The men who made us thin. Part 1.

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About this work


Jacques Peretti investigates the rise of the diet industry. In the first of four programmes, Peretti considers why so many diets fail and speaks to some of those profiteering from our desire to become thin. Peretti begins by interviewing shoppers regarding their diets and concludes that everyone is now self-policing. He confronts Venice A. Fulton, author of controversial new diet book, ‘Six Weeks to OMG’, accusing him of targeting teens; Fulton maintains that his diet is for everyone. Peretti then explores the relationship between the diet industry and obesity. Traci Mann from the University of Minnesota discusses her commercial weight loss study; she found that the average dieter lost less than 1kg over a 2-5 year period. We then look back at Ansel Keys' starvation studies in the mid-1940s, which placed test subjects on low calorie rations for six months. Although the men became thinner, they also suffered profound psychological effects and ultimately regained the lost weight. Given Keys’ findings, why did the diet industry continue to flourish? In the same decade Lewis Dublin, chief statistician of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, discovered that overweight policyholders were more likely to die young. Dublin created a chart showing optimum height/weight ratios for a longer life, but based his figures on the weights of young adults aged 25-30. As a result, half the American population was reclassified as overweight. Joel Gurin, author of ‘The Dieter’s Dilemma’, blames Dublin for our modern notion of an ‘ideal’ body weight. The growing insecurities of the US public were boosted by fashion trends in the 40s and 50s favouring a tiny waistline. The first mass market diet product, Metrecal, was launched in America in 1959. Jane Maas, a former copywriter, discusses how the Metrecal diet was promoted as a ‘way of life’; the advertising industry helped equate weight loss with success. Jules Hirsch of Rockefeller University discusses his study on metabolic changes which explained why weight loss is difficult to sustain. Peretti suggests that Hirsch’s findings may have played into the industry’s hands; effectively ensuring the dieter will fail and thus try again. Peretti travels to Florida to meet Daniel Abrahams, inventor of Slim Fast, who sold the brand in 2000 for £1.4 billion. Abrahams maintains that his product does what it claims, blaming poor long-term success rates on the consumer. Conversely, Gurin believes dieters’ tendencies to blame themselves contributes to ‘yo-yo dieting’: an approach that can actually worsen health problems such as hypertension. In the early 70s Robert Atkins introduced the idea that what you eat – rather than how much you eat –makes you fat. A former colleague, Fran Gare, explains the controversy that his diet engendered amongst the medical profession. Peretti travels to Paris to meet Pierre Dukan, who pioneered a similar low-carb diet in 2000. We then move on to Weight Watchers, a programme that attempted to tackle the psychological causes of obesity. By 2007 the company was generating £130 million a year in the UK. At the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine at Oxford University, Peretti scrutinises Weight Watchers’ own statistics with Dr Carl Heneghan, expert in clinical trial data. Heneghan points out that only 16% of dieters maintained their goal weight over five years. Richard Samber, Weight Watchers’ former finance director, admits the business succeeded because failed dieters kept coming back. Karen Miller-Kovach, chief scientific officer, defends the brand, claiming that the alternative to dieting is doing nothing. She refutes Samber’s remarks, insisting that the business could not have been sustained on failure. Looking to the future of dieting, two educational consultants discuss body image insecurity amongst primary-age children. Dr Adrianne Key, director for eating disorders at The Priory, claims that dieting has addictive qualities. Mann and Gurin conclude that diets should focus on health benefits rather than weight loss.


UK : BBC 2, 2013.

Physical description

1 DVD (60 min.) : sound, color, PAL

Copyright note

FreshOne Productions


Broadcast on 8 August 2013

Creator/production credits

Produced and directed by Tom Sheahan ; FreshOne Productions for BBC.



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