Nutrition experts and diet-book authors urge government to test weight-loss plans

WASHINGTON - A coalition of prominent academic researchers and authors of best-selling diet books today said that “Americans are lurching from one diet plan to another.” They called on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to sponsor research to evaluate popular diet plans and provide the best possible advice for overweight consumers.

     In the past 20 years, obesity rates have shot up in adults, teens, and children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than half of all adults are overweight or obese, and the rates of obesity in children and teens have doubled since the late 1970s. Obesity increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other health problems. Each year obesity causes tens or even hundreds of thousands of premature deaths and costs the public tens of billions of dollars.

     According to Dr. George Blackburn, associate professor of nutrition and surgery at Harvard Medical School and an organizer of the coalition, “Despite the popularity of commercial weight-loss programs, dietary supplements, and diet books, obesity is more widespread than ever. Some books advise a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet; some advocate a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet; while others say just cut down on calories. And too many popular weight-loss programs do not disclose data on how much weight their customers lose and keep off. Most plans provide limited scientific research on the safety and effectiveness of their plan. It’s no wonder that people are confused... and fat.”

     In their letter to Dr. Allen M. Spiegel, Director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the diet experts said, “The debate will not end — and overweight people will not have reliable information to guide their attempts to lose weight — until well-designed independent research investigates the effectiveness of different approaches.”

     Dr. Robert C. Atkins, author of the best-selling Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, said, “Most of the information as to the efficacy and safety of the many diets that have been offered has been based on speculation rather than scientifically established observation. It is unlikely that such research will ever be funded privately. Therefore, the ideal solution would be for the government to take on that responsibility.”

     Dr. Kelly Brownell, a Yale University professor of psychology who has studied obesity, noted that on one Sunday last fall, six out of 10 books on The Washington Post’s best-seller list were weight-loss books. “People who are trying to lose weight need and deserve scientifically supported guidance on how to lose weight safely and permanently,” said Brownell. “What we have now is mostly advertising hyperbole and anecdote.”

     Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, said, “The kind of research we are suggesting is not just critically important, but quite economical because the number of participants needed is in the hundreds, not thousands. The research should determine which diets work best for losing weight and keeping it off, and what risks may be associated with various diets. Considering obesity’s costs, in terms of both health and dollars, a modest investment in research could have an enormous pay-off.”

     Professor Blackburn also urged Congress to call on NIH to sponsor research on obesity. “For 30 years, Americans have been trying every sort of weight-loss diet imaginable, but there is precious little research on the safety and effectiveness of any of them. Because NIH hasn’t sponsored the research on its own, Congress should insist it do so,” Blackburn said.

     Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, applauded the experts’ letter, saying: “It’s high time the government did more to help the millions of people who are desperately trying to lose weight, but have no basis for figuring out which program is most effective over the long run.”

Additional signers of the letter included:

Sam Andrews, M.D., co-author of Sugar Busters

David Heber, M.D., Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles; author of The Resolution Diet

Rachael Heller, Ph.D. and Richard Heller, Ph.D., authors of Carbohydrate Addicts Diet

Steven Heymsfield, M.D., St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital, Columbia University

Dean Ornish, M.D., University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine; author of Eat More, Weigh Less

Barry Sears, Ph.D., author of The Zone

Thomas Wadden, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania Medical School

David York, Ph.D., president, North American Association for the Study of Obesity