America seems to be obsessed with the issue of obesity. Hardly a week goes by without this being mentioned as a serious public health crisis and that urgent measures need to be adopted to combat it. One can hardly blame people who do not fit into the perceived body-size norm for feeling beleaguered by society’s pressures and feeling that they have to take all manner of measures, even extreme ones, to try and lose weight. But as I wrote last year, there a lot of myths surrounding weight and weight loss that work against the idea that losing weight and keeping it off is a straightforward matter.
I have a colleague who is a professor in the field of nutrition who has long been arguing that America’s obsession with obesity is misplaced. He is not saying that being overweight is a good thing or that it does not cause some adverse health effects. What he is saying is that the negative health consequences are way overblown, rather than being narrowly focused, and that the idea that everyone should strive for some ideal range based on height and weight (using such measures as the Body Mass Index) is not helpful. Apart from being unrealistic, it leads to stigmatization of people who do not approach the image of the ideal. We should stop nagging them or treating them as if they are somehow lazy or weak-willed or gluttonous simply because they do not fit into an acceptable weight range.
He says that the causes of obesity are complex and have a significant genetic component that makes it easy for some people to maintain a low weight and much harder for others. A report about new study seems to confirm my colleague’s view that achieving permanent weight loss is almost impossible.
There’s a disturbing truth that is emerging from the science of obesity. After years of study, it’s becoming apparent that it’s nearly impossible to permanently lose weight.
As incredible as it sounds, that’s what the evidence is showing. For psychologist Traci Mann, who has spent 20 years running an eating lab at the University of Minnesota, the evidence is clear. “It couldn’t be easier to see,” she says. “Long-term weight loss happens to only the smallest minority of people.”
We all think we know someone in that rare group. They become the legends — the friend of a friend, the brother-in-law, the neighbour — the ones who really did it.
But if we check back after five or 10 years, there’s a good chance they will have put the weight back on. Only about five per cent of people who try to lose weight ultimately succeed, according to the research. Those people are the outliers, but we cling to their stories as proof that losing weight is possible.
Cory Doctorow says that he has to work really hard all the time to prevent any weight loss he achieves from creeping back up.
Which is to say, it’s a ton of work to stay where I am, and I know from past experience that if I skip swimming for a few days, or let myself go nuts on carbs for more than a day or two, or skip fasting-days (which aren’t really fasting — just very low-calorie days) that my weight creeps up. I pretty much never eat without making a complex (and tediously unwelcome) calculation about what I’m about to consume, and I often experience guilt while eating “bad” food and shame afterwards.
I have a friend of mine who does similar calculations all the time to see how much exercise she should do to compensate for whatever she ate. It is not a pleasant way of spending time. And it must be frustrating for them to see other people enjoying all manner of foods without gaining weight.
The problem, my nutritionist colleague says, is that our focus is wrong. There are a lot of benefits to eating healthily and getting regular exercise and everyone should do them. But the obesity-centered view tends to make people think that these things are a means to an end, the end being to lose weight. And when people find that it does not cause them to lose it or keep the weight off, they get very discouraged and stop doing them, despite the other benefits they lose by abandoning them.
He says we would be better served by shifting from an obesity-centered view to a health-centered view, in which all people are encouraged in healthy eating and exercise habits simply for the enjoyment they give and the improvement in their health and quality of life generally. In the process they may lose weight or they may not, but that should be seen as incidental.
Such an approach would also help reduce the stigma that overweight people face on a daily basis.
The Daily Show back in 2010 had a clip on this topic and some of the overwrought rhetoric that surrounds discussions of weight in the US.
(This clip was aired on June 22, 2010. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)