8th September 2009


posted in Anorexia, Diets, Fat Bias |

Anti-obesity naysayers like to say that fat kills and I somewhat agree.  Fat can kill — only not in the way they frame it.

At 244-pounds and 5-foot-9-inches, Samantha Clowe didn’t want to be a fat bride and she wanted to be respected at the steel company where she worked as a researcher (for an idea of just how fat Samantha may have been, see this woman who has similar height and weight proportions).  So, the 34-year-old British woman went on the LighterLife starvation scam diet program.  LighterLife, if you remember from this blog post, consists of drinking 530 liquid calories a day for 12 weeks.  Undercover reporters consulted two LighterLife counselors at random last year, posing as prospective clients.  The ill-informed and poorly trained counselors did not disclose the potential health risks of going on a starvation diet — which the British government recommends be overseen by a medical doctor — and even offered the program to someone with an eating disorder.

On June 28, Samantha’s fiancee found her collapsed in the home they shared in West Yorkshire.  Despite attempts to revive her, she was pronounced dead.  An inquest heard testimony that Samantha was “fit and well” and stuck to the plan’s 500 calories a day limit for 11 weeks.   The Daily Mail reports:

Home Office pathologist Dr Alfredo Walker said a post-mortem examination failed to establish a cause of death, adding: ‘But it may be related to her low-calorie diet and weight loss.’

West Yorkshire Coroner David Hinchliff said it was ‘highly likely’ the Leeds University graduate died from cardiac arrhythmia, when the heart suddenly stops beating.  Recording a narrative verdict, Mr Hinchliff said the cause of Samantha’s death was unascertained.

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.’

One of the biggest misconceptions about anorexia is that sufferers simply starve to death.  The most common cause of death among anorexics is actually starvation-induced cardiac arrhythmia — or a heart attack.  My eating disorder damaged my heart and left me with a non-life-threatening condition known as mitral valve prolapse.   And you don’t have to be underweight and emaciated to be at risk for heart damage caused by starvation.  A 1992 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition opens with the statement: “A major concern with the use of starvation or semistarvation diets for weight reduction in severely obese people has been the reports of sudden death due to ventricular arrhythmias” (PDF link here).

Yet despite this, LighterLife — which operates as a franchise by “weight-management counsellors” who receive more distance learning on sales and marketing than they do nutrition and health — seems to disregard these well-known risks.  In June of this year, the British Advertising Standards Authority determined that a LighterLife commercial breached government rules for misleading advertising.  The charges were brought by a complainant who had been on the program.  The ASA determined, among other findings, that:

We [the ASA] understood that clients treatment on the programme was supervised by weight loss counsellors who were not medically qualified and therefore the only input clients would receive from someone with a medical qualification would be when they visited their GP to have the forms completed. We were concerned that the complainant said she did not need to see her GP at all.

We noted clients were also required to have four-weekly medical check-ups, which could also be conducted by a pharmacist, once they had started the programme… We noted that a pharmacist was unlikely to have access to the clients medical records and therefore considered that they were unlikely to be in a position to offer sufficiently informed medical supervision for the programme.

The ad must not be broadcast again in its current form. We told LighterLife not to target obese people unless the treatment was conducted under adequate medical supervision.

A LighterLife spokesperson was quick to defend the company and in a statement, oh so considerately pointed out that: “When [Samantha] died she was still clinically obese.”  But, hey, at least she’ll have a lighter coffin, right?

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 8th, 2009 at 12:18 pm and is filed under Anorexia, Diets, Fat Bias. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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  1. 1 On September 8th, 2009, d said:

    Do you mean you’re saddled with the mitral valve condition even after reaching target weight?

  2. 2 On September 8th, 2009, Rachel said:

    @D: I never really had a “target weight” because with anorexia, the target keeps dropping lower and lower. But, yes, this is a lifelong condition that I will have regardless of what I weigh.

  3. 3 On September 8th, 2009, Alyssa (The 40 year-old) said:

    I suppose I should be surprised that companies like LighterLife and MediFast are still around, but I’m not. Despite the fact that liquid diets have been proven, over and over again, to be ineffective at best and deadly at worst, these companies still prey on people and still make gobs of money. And they will continue to do so until the FDA (and international counterparts) get the ba**s to put a stop to them. And more young women (and men) will die.

  4. 4 On September 8th, 2009, Melissa said:

    It’s so sad that companies like this are allowed to exist.
    I don’t think I could live with myself, making money off perpetuating the pain and possible death of individuals.

  5. 5 On September 8th, 2009, JennyRose said:

    How cold is this;

    A LighterLife spokesperson was quick to defend the company and in a statement, oh so considerately pointed out that: “When [Samantha] died she was still clinically obese.”

    It seems to me they are blaming her death on her fat while still promoting themselves…and pretending to care.

  6. 6 On September 8th, 2009, Rachel said:

    Yeah. The story I linked to at the Daily Mail has since been updated, but the company’s statement initially said something to the effect that the coroner said it was not directly linked, which as you can read from his statement above, is a complete distortion. He didn’t say that a link didn’t exist, only that he couldn’t prove it. Here’s a snippet from the updated story:

    In January 2006 Matilda Callaghan, 25, of Camden, London, died after losing 10 stone in six months on the LighterLife plan. The coroner also ruled her death was ‘unascertained’ after hearing she died from heart arrythmia and had rigidly stuck to the low calorie diet.

    Professor John Garrow, a retired obesity and nutrition expert, blamed Miss Callaghan’s death on her rapid weight loss and told the Daily Mail he was against ‘prolonged’ diets of less than 800 calories a day. He described Miss Clowe’s rate of weight loss as ‘too fast’ and said the effect of following such a very low calorie plan was that the heart ‘wasted away.’

    He said the effects depended ‘on how much weight you lose and how quickly you lose it’, but the heart of someone who is starving is eventually ‘reduced to a stage at which it can no longer adequately perform what it is there for, namely pumping the blood and you get these disorders of rhythm.’

  7. 7 On September 8th, 2009, JupiterPluvius said:

    Do you mean you’re saddled with the mitral valve condition even after reaching target weight?

    “Target weight” is irrelevant. The mitral valve issues come from starvation, and they persist after you stop starving yourself.

  8. 8 On September 8th, 2009, the fat nutritionist said:

    God, I hate stories like this. So incredibly sad, and so infuriating.

  9. 9 On September 8th, 2009, richie79 said:

    Here’s the bit that nearly made me spit my Coke all over the monitor:

    “Dr David Haslam, Chairman of the National Obesity Forum said: ‘Modern very low calorie diets are a safe and proven way to lose weight, and have a valuable role in the fight against obesity. Samantha’s death tragically shows the real dangers of being obese, and the need for all of us to maintain a healthy weight.’”

    Hang on a minute: the article opened by stating she was ‘otherwise fit and well’ (which I took to mean ‘fit and well’, since the ‘otherwise’ refers to the assumption that a fat person by definition cannot simultaneously also be healthy). So why the need to bring out various ‘experts’ and start pointing fingers? This case does not demonstrate the dangers of being ‘obese’, but of creating a world where people will do almost anything in order to become thin, it’s considered that important, and moreover do so with the apparent blessing of the medical establishment (the NOF is largely Govt-funded and a major partner in their Change4Life campaign).

  10. 10 On September 8th, 2009, Rachel said:

    The NOF may be government-funded, but the British government doesn’t appear to consider very low calorie diets (VLCD) to be an effective solution to “long-term obesity.” In their assessment of LighterLife’s television commercial, they concluded that it breached government guidelines on misleading advertising because it presented VLCD as a long-term solution to obesity.

    We noted LighterLife offered clients the option of continued group counselling after completion of the programme and it was that counselling the ad intended to imply was long term. We also noted however that the woman in the ad stated “Ive changed my life for good … ” directly after she stated that she had “kept the weight off for three years”. We considered that viewers were likely to interpret the womans statement, which was separate from that made by the voice-over about trained counsellors, to mean that the VLCD was a long-term solution to obesity itself. Because it was not, we concluded the ad was misleading. We welcomed LighterLife’s assurance that their ads would not refer to long-term solutions in future.

  11. 11 On September 8th, 2009, Anna said:

    This is DIGUSTING. That poor woman, and her poor family. And to say “Yeah, but she was still fat though! That’s what caused it!” is just…so wrong.

  12. 12 On September 8th, 2009, Bree said:

    Of course LighterLife won’t admit their diet is dangerous. That would mean nobody would want to spend money on them, and that means less fat people who want to lose weight in a quick amount of time. So they blame the people who die or get ill from their product on their fat, even if they were already fine and healthy to begin with.

  13. 13 On September 9th, 2009, PlusSizedFeminist said:

    This makes me sick to my stomach. The people selling this crap obviously have no idea what they are doing.

    530 calories a day? That is NOT even CLOSE to the daily requirements. It has been shown that it is detrimental to your health to drop calories below 1200. TWELVE HUNDRED. This little starvation scam is less than HALF of that. She was effectively STARVING herself.

    And then they have the nerve to say “Oh…well she was still obese when she died” Screw you LighterDeath. I hope you go into bankruptcy and lose every dime you got.

  14. 14 On September 9th, 2009, *e* said:

    Wow. Shame on them for such a tacky comment (to say the least)

  15. 15 On September 9th, 2009, Beth said:

    “indulging in that diet”

    You can’t win, can you? If you’re fat, you’re that way because you’re indulgent. If you try to get thin, you’re indulging. If you die, you overindulged.

  16. 16 On September 9th, 2009, Diana Lake said:

    I am absolutely disgusted by Lighter Life, both their dangerous diet and their comments. But I also think that the so-called ‘experts’ who think this is a good way to lose weight, even for a short while, are being irresponsible. I am 64 years old weighed 22st 8lbs last Christmas, and was very healthy. I had not been to my doctor in months and that had been for something minor, so to blame these deaths on the people’s obesity is deceptive, as many of us are very healthy. I have lost 4 stone now and continue to lose, feeling fitter and healthier all the time. I have used Weight Watchers, who show client how to change their eating and exercise habits for good. The support you get from fellow travellers is invaluable. It is time the government and doctors acted against these irresponsible money grabbers!

  17. 17 On September 10th, 2009, Emerald said:

    richie79, one of the NOF’s partners is the Obesity Awareness and Solutions Trust, who were exposed earlier this year as basically being a front for LighterLife. And another of their partners is the Association for the Study of Obesity, who are sponsored by both Slim Fast and Cambridge (whose VLCDs start at only 415 calories a day, and which is scarily approved by the NICE…another partner, of course). Basically, the vast majority of the NOF’s partners stand to make money out of making people scared of fat, so their attitude to this tragedy isn’t exactly out of character for them.

    I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen people suggest that fat people can lose weight by ‘just stopping eating’. That’s starvation, whether the person doing it is fat or thin. Dieting is slow starvation. Severe diets like this are quicker starvation. They’re bad for anyone. The weight she died at is really immaterial: she died of not enough food. It’s crass and ignorant of anyone to suggest otherwise.

    My heart goes out to Samantha’s fiancé and family. This must be hard enough for them without any of the crap some people are coming out with.

  18. 18 On September 11th, 2009, Keira said:

    530 kcal a day! VLCD programs here are 800 kcal.

    Optislim (which is same principle) is only to be used here (in Australia) under the guidance of a GP. It’s the only one that has any “support” vrom drs and medical professionals…

    I watched a housemate do a similar program (she is only a couple of kilos heavier than me… and I am on the slim side–technically in the “healthy weight range”) with a higher kilojoule value. Within a few days she was complaining of symptoms I had when “actively” eating disordered. She did it for a week and couldn’t handle the crapness anymore.

    I like to think of them as “starvation in a box”…

  19. 19 On September 11th, 2009, Gwen said:

    Yes this is tragic but maybe you just need to have an open mind and talk to some of the thousands of men and women who have successfully lost weight on LighterLife and are now off their medication for life threatening diseases such as diabetes, hypertension etc. In an ideal world we would all lose weight by reducing our intake of unhealthy food but some extremely overweight people have deep seated issues that need addressing and removing food from the equation can sometimes be the answer. Just for your information, many of the LighterLife Counsellors are trained psychotherapists too. Don’t judge and comment until you have all the facts!

  20. 20 On September 11th, 2009, Rachel said:

    @Gwen: LighterLife counselors are required to complete a distance learning certificate in a program that includes a unit on counseling (as well as business and marketing), but that hardly qualifies them as “trained psychotherapists.” And removing the object of vice from the equation for people with addictions may work when it’s alcohol or drugs, but the fact that all humans need to eat to live — yes, that includes fat people — makes that a little impossible to do in cases of food addiction (assuming, of course, that the LighterLife client actually has a disordered relationship with food). As someone who has successfully maintained a significant weight loss for six years, I can say that it’s much easier to lose the weight on a starvation diet than it is to keep it off healthily and longterm. Even the British government does not recognize LighterLife as a long-term, sustainable solution for fat people and I’m pretty confident that they do have “all the facts.”

  21. 21 On September 11th, 2009, jen said:

    So Gwen, keeping an open mind, how many tragic deaths does it take to balance how many successful weight loss stories?

    If you were told there was a miracle drug that might make you gorgeous – in fact, has made thousands of people gorgeous – but there’s one little drawback…. 1 person in 100 is injured in some permanent way, and 1 person in 1,000 dies. Do the successful ones mean that the company marketing that pill isn’t being reckless? Isn’t endangering the others? How many people have to be hurt or killed before you will question whether the best-scenario outcome is worth the risk?

  22. 22 On September 12th, 2009, Gwen said:

    Rachel, what you’ve achieved is fantastic and I’m sure it’s an on-going challenge for you. Your web site is a brilliant idea and can only help people but please have an open mind; not everyone has your attitude and personality towards their situation. What I said in my original comment was that some counsellors are trained psychotherapists and the point of this comment was not to infer they were all but to explain that many psychotherapists could see how beneficial the programme could be to people who have an issue/addiction/habit that requires addressing. You’re right the UK government does not recognise LighterLife as being a long term, sustainable solution but neither does LighterLife. The main aim is to get people into healthy eating habits and remove the obsession around food. The initial phase of removing conventional food just provides people with an opportunity to recognise their habit/addiction; it’s then the long journey of re-introducing food, healthy eating habits and a healthy respect of food. Of course there is no way of measuring how many people’s lives have been saved by them losing weight; whether it’s with their own plan or any of the ways available. Books, DVD’s, Groups, Clubs; awareness of the dangers related to eating disorders is key and your web site plays an important part in this. The point I still want to hang on to is, please don’t knock anything until you have either full knowledge or experience of all the circumstances around a situation.

  23. 23 On September 12th, 2009, Gwen said:

    Jen, sadly that’s exactly what happens in life. We hear of miracle drugs for many illnesses, physical and mental but when people feel that they have not been offered a solution they will seek it anywhere. The tragic death of this young woman has not been attributed to her weight loss because in truth nobody knows whether she would have prematurely died because of the Arrythmia; sadly so many young people do die as their condition remains undetected.

    LighterLife didn’t offer me a miracle but it did provide me with an environment where I felt able to share my feelings around my weight. I had a counsellor who had studied eating disorders and the group provided me with an opportunity to look at the habits I’d formed. I soon developed a belief that the CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and TA (Transactional Analysis) would help me see light at the end of a long tunnel and eventually enable me to get out; thankfully,I did!

    It’s now 4 years since I lost my weight, I’m maintaining and have my life back. At 57 I weigh 136 lbs, go to the gym on a regular basis and do not need to take any medication for Hypertension or Diabetes; that is not the case for many people of my age and younger.

    Without the correct equipment, it’s difficult for a Doctor to easily diagnose an Arrhythmia. The corona did not apportion blame and they have more facts than anyone. LighterLife were ethical and honest with me; as an adult I made a decision based upon my age and weight, maybe we should just respect that this young women did the same and leave her in peace.

  24. 24 On September 14th, 2009, Rachel said:

    So Gwen, keeping an open mind, how many tragic deaths does it take to balance how many successful weight loss stories?

    This isn’t the first unexpected death of a LighterLife client, but disregarding the mortality stats for a moment… there have been numerous accounts of customers who have reported a loss of menstruation, hair loss, and one man who was admitted to the hospital with water poisoning after drinking too much to try and relieve constipation caused by the program. Amenorrhea and hair loss should come as familiar symptoms to anyone who has struggled with anorexia because they are both symptoms of malnutrition, which is exactly how LighterLife “works.”

    Without the correct equipment, it’s difficult for a Doctor to easily diagnose an Arrhythmia.

    Like a stethoscope? I’m pretty sure most doctors have those.

    @Gwen: You may have had positive experiences with LighterLife and your counselor may have been ethical with you, but the sad fact is that many LighterLife counselors are not. The British government has indicated the casual disregard of medical oversight with the LighterLife starvation diet, which is troubling. And while group therapy might be a beneficial supplement to traditional forms of therapy with a licensed counselor, that’s exactly what it should be: supplemental. If someone truly has a disordered relationship with food, they should seek professional help, not some dubious starvation diet that doesn’t even guarantee short-term, let alone long-term, success.

  25. 25 On September 14th, 2009, Rachel said:

    Here’s a good expose on Jackie Cox, the very rich and still very fat co-founder of LighterLife.

  26. 26 On September 15th, 2009, PlusSizedFeminist said:

    @ Gwen:

    Although weight loss may be seen as a “positive” to the diet, how realistic is this? These people are effectively STARVING themselves. It is practically IMPOSSIBLE to get adequate nutritional content within 530 calories. As I have said before, the minimum requirements for adequate caloric intake is 1200. LighterLife’s caloric intake is far below that standard, and such makes it a starvation diet. The fact that this company is in effect ignoring this fact shows that their goal is not health, but making money. Who cares if all these side effects happen? The people aren’t fat anymore, right?

  27. 27 On September 15th, 2009, Liza said:

    Are they “weight management counselors” in the same way that LA Weight loss had “weight counselors”? And by that I mean, are they actually just sales people who went for a weekend retreat* to learn how to hawk to fatties?

    *I don’t know if a weekend retreat is really how LAWL trained their employees. I have read several accounts that they were mainly sales people hired to sell the products and not actual nutritionists, though.

  28. 28 On September 15th, 2009, Liza said:

    Ooops, I didn’t read Rachel’s mention of their distance learning.

    And re: good v. bad – who are you to say (@Gwen) that because it “worked” for some people it’s a positive thing? It’s irresponsible to say that something that is this dangerous (<530 calories a day is awful) should be recommended for widespread use.

    I say that as someone who has used these liquid programs. I actually credit one with helping me overcome a binge eating disorder, but a) I was allowed almost twice as many calories and b) you don’t see me here recommending it as an option for everyone. I was also under a doctor’s supervision (I’ve since decided he’s a jackass, largely because of his reaction to my stopping the program, but he is still a trained M.D. and kept a close eye on all of my vitals while I was on it). It’s not a sustainable way to live. It’s certainly not for everyone. And LighterLife is irresponsible for not employing medical professionals (if not M.D.s than at LEAST licensed nurses or P.A.s) and for suggesting it should be used casually for weight loss.

    *And I realize that I would probably have been better off speaking with a shrink, but I admit that I started the program for more dubious reasons (by that I mean that I just wanted to lose weight) and I didn’t realize until I was in it that I was suffering from BED. At that point I was dealing with it in my own way and while I still occasionally mentally struggle I feel that I’m in a good place.*

    It’s also irresponsible to come to an eating disorders forum and say that something that causes weight loss at the expense of health is a success. I’m sure there are people here who could be easily triggered. (also I hope that I haven’t inadvertently done that. I only shared my side of this to add what I hope can be credibility from someone who’s been on one of those damn diets)

  29. 29 On April 28th, 2010, Leanne Ely, you are getting on my last nerve « spacedcowgirl said:

    [...] essay. Any person who would so blithely trivialize eating disorders (which, let’s remember, actually kill people, unlike obesity in and of itself)  is not someone I really care to [...]

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