Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 03/16/2011

Weight Loss in the Age of Magic

Back in the late 19th century, some of the most educated and progressive people of the age believed in spiritualism. That is, they believed it was possible to communicate with the spirits of the dead, and regularly attended seances where transparently contrived bumps, breezes, and groans kept them on the edge of their chairs.

Mary Roach, in a book called Spook, explains why.

The rise of spiritualism coincided with the dawn of the electronic age. Their lives had been filled with one wonder after another: the telephone in 1876, the phonograph in 1877, and the first radio transmission of a human voice in 1900. That’s in addition to the mid-century rise in telegraph networks and continual improvements in photography.

If messages could travel thousands of miles on telegraph wires, and human voices could be recorded on discs, and pictures of the living and dead could be captured on paper, why couldn’t a medium communicate with ghosts? It wasn’t any less plausible than the technological wonders of their age.

I had a chance to witness a similar moment of magical belief the other night. For reasons that aren’t worth explaining here, I happened to be in a room with some senior citizens who believe that our local government is using electronic surveillance to determine if any of us have made home improvements that would increase the value of our property, and thus make us liable for higher taxes.

One said the surveillance is conducted by roving trucks with some kind of X-ray technology that can look through our walls. Another thought the cameras were in the sky, in planes or satellites, and peer through our roofs.

My guess: Somebody in their circle saw an article like this one, from The Telegraph of India, which reports that the Indian government is using satellite technology to map out neighborhoods and learn “the exact nature, size and location of the property” so they can determine if owners are paying their fair share of taxes.

Another article, from The Telegraph of London, says that British tax officials are using investigative powers meant to fight terrorism in their effort to catch up with tax evaders.

Then there’s this, a 10-year-old article from the Libertarian Party, which says that the DEA uses thermal sensors that can detect high-powered heat lamps used for indoor marijuana cultivation.

Now imagine if you’re a senior citizen living on a pension, perhaps someone who never used computers at work before retiring. Maybe you’ve seen Mission: Impossible and read some spy novels. And, thanks to AM radio and cable TV, you live in constant fear of the government taking away your things. (Seriously, I know an elderly couple who were so worried about the current president taking away their guns that they went out and bought one, just so they’d have a reason to be scared of the new administration taking it away.) Is it that big a stretch to believe the government is peering through your walls to see if you’ve put new shelves in your garage?

When it comes to weight loss (you knew I’d get to it eventually), the fitness world seems stuck between two contradictory absolutes: either everything works, as long as you believe in its uniquely magical properties, or nothing works, based on long-term weight-loss research showing modest results for any diet or exercise system.

We can laugh at the magical ideas — cleanses, hCG, diets that fixate on adding or deleting one spectacularly good or unfathomably evil thing. But it’s hard to offer an alternative when the highest-quality research says that nothing works a whole lot better than anything else.

We’re left with the mundane and demotivating data from the National Weight Control Registry, which tell us to eat a low-fat, low-calorie, low-sugar diet and exercise an hour or more a day into perpetuity.

Or we can devise diet and workout programs that we know will help people eat less and exercise more than they do now. We can suggest meals that increase satiety and bump up the thermic effect of feeding. We can prescribe workouts that offer the best conditioning effects in the least time.

We can’t in good conscience promise magical effects from hormonal surges or post-exercise oxygen consumption. (And I admit I’ve promised all that in years past. I meant well.) The best we can do is give them programs that chip away at their excess weight in every reasonable and ethical way possible, short of surgery or starvation.

Is that truly all we have? And is it enough?