14 September 2009

LighterLife: government advisors despite reports of deaths

A number of bloggers and news outlets have covered the outrageous and awful death of Samantha Clowe, who suffered heart failure whilst following the Lighterlife diet. I won't repeat what they've said here, but I extend my sympathies to Clowe's friends and family.

Lighterlife is a very low calorie diet, which is implicated in a fast weight loss that is even more unsustainable than allegedly 'sensible' diets, and which can lead to serious health problems. Lighterlife has been implicated in the deaths of at least two other women following the programme, but the company refutes this relationship in news reports, they assert that the deaths were caused by the person's fatness rather than the diet. This position is also supported by erroneous yet common-sense beliefs about fat that you encounter all over the place, that it is an automatic death sentence. The result is that Lighterlife's sales have not been affected by these horrendous deaths, and that everyone from Colleen Nolan to a bunch of dykes on a lesbian messageboard that I frequent are following the programme.

An aside: I urge people working within obesity science to develop a standard methodology for showing that it's the diet not the fatty that's at fault. Perhaps we in the fat rights movement could think about pooling some money to support such research.

There isn't very much that is happy in the story of Lighterlife, but one small ray of hope is that the story is now being taken up by the British tabloids. Lighterlife's PR output is very hot but barely a match for the vicious, cruel, merciless probe of, for example, The Daily Mail. That paper's use of fatphobia to expose some of the workings of Lighterlife, and the diet industry in general, is questionable, but it's good to see them involving their readers in a story of diet industry corporate greed that is being fed by the clueless, innocent, trusting people who buy into the product. For once the paper's standard tone of shock and outrage is appropriate here.

Could this be the beginning of the end for Lighterlife? Selling a product associated with sudden death is not a good business plan. Other very low calorie diets have also been discredited, such as Optifast, on which Oprah Winfrey lost and regained a lot of weight in 1988. But don't get too excited, no doubt the diet industry will sprout more health-endangering products, like a Hydra, you cut off one head and another grows in its place.

I want to add some detail that The Daily Mail has missed. Despite the scandal associated with Lighterlife, you will find them listed on a 2006 .pdf easily found via Google, but now removed from the website. This is a list of all the companies and organisations supporting, and supported by, NICE, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. NICE is the body that provides scientific evidence for healthcare policy in the UK. Maybe there's a more up to date 2009 document too, want to try and find it?

There's more, the National Obesity Forum, who are one of the 'expert' obesity organisations beloved of the UK government obesity boffins, mentioned Lighterlife as a Useful Contact in the Care Pathway and Toolkit section of their website (now removed). Lighterlife is also one of the sponsors of the Association for the Study of Obesity (.pdf, 344kb), another 'expert' obesity organisation that has close ties to government and statutory health providers in the UK.

I've written before about how Lighterlife bankrolled TOAST, a fake obesity charity, and J. Eric Oliver's 2006 book Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America's Obesity Epidemic has a great discussion about how the diet industry are implicated in what is presumed to be impartial obesity knowledge and science, so none of this should be a surprise.

But it's no less shocking when you see with your own eyes how companies like Lighterlife, and really they are only the tip of the iceberg, have so much influence, despite being implicated in their users' deaths. It is also shocking to think about how statutory organisations and government departments, paid for by you and I, support such companies with apparently no safeguards against unethical business interests. For them, involving the diet industry in obesity policy is regarded as a good thing, it is framed as tapping into commercial expertise. There is no critical understanding of how the diet industry is implicated in obesity, in creating markets based on self-hatred and stigma in which to push defective products that lead to legions of 'failed' yo-yo dieters and a myriad of health and social problems.

Samatha Clowes, Jacqueline Henson and Matilda Callaghan are three women who died who were also Lighterlife customers. It disgusts me to say this but there will probably be more deaths as companies continue to push very low calorie diets. For these three women, I am calling on the government and the NHS to sever links with commercial weight loss organisations and to implement tighter restrictions on who they seek advice and support from.

Perhaps you might consider telling your official representatives to do the same.



Anji said...

I was in the Accident and Emergency Department of my local hospital last night. They had a large television screen displaying patient information and the like. I was utterly appalled to see, as I was watching it, an advert for Lighterlife come up. Unbelievable. :o/

Charlotte Cooper said...

Anji, sorry to hear about your trip to A&E. I'm not surprised to see Lighterlife on the patient info system, I think they may have some kind of agreement with local PCTs for providing weight loss services, I know that Weight watchers have this.

They also advertise in the British Assoc for Counselling and Psychotherapy mag, which I get, and are one of the few advertisers offering employment to counsellors.

Catgal said...

I lost ALL of my sanity watchers points for the week on these two statements:

#1 - He said: "The evidence cannot point one way or the other as to whether her indulging in that diet has in any way caused or contributed to her death."

I find the use of the word "indulging" in this circumstance to be inappropriate. This woman was not indulging in anything apparently.

#2 - A spokesman for LighterLife said: "We were very sad to hear the news about Samantha. LighterLife is a clinically monitored programme and has helped 150,000 people lose weight effectively and safely during the past 12 years. When she died she was still clinically obese."

Way to go Literlife! Blame the victim. She didn't have cardiac issues because she was starving to death, it was because whe was OBEEEEESEEEEE!


Charlotte Cooper said...

Catgal, it's not just Lighterlife, it's the stupid systems that legitimise Lighterlife too, I think.