U.K. Woman Wants to Sue Weight Watchers

For anyone who's ever gained weight back after going on a diet, a woman who helped Princess Diana battle bulimia is looking for payback from one of the world's leading weight-loss programs.

U.K.-based psychotherapist Susie Orbach, author of Fat Is A Feminist Issue, is planning a lawsuit against Weight Watchers on behalf of what she says are thousands of women and men who have paid out many hundreds of British pounds to the company, only to end up fatter than before they started the program.

Orbach's main argument: diets simply don't work, and the dieting industry profits from the large number of people who come back to the program after they gain the weight back.

"I believe that it is the very 'problem' of recidivism that has made Weight Watchers its fortune," wrote Orbach in an editorial in London's Daily Mail last month. Orbach has claimed that nine out of 10 Weight Watchers graduates fail to keep off the pounds they've lost, a figure the company disputes.

Although McDonald's and other fast food chains have had suits filed against them in the past year by people blaming the restaurants for contributing to their weight problems, Orbach's suit would be the first to hold a weight-loss company responsible for clients' gaining the weight back. A spokeswoman from Weight Watchers says the company has not heard from Orbach or any lawyers representing her.

Question of Responsibility

In an interview, Orbach says she does not have a timetable for her proposed lawsuit, nor does she know whether or not she'll pursue it in the United States or Great Britain. But in bringing the action, she says she hopes to bring the issues surrounding weight loss and dieting out into the open.

"The kind of fever that's gripped Western culture about the size we're supposed to be inadvertently contributes to the obesity statistics," says Orbach. "Those are the kind of agendas that I want to open up."

Indeed, obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States alone, a trend that has disturbed experts. The U.S. surgeon general said in a report last December that obesity is associated with the deaths of an estimated 300,000 Americans each year and costs $117 billion in health-related costs. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that consumers spent around $35 billion on weight-loss products ranging from books and videos to drugs and diet shakes in 2000.

The FTC also estimates that about 61 percent of U.S. adults are overweight or obese and more than two-thirds of all Americans are trying to lose or keep off weight.

But dieting and legal experts say a lawsuit against a company that tries to help people lose weight through lifestyle changes for which the user is ultimately responsible, may not be the solution to eradicate the problem — or successful.

"It seems to me that this is kind of a case of common sense. When you stop Weight Watchers and go back to the way you were eating before, you'll gain the weight back," says Michael Scott, partner at law firm, Beirne, Maynard & Parsons, a Dallas-based firm that specializes in civil litigation.

Set Points and Slimming Down

Orbach's main argument is that people's metabolisms have a "set point," or a set rate of burning food, which slows down when people start dieting.

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