Made in the USA: The Weight-Loss Industry Makes Huge Gains
Kim Bensen embarked on a journey to lose more than 200 pounds -- and found the idea for a successful business along the way. She's one of many entrepreneurs helping make a dent in America's obesity crisis.
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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.
It's hard to say if Kim Bensen Enterprises will become a household name like the others, but Bensen seems to be on her way. Thus far, her company:
- Provides a weekly newsletter that goes to 25,000 subscribers via e-mail.
- Offers her book Finally Thin.
- Features a spokesperson -- Bensen herself -- who has shared diet tips on TV shows including The Dr. Oz Show and Nightline.
- Holds in-person meetings in Shelton, Conn., which, starting this spring, will take place at the new, 16,000-square-foot Kim Bensen Weight Loss Center.
- Broadcasts live weight-loss meetings every week. "It's highly interactive," Bensen says. "Members call in, weigh in, win prizes and share their weight losses. We shout out to them. They are a strong and growing community."
"There are so many preconceived notions with this industry," Bockman says. "People have been sold snake oil for so long that it's hard for anyone to know who to trust."
That can be maddening to the up-and-coming entrepreneur trying to be transparent and ethical. "We're very upfront with our label claims, and you can look at the ingredients," Bockman says. "I've been surprised at how many companies put out nutritional supplements, and you can't find anywhere what's in this product. All it says is you're going to burn fat or have ripped abs, but they don't say what's in there."
But it's not just the dubious claims that weight-loss entrepreneurs have to contend with. It's all that competition clamoring for everybody's dollar, from diet magazines to diet foods to the latest exercise gadget peddled on late-night infomercials.
And then, of course, entrepreneurs have to compete with Doritos and Big Macs and all those foods that make a person not want to think about losing weight. "It's hard to convince people to make a lifestyle change," says personal trainer-turned-entrepreneur John Dull, 48. "They all want that magic pill or potion. Everyone's looking for that quick fix."
Of course, the junk-food problem can also be what drives a customer to you, and that's certainly what Dull and his business partner Michelle Collier, 43, are hoping for. They created Supreme 90 Day, a package of 10 workout DVDs and a meal plan that is sold by Telebrands, the company behind the "As Seen on TV" line of products.
When Telebrands founder A.J. Khubani suggested to his personal trainer, Dull, that he develop a fitness program, Dull jumped right on it and enlisted Collier, another trainer. The program launched at the start of this year.
While America's couch potato problem poses a challenge to the weight-loss industry, it also provides more opportunity, as the health risks associated with obesity get more attention. Dull says First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign to combat the epidemic, especially among children, is a start. "When you look at the youth today, there's no activity or exercise," he says. "Their diet consists of everything prepackaged. Everyone's in a rush and nobody's taking the time to exercise. So between Michelle Obama getting behind taking soda out of the schools and Walmart saying they're going to reduce sugar in their products, that can only help the problem. And it is a problem."
Geoff Williams is a frequent contributor at AOL Small Business. He is also the author of Living Well with Bad Credit and C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race.