Ground Zero

Houston's been the No. 1 city in America in the obesity crisis. But hype doesn't mean help.

Overall, the diet market is growing by 6 percent every year, says MarketData president John LaRosa. "The IRS guidelines definitely gave the industry a boost," he says. "We've had a lot more media stories and an emphasis from the surgeon general to get our hands around the crisis."

In retrospect, Joel Davis admits, buying a deli soon after getting his stomach stapled was not his brightest idea. He had the surgery in 1982, and after a long and difficult recovery, he lost 100 pounds. He thought he was in the clear.

Hollywood helped Cates, who spreads a message that 
the obese shouldn't tolerate abuse.
Mark Graham
Hollywood helped Cates, who spreads a message that the obese shouldn't tolerate abuse.

But, he says, "I'd eat a potato chip here and a potato chip there." Within a few years, Davis was back up to 300 pounds. He lost the weight again in the early '90s in a program at The Methodist Hospital, but soon regained it.

He'd been hovering around 350 pounds when his wife dangled a carrot: ice cream at the Marble Slab Creamery if he'd go to Weight Watchers with her first.

Davis, now a 55-year-old retiree, was skeptical of the meetings initially. "I was the only guy in there," he recalls.

It didn't take long for him to get hooked: hooked on the meetings, hooked on Weight Watchers' system.

Davis had planned to drop the pounds in a year; instead, it took three years and three months. He spent nearly $2,000 going to Weight Watchers sessions. (Meetings cost $11 a pop.) "The hardest was the plateaus," he says. "You'd know you'd be doing everything right, but the weight just didn't come off. That's where you'd see people drop off."

Sitting in the kitchen of his Sugar Land home recently, Davis looks positively thin. He shows off a picture from New Year's Day in 2000; the beefy guy in the white shirt looks nothing like him. His 60-inch waist is now 38 inches. His weight is 192.

Davis still goes to Weight Watchers. He works out five days a week. And he still weighs everything before he eats it; if a cut of meat is even one ounce over what's allotted, he'll trim it.

He's convinced that this time will be different. "It's something you never get over," he says, speaking from experience. "I have to worry about this every day."

As Campos explains in The Obesity Myth, weight loss is rarely permanent. Almost everyone gains it back, he writes, and "a significant percentage gain back more than they lost."

Paul Ernsberger, a professor of nutrition at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, has done studies that show lab rats face more health problems from yo-yo dieting than if they'd just stayed chunky. "As they lose weight, their blood pressure and other risk factors go down, but as they gain weight back, it actually becomes worse," he says.

Critics believe an intense antifat push may hurt more people than it helps. "It's this big wave of hysteria: Do something, do anything -- surgery, dangerous drugs, things that don't work -- do anything to be thin," Ernsberger says. Instead of pushing for weight loss, he asks, why don't doctors treat the problems within their reach, like high blood pressure?

Indeed, for every path to losing weight, experts can produce a study showing it doesn't work. Erik Wilson, who performs weight-loss surgeries at the University of Texas's Minimally Invasive Surgery Center in Houston, admits that national statistics show one patient in 50 dies within a month of surgery. And the successful rarely end up slender. Most patients lose 50 to 75 percent of their excess weight. They remain overweight by government standards.

Wilson believes it's still the best solution. He starts sessions for prospective patients by explaining that less than 5 percent of people who've lost weight through diet and exercise alone manage to keep it off. The room is packed, the audience rapt.

"How many of you have lost over 200 pounds through the course of your life?" Wilson asks.

Almost everyone raises a hand.

Dianne Roscoe is the poster girl for Fat Houston. She appeared in a PBS documentary on obesity, then made an encore in Fat City, displaying a picture of herself wearing a black lace leotard and talking about how good she looked. She weighs 625 pounds.

Her family wasn't thrilled with the media blitz, she admits, or with her attitude. "It is their belief that I am going to die soon and I need to lose a whole lot of weight," Roscoe says. She resists that, saying, "I am who I am."

Roscoe went to Weight Watchers when she was eight. It took her a year to lose 33 pounds -- and two weeks' vacation to gain it back. She eventually tried appetite suppressants, NutriSlim, the grapefruit diet and then Weight Watchers five more times. In 1987, she had weight-loss surgery, but she says the doctor screwed it up. It took four more surgeries to fix. Today she weighs 300 pounds more than when she first went under the knife.

Her health is a mess. She's only 42, but she has severe arthritis in her knees, an overactive bladder, diabetes and sleep apnea. She uses an extrawide wheelchair to get around. She's on disability because she must keep her legs elevated, which rules out work. She needs a home health aide five days a week.

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