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Does Weight Loss Require Help From Above?

A mayor and a preacher both think they know the way to a slimmer, healthier body


Who's more likely to get you to lose weight, your mayor or your pastor? Secular and sectarian experiments on two coasts could produce intriguing answers.

The Big Apple's Big Gulp Ban

In New York City, the latest shot in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's war against obesity came last week with his proposed ban on the sale of virtually all sweetened drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces, in all outlets regulated by the city — including movie theaters, sports arenas and fast-food restaurants.

“Obesity is a nationwide problem, and all over the United States, public health officials are wringing their hands saying, ‘Oh, this is terrible,’” Bloomberg told The New York Times. The mayor has already pushed through a ban on the use of artificial trans fats in restaurants and a rule requiring fast-food chains to post their dishes' calorie counts, not to mention a ban on smoking in restaurants and city parks. "New York City is not about wringing your hands; it’s about doing something," he said. "I think that’s what the public wants the mayor to do.”

Well, not the whole public. Critics have bashed the mayor's idea on at least two fronts. There is first, as always, opposition to any idea seen as perpetuating a "nanny state." As one Gothamite told The Wall Street Journal: "What, you can't eat doughnuts next? Tell him to mind his own business. People have the right to do what they want to do. Who is he? Napoleon?"

But there is also ridicule of the very notion that Bloomberg's ban could have an impact on public health, since it doesn't apply to juices, dairy-based drinks, alcoholic beverages or any drinks sold in convenience stores or groceries. Neither does it stop anyone from buying three separate 16-ounce drinks at the multiplex. As Jon Stewart pointed out in a hilarious Daily Show segment, the city would still allow people to buy massive corned-beef sandwiches, tubs of ice cream and Slurpees in cups that could drown the diminutive mayor.

A Megachurch Drops Megapounds

Should Bloomberg's regulations survive his term in office (a new mayor will be elected in November 2013), public-health experts will certainly be curious to discover if his approach leads to a fitter metropolis. Across the country, the Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., is already seeing results from his Daniel Plan, a two-year-old, faith-based fitness and weight-loss program.

Warren, whose church has an average weekly attendance of 22,000, told Time magazine last week that he had become increasingly concerned about his flock's weight after a grueling day of 500-plus baptisms led him to think, "Man, we're all fat!"

Warren, who was about 90 pounds overweight at the time, says he committed himself that day to getting himself, and Saddleback, in shape. His program is inspired by an episode from the biblical Book of Daniel, in which the prophet and three other young Jewish boys were brought to Nebuchadnezzar's court, to be trained to serve in the palace. A royal official invited the recruits to partake from a table of rich foods, but Daniel insisted: "Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food." Ten days later, court officials discovered that Daniel and his peers were stronger and healthier than the others.

Warren's program, which includes a website where parishioners can track their weight loss, is not strictly vegetarian like Daniel's. (The prophet's adherence to kosher guidelines would likely have been behind his avoidance of royal cuts of meat.) And Warren draws on the ideas of a multifaith dream team of celebrity medical consultants including Dr. Mehmet Oz, Dr. Daniel Amen and Dr. Mark Hyman.

So far, 15,000 church members have signed on to the Daniel Plan, and they've dropped a collective 260,000 pounds — about 17 pounds each. Warren, who has lost 55 pounds, says that dieters who meet regularly in small groups at the church have lost twice as much, on average, as those who have followed the plan independently.

A Public or Parochial Path?

Warren told Time that he believes the key to public health is a partnership between the public sector, the private sector and "the faith sector." He hopes to export his Daniel Plan to 1 billion people worldwide over the next decade, but each of those people will have to volunteer to take part, which will require a labor of proselytizing, even in the Internet age. Mayors like Bloomberg — or presidents or dictators with the power to ban unhealthy ingredients from the diets of millions with a single executive order — could theoretically have much greater impact, because they have the power to affect those who do not come along willingly.

Which approach will prove more successful to mass weight loss -— Bloomberg's orders or Warren's sermons? The pastor readily admits that guilt plays a role in the Daniel Plan's success, but says: "A certain amount of guilt is good. There are things I ought to feel guilty over … and I should accept responsibility." My own experience tells me he's right, but also that if an individual isn't ready to fully commit to weight loss, no program will succeed. When I lost nearly 50 pounds a couple of years ago, I did so because I'd decided it was finally time to stop feeling guilty and start getting serious about my weight. Like a mayor, I immediately banned several unhealthy ingredients and portion sizes from my diet. And while I didn't join a weight-loss circle, I did blog about my experience for an online audience of millions, and having that group following my progress created positive pressure to continue to have good results to report.

In the end, though, visionary leaders can lead their flocks to water, but they can't make them drink it instead of Mountain Dew unless they're ready to make a switch. And that remains the challenge.

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