Healthy Weight Journal:
A 21-year legacy

Healthy Weight Journal began in April 1986 as an 11-month free pilot newsletter. It expanded to reach an international network of health professionals and over a span of 21 years covered some of the most volatile and provocative times of obesity research and the weight loss industry.

The journal marked a number of firsts. The lead story in our first pilot issue asked what was then a heretical question, “Do high-fat diets make us fat?”

Wayne Miller, PhD, a research associate at the University of Illinois, and his colleagues reported that sedentary laboratory rats – but not active rats – gain excess body fat on high-fat food. It was this pioneering research that eventually fueled a national panic against dietary fat.

Unfortunately, the key role of exercise in high-fat diets was disregarded.

Research in the relatively new field of obesity was breaking fast, encompassing an impressive range of topics and often taking surprising turns. There were alarming statistics on national weight gain in both children and adults, and even steeper increases for Native Americans, Hispanic and African American populations. Diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular events were linked to obesity and costs projected worldwide.

Collaborating teams looked at weight gain through the life cycle: puberty, pregnancy, menopause. Statisticians measured body mass index, fat patterning, waist-hip measures and waist circumference.

New obesity journals sprang up. Federally-funded new obesity centers, university-based and industry-supported, searched for cures and causes. There were media flurries over sugar and fat substitutes, enthusiasm over drugs, false starts, disappointment.

Journals, books and conferences were filled with scientific reports on genetic and twin studies, weight cycling research, thermogenesis, leptin, smoking, alcohol, exercise, the protective effect of osteoporosis, and most of all, an endless reiteration of claims for promising new treatments – for diets, drugs and surgery.

Journalistic beginnings
Healthy Weight Journal was founded in 1986 by Francie Berg, a licensed nutritionist with a master’s degree in Family Social Science and Anthropology, who at that time was writing a feature on Healthy Living for some 50 newspapers. She became its long-time, 16-year editor and publisher, writing many of the articles and reviews herself, later assisted by associate editors, journalist Kendra Rosencrans, and dietitians Monica Woolsey and Gail Marchessault.

We began putting together reviews of the new research and sending them to physicians and dietitians who worked with weight intervention programs.

When offered for subscription, the journal had an immediate base of 300 subscribers, and in a short time gained more than 2,000 subscribers in the United States and 36 foreign countries.

Healthy Weight Journal evolved through the years in size and scope. It broadened to fill the needs of an international audience, and to encompass not just obesity, but related issues of problem eating, underweight, semi-starvation, the growing cult of thinness and eating disorders.

Several name changes reflected these milestones. At one time the journal was called the International Obesity Newsletter, at another, Obesity & Health, and rather-briefly, Health at Every Size, under co-editors Drs. Wayne C. Miller and Jon Robison and publisher Gurze Books. (Another publisher for a time was B.C. Decker Periodicals, of Hamilton, Ontario.)

From the beginning our mission was three fold:

  1. To provide readers with current obesity research, commentary and information in a concise, objective and easy-to-read style;
  2. To search for truth and expose deception and fraud in the field; and
  3. To reduce size prejudice and promote respect and understanding for persons of size.

We were concerned about the ethics of weight loss programs and products, and the vulnerability of consumers. It soon became evident that the new field of obesity had deep-rooted elements of misinformation, disinformation and vested interests.

Worse, obesity was becoming the scapegoat for all manner of ills. Engaging in the “war on obesity” became the pathway to power for many experts, the very people who could have helped the most. For others, it was the easy way to get grant funding, to gain a headline.

Editorial influences
Important influences in shaping our editorial direction and healthy living philosophy over the years were the concerned scientists, therapists and cutting-edge leaders who willingly shared their expertise in writing for Healthy Weight Journal.

Other important entities were, first, Health Canada’s successful Vitality campaign of the early 1990s. Innovative Canadian leaders had long kept us posted on their efforts to maintain that country’s focus on health (rather than a supposed-need for weight loss, as in the U.S.). Vitality’s simple and eloquent message still resonates: eat well, live actively and feel good about yourself.

Second were size activists, who also discovered us and began sending us their amazing literature. Sometimes angry, sometimes in near-despair at the treatment large persons endure, they were always articulate and enlightening. In July 1991 we introduced our popular size acceptance page featuring this fresh, strong viewpoint. The feature documented the size oppression, harassment, daily anguish and pain of large people, by those who understood it best. They did not spare our physician and dietitian readers from their reports of cruelty and prejudice in the health community.

Our readers responded with surprise: “An eye-opener for me,” one wrote. “I had no idea my quiet patients might have been that angry.”

Never again to be ignored, size activists were and are a powerful force for civil rights in size diversity issues.

Bringing our readers the work of these outstanding leaders helped us all come to a better understanding of the complexity of weight and eating issues. It became clear that obesity, eating disorders and the many related problems need to be addressed together in a comprehensive way.

Unfortunately, this does not seem as obvious to people looking for simplistic answers. For others, it is a notion to be strenuously resisted, in the interests of a weight loss focus, it seems. Somehow, such forces have succeeded in keeping eating disorders off the nation’s health radar. Eating disorders are hardly mentioned in federal health programs or Healthy People 2010, although they have an exceedingly high death rate.

Landmark reports
Healthy Weight Journal was one of the first publications, for either professionals or consumers, to question the effectiveness or safety of diets. In the spring of 1986 all weight loss methods seemed to work. People lost weight, and few asked what happened next. Failure to keep that weight off was not mentioned in either the scientific literature or the popular press. When patients regained, it was regarded as their own fault. Questioning the experts seemed radical, even rude.

In January 1987, our editorial suggested that clinical results do not show long-term success for any diet. Our October editorial warned, “Long-term results are disappointingly low, even for the most optimistic programs. We need to share this information frankly. The public needs to know.”

Size activists began their mantra, “Diets don’t work; diets don’t work!” The public reacted with surprise and relief, and agreed, “Diets don’t work.” But there was always a new miracle cure with its media barrage aimed at both consumers and health professionals.

Miracle cures
It was a challenging and fascinating time. Along with a growing body of excellent science on many fronts, came a steady stream of promotion for medically-sanctioned cures. We were there when John Garren introduced his Garren-Edwards stomach balloon to an enthusiastic audience of physicians, and a couple of years later at Harvard as he stood forlornly by his exhibit, stripped of his too-hasty FDA approval.

From national and international conferences we reported the excitement generated by jaw wiring, thigh cream, various surgical techniques, liposuction, very-low-calorie diets, Slim Fast and fen-phen/Redux pills. Later, we reviewed the sometimes-tragic outcomes.

Without advertising, the journal remained editorially independent and could report protests objectively, such as one scientist’s summation of these cures: “One cult after another.”

We reported on more than 200 questionable and fraudulent schemes as well: body wraps, hypnosis, exercise beds, appetite patches, buzzing belts, slimming insoles, defatting soap, starch blockers, herbal teas, and an endless array of potentially deadly diet pills, for which the Food and Drug Administration provided a body count of injury and death. To spotlight the worst of this quackery and fraud we established the Slim Chance Awards, now in their 20th year.

In 1993 we published a special 194-page report Health Risks of Weight Loss. The book highlighted federal investigations of the diet industry, detailed many risks and abuses, and brought together in sharp focus numerous controversial issues previously covered in the journal. More important, it marked a turning point in the way many health professionals and knowledgeable consumers viewed the diet industry and the manipulation of data by policy makers with vested interests.

That report was instrumental, we believe, in opening up the field to much questioning and investigation. Now at last, in a new century, federal agencies and the medical community seem to agree that diets don’t work and may do harm.

A legacy of reason, insight and integrity
Problems are far from solved. Health promotion suffers from the health community’s single-minded obsession with scapegoating obesity and touting thinness. Sound, well-rounded programs suffer.

Most unfortunate are the human costs. A compassionate student of the field cannot escape knowing that lives are being destroyed by those who profess to help. Moreover, thousands of innocent children and adults are being denied a high quality of life through cupidity and avarice.

Through it all we have tried to search out the facts and report them in a voice of reason, insight and integrity. In this we have greatly appreciated the dedication and support of leaders with similar concerns, for whom the journal became a rallying stage.

While the publication-in-print phase of Healthy Weight Journal has ended, its legacy continues through the website, books and new networks of leadership. Both new and older-generation leaders are extending their influence in helping people shift to the enlightened paradigm of healthy living and Health at Any/ Every Size programs through their universities, medical clinics, communities and online. They are finding new ways to give voice to reason, integrity and insight.

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