body image · diets · eating · health · motivation · weight loss

“Healthy stuff is still healthy, it just doesn’t make you thin”

Yesterday Sam posted about the CBC report with latest “news” about obesity research: “Obesity research confirms, longterm weight-loss almost impossible.”  This is hardly news. We’ve said this many times.  It’s one of the most controversial claims you can make that’s fully supported by research.

I responded last summer with the post “If Diets Don’t Work, Then What?”   There I promoted the benefits, mostly in terms of mental health, of the intuitive eating approach.  I didn’t lose weight when I embraced intuitive eating. But I did lose a debilitating obsession with food and weight.  That more than made up for it.

And yet, after a year of intuitive eating, I still chose to pursue the Precision Nutrition Lean Eating Program for Women. Knowing what I know, it may seem like an odd choice. Why, when all the advertising surrounding the program is about body transformation, would I want to do it? I blogged about it in the post “Why I’m trying PN “Lean Eating” after a year of intuitive eating.”  There, I said my main reason had to do with tweaking my nutritional habits:

One of the principles of Intuitive Eating–the last principle, in fact, because it is so loaded for so many chronic dieters–is “Honor your health with gentle nutrition.”  I don’t want to exaggerate. It’s not as if I’m living on junk food and soda pop or anything like that.  But I do feel as if I’ve not quite mastered nutrition since I became vegan just over three years ago. And while I’ve been focusing on a more intuitive approach to eating, nutrition hasn’t been the main guiding principle in my choices.

And truth be told, I’m ready for a change.  From what Sam has told me about the Lean Eating program and from everything I’ve read, it’s not a diet and it can be compatible with an intuitive eating approach to food. So let’s just say that this year, I’m honoring my health with the re-introduction of gentle nutrition.  Nothing extreme will work for me.

And so far, it’s been doing that really well.  What I didn’t know ahead of time is just how compatible with intuitive eating the PN approach in the Lean Eating program actually is. If you could just embrace the two “anchor habits” of eating slowly and stopping at 80% full, you would be a fairly successful intuitive eater. And a whole lot more comfortable after meals.

So I’m engaging in some healthy behaviors and developing some healthy habits. And since they do ask for weight and measurements on a regular basis, I can report that I have dropped a few pounds along the way. But I am not deluding myself this time. The real test of any program is not to be found by comparing the “before” with the “immediately after.” Not at all. Check back a year after. Or two years after. What about five years after?

As Sam reported yesterday, PN doesn’t track that sort of thing at all. No follow-up means no data to report.  With the stats for any program as they are, it’s not surprising no one wants to track the long term results. And the fact that lots of people do PN multiple times is evidence that despite its focus on healthy habits, the results are not likely to be sustainable for the majority of people.  If they were, they would be more enthusiastic about follow-ups and reporting the longer term outcomes for their clients.

The quote from the CBC article that I liked the most, is the one that I put in the title today. Pyschologist Traci Mann, who ran an eating lab at the University of Minnesota for 20 years, says: “Healthy stuff is still healthy, it just doesn’t make you thin.”

As Sam did yesterday, I’m concerned about people who put thinness as their primary goal for engaging in activity or for making balanced nutritional choices.  That’s not the only reason to make those choices. As the research shows, it’s not even a good reason.

I do wonder whether I will keep these “healthy habits” over time.  Does the weight come back on inevitably, or is it because habits slide? “Researchers are divided about why weight gain seems to be irreversible, probably a combination of biological and social forces. ‘The fundamental reason,’ [obesity researcher Tim] Caulfield says, ‘is that we are very efficient biological machines. We evolved not to lose weight. We evolved to keep on as much weight as we possibly can.'”

Okay, so as Sam asked yesterday: liberating or depressing?  For me, it’s helping me a lot to keep any weight loss that I might be experiencing in PN LE in perspective. Thankfully it’s not my primary goal, and even more thankfully the weighing and measuring has not fostered a new obsession. In fact, I have found myself quite capable of adopting the recommended attitude of “get ’em and forget ’em” towards the weekly updates.

I used to feel more hopeful about a different outcome, namely a change not in weight but in body composition. But now I think that aspirations of that nature are just another breeding ground for false hope.

When I reflect on what has been most amazing so far about the “fittest by 50 challenge” that Sam and I are on, for me it comes down to two things:

1. becoming adept at intuitive eating, to the point where I no longer obsess about food.  I repeat: I NO LONGER OBSESS ABOUT FOOD!

2. how much I am enjoying the activities I’m pursuing these days. I’m all geared up for my first triathlon of the season on the weekend and I couldn’t be more excited.  Weight loss and even body composition just aren’t factoring into that picture.

I also have an expanded conception of health that includes my mental health.  I feel more grounded, more at peace with who I am, much healthier in my relationship and attitude towards food, activity, and my body.  I’ve still got a bit of a way to go with respect to body image, but I am further than I was last summer when I wrote this post.

I too fall into the “liberating” camp.  Knowing the facts should also liberate us from stigmatizing fat bodies and making moralized judgments about body fat (on ourselves and others). In moral philosophy we have this principle that says “ought implies can.” It means that you can’t be under an obligation to do anything that is impossible.  If we say you “ought to” then it means you should be able to.

And the stats on long term maintenance of lost weight don’t support the “can.” Therefore, they call seriously into question the “ought.”

At the same time, that doesn’t mean we need to give up on making choices that make us feel better. But making thinness the primary motive is a set-up for feeling much, much worse.



6 thoughts on ““Healthy stuff is still healthy, it just doesn’t make you thin”

  1. Great post! I fully agree that thinness cannot be a primary goal. I have long dropped that. For me, the only primary goal that works is for me to feel better. Some habits impede that and I work to drop them.

  2. I hate studies like these. In fact, I wanted to comment on Sam’s post, but it was triggering such an emotional response that I couldn’t. I lost 40 pounds a year ago. I feel great, I like the way I look, and it’s given me the opportunity and confidence to try new things, and so on. But in January I started gaining a little back and I went into a tailspin. Why? Because of articles like these. I kept found myself thinking, ‘Is this it? Is where all the weight comes back? Is this the inevitable decline back?”

    The truth was that it was only a couple of pounds, due mostly to winter inactivity, but because I see articles like these saying it was “inevitable” that I will gain it back, I almost stopped trying. It feels hopeless and so, so frustrating. Most of the time I refuse to believe I will gain it back – I have to think that way, otherwise I’ll get depressed. There are other times though, that I think, “what makes me so special? Why should I even hope to keep the weight off?” Physically, I feel better than I do in years. I have more energy, can do more things, and love the stamina not carrying that extra weight has given me. Mentally, I’d feel a whole lot better if there were few more success stories out there.

    1. I appreciate your frustration. In my view, the studies convey important information. They might be discouraging, but if this is the way it is for the vast majority of people, then our current narrative about individual responsibility and failing just has to stop.

      The last time I lost a lot of weight (about 9 years ago) I didn’t gain it all back, but I gained more than 50% of it back — this still defies the statistic that almost everyone gains it back and more. But I don’t want to delude myself either. If you’re feeling better than you have in years, have energy that you never used to have, have more endurance and so forth, that’s all good, isn’t it? There can only be more success stories out there if there ARE more success stories. With the stats at 95% re-gaining, the successes are few and far between. What that says to me is that we need to alter our measures of success.

      Recommendation: One quite inspiring success story that I enjoyed reading is Rich Roll’s Finding Ultra. Another, that we recently reviewed, is Vanessa Runs’ The Summit Seeker.

      1. I’m like Tracy, on my last major weight loss adventure, at forty, I lost 70 lbs. That’s a lot. I’ve gained more than half of that back. But not all of it. And over ten years. Success? Failure? I’m with Tracy too that we need to rethink what counts as success in this context.

  3. Yay, for intuitive healthy eating. I realize it may be tougher for some folks to adopt this….and for some if they started off as a child with lousy family eating habits and meals, that’s just tougher to learn intuitive eating.

    For about a decade after I left my parents’ home, as an adult I thought my mother was abit odd, on cutting off fat before cooking meat, scraping off fat from top of left over soups, dividing 1 can of coke among 2 children.. Now, I realize she has given a great health legacy to us.

    I thought other students around me at university were abit strange, complaining how much effort cooking took. Really?? I was genuinely puzzled. (Yea, I tried Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese. Ok for once a month or so.) All I had to do was cook rice, steam some Chinese meat dishes, lightly stir fry some veggies that I learned from mother. That WAS my university student cooking/eating style.

    I would so strongly if nothing else, a parent regardless of their income level, give a child a legacy of healthy dishes, healthy attitudes towards cooking/food, and food never used as either punishment (liver when child was bad) nor as a reward.

    Intuitive eating begins at chlldhood. But it’s never too late.

    I actually consider food for myself personally –part cultural practice. So I do eat occasionally stuff that is decadent. But alas not much rice anymore because I get sugar crashes.

Comments are closed.