lottery, the momentary fantasy of possibly winning is delicious, and you relish it. The cost of that fantasy is a small price to pay for the freedom to believe in this future for one day.
I think the same kind of thing happens when people join diets. They get to fantasize about how great their lives will be once they’re finally thin. And of course the prevalent fat shaming helps this myth, as does the advertising from the diet industry. It’s all about imagining a “new you,” as if you also get a personality transplant along with losing weight.
But there’s something even more seductive about weight loss regimens that lotteries don’t have, namely public support. When someone announces that they’re on a diet, which happens pretty often, everyone around them has been trained to “be supportive” in their endeavor. At the same time, people rarely announce they’ve gone off their diet. So you’ve got asymmetrical dieting attention.
That attention also has a moral flavor to it. Since people are expected to have control over their weight, they are given moral standing when they announce their diet; it is a sign they are finally “taking control.” Never mind that their chances of long-term success are minimal.
The third and final phase, which is the saddest, is guilt. Because we’ve bought in to the idea that people have direct control over their weight, when people end up giving up, they feel personally guilty and end up paying extra money for basically nothing in return.
Of course, no part of this story is all that different from the story of gym memberships or even Fitbit-like device acquisition. Seen together, it’s just a question of what quasi-moralistic self-help fad happens to be popular at any given moment. And there’s tons of money in all of it.