Made in the USA: The Weight-Loss Industry Makes Huge Gains
February 21st, 2011
AOL Small Business
By: Geoff Williams
Kim Benson’s epiphany came after she ordered a snack at a local fast-food joint: Two hot dogs with everything, two cheeseburgers with the works, two large fries, two German chocolate cake slices and two large diet sodas. “I wanted the drive-through person to think I was ordering for two people,” says Bensen, who weighed 347 pounds at the time and admits she was already thinking about what she was going to have for dinner.
That was in 2001. Not long after, Bensen joined Weight Watchers for the 10th time. But this time around, she managed to summon the willpower to finally start losing the weight — 212 pounds in all. Two years later, so many people were asking for advice and sending her e-mails that she began spending most of her time answering questions and sending low-fat recipes to friends, family and even strangers. Soon, she had penned a cookbook and she and her husband used $20,000 from their savings and an inheritance as seed money to start their own weight-loss company.
Today, Kim Bensen Enterprises has 10 full-time employees devoted to helping people lose weight. Her website offers everything from healthy foods to kitchen tools to premium memberships, which provide meal plans, online meetings and other advice and support tools. Her line of bagels, Kim’s Light Bagels, are also available in grocery stores across New England.
Bensen has become a part of America’s weight-loss factory, a thriving industry that has been around as long as the republic itself. But in an era of The Biggest Loser and I Used to Be Fat — not to mention record obesity and diabetes rates — the movement has taken on a more significant role, providing entrepreneurs like Bensen the opportunity make money while making a dent in the crisis.
As far back as 1829, a Presbyterian minister named Sylvester Graham started talking up fad diets. His Graham diet focused on caffeine-free drinks, vegetables and, conveniently, the product he was pushing, Dr. Graham’s Honey Biscuits. The diet may have not endured, but the product did — known to us as the Graham cracker.
There are plenty of other examples, of course. American history is replete with them, from Ladies’ Home Journal articles touting diets in the 19th century to the “Hollywood Eighteen Day Diet” during the 1920s, which was a 585-calorie diet that advised eating only grapefruit, oranges, Melba toast, green vegetables and hard boiled eggs. And in the midst of all these weight-loss fads, companies saw that there was money to be made. Some of the biggest in the industry, of course, include Weight Watchers, founded in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1963; Nutrisystem, started in Fort Washington, Pa., in 1972; and Jenny Craig, which began in Australia in 1983 and reached U.S. soil in 1985.