diets · weight loss

Losing Weight and Keeping It Off…

diets2This topic has come up for me again lately because of (1) a barrage of email from Precision Nutrition asking me if I want to do it again (no thanks; see here for why) and (2) another excellent post from Ragan Chastain over at Dances with Fat talking about the ridiculousness of our obsession with weight loss. See her post “Even if Weight Loss Would Solve Every Problem.”

As she points out,

Even if becoming thin would solve every single problem in every single fat person’s life (and I don’t think it would), the truth is it doesn’t matter.  Because we don’t know how to get it done. The belief that we know how to help people lose weight long term, and that weight loss leads to greater health, is a major Galileo issue of our time – widely believed, fervently defended, and unsupported by the evidence.

So we throw around this hope, this dream, that one day the research will tell us something different. But even the science team at Weight Watchers isn’t hopeful that this will happen.  Here’s the dirt:

Weight Watchers own numbers show that the average person maintains a 5 pound weight loss after 2 years (a feat I feel could be accomplished by regular exfoliation and without paying a small fortune to Weight Watchers.)  When asked by the Federal Trade Commission to do longer-term studies, representatives from WW refused because “it would be too depressing for our clients”.

No, we wouldn’t want to depress clients with…the truth.  That would be unconscionable wouldn’t it? And why would the truth be depressing? Because, as Ragan Chastain quite rightly points out, we’ve come up with the kooky idea that losing weight is a cure all for everything that is wrong.  And it’s kind of depressing to discover that the magic cure is almost unattainable.

Better to keep people hopeful and trying.  That’s the WW strategy. That’s the PN strategy. That’s the strategy for just about every weight loss program out there.  They use before-after pictures, but the small print says “results not typical.” And it’s rare to see “after” shots that are way after. Like two or more years after. Why? Because it’s really hard to see anything dramatic in a 5 pound weight-loss, which is what WW for example says that the average person maintains 2 years out. Pics from 5 years after would be an even harder sell.

So there are a couple of things going on here. First off, we need to seriously examine why weight-loss is ascribed all the magical happy-making qualities it is. What’s that all about? It’s not as if everyone who wants to lose a few pounds is facing major health risks if they don’t. It’s not as if everyone who is in the perceived “normal healthy” (ugh!) weight range is actually healthy.  And it’s certainly not as if losing weight will solve our financial problems or marital problems or make our kids give us no grief or make the boss our best friend or stop our neighbor from dying or prevent us from getting in a car accident or make airline travel a pleasant experience, give us more vacation days, better sleep, and tickets to see our favourite band. And yet so many people, large and small alike, are filled with self-loathing and despair because they can’t lose weight and keep it off.

And then, we need to even more seriously consider why we reject the evidence before us about what a futile endeavor this actually is for the vast majority of people who undertake it. Please do not start on the “if people just did what they were supposed to do they would lose it and keep it off.” When we individualize this as if it’s all the fault of the people who can’t stick to the program as presented we miss the larger issue, which is that maybe, just maybe, these programs are a waste of time and money.

Ragan Chastain:

Almost everyone who attempts weight loss fails.  Yet doctors keep prescribing the same things and blaming the vast majority of people for “not trying hard” enough or “not doing it right”. Can you imagine if Viagra only worked 5% of the time and we blamed 95% of the guys for just not trying hard enough?  It’s completely ridiculous.  But when I point this out people roll their eyes and say “everybody knows” that you can lose weight if you really try.

Let me say it again – even if weight loss would solve every problem (and I don’t think it will), it doesn’t matter because we don’t know how to get it done and my opinion, based on the research that exists, is that it is a massive waste of time, money, and resources to keep suggesting, marketing, prescribing, and pursuing weight loss.

And finally,

If people want to keep researching weight loss methods that’s fine, it’s also fine if they want to keep researching ways to help people fly like superman, but I certainly won’t be dieting or jumping off my roof and flapping my arms. Attempting weight loss to get healthier is doing something that nobody has proven is possible for a reason that nobody has proven is valid.

It’s been a long time since I built a blog post around quotes from someone else’s blog post, but this message cannot be delivered enough. We all want to think we’re exceptions. That this time we will do it and it will work because we’ll do it better, we’ll be more vigilant, we’ll be “good,” la, la, la.

But, and I hate to be a negative ninny about it but hear me now: a new diet will probably fail and even if you lose weight and keep some or even all of it off, that is not going to mean you’ll suddenly become happy.

But there are lots of other tangible things we can do to live now in the body we have today. So rather than obsess and wring our hands over the impossible, why not move on from that and live in reality?

12 thoughts on “Losing Weight and Keeping It Off…

  1. This is a frustrating topic, indeed. At the end of the day, if diets worked and we could spread our little (thinner, toned) wings after doing them, how would the diet industry keep making moola? It seems silly to talk about “lifestyle changes” because they are such a euphemism for diet anyways, but I think it’s got to come down to a question of whether or not you’re hurting or helping yourself regardless of what the scale does via your “dieting” or attempts to eat healthier. I’ve seen many people “eat healthy” by restricting and going crazy, but I’ve also seen people who want to lose weight take up exercising, find something they love, and develop the unarguably healthy habit of moving their bodies on a regular basis in a way that they enjoy. The problem is giving up on the healthy habits if the scale doesn’t change and the way that people put the number on the scale at the height of their priorities instead of using their brains a bit more and paying attention to their day to day habits. – my two cents!

  2. You make some wonderful points about the reality of the situation, and I agree, one doesn’t need to wait for that magic number of the scale to be happy.

  3. It just can’t said said often enough that diets simply do not work long-term (that is, longer than 6 months). It’s absolutely clear– there are truckloads of studies showing this. And it’s astounding (as you and Ragen point out here) how everyone– especially including medical establishment and public health policymakers and now insurance companies– fights against this, stubborn in their denial of this reality.

    Right now, the only people sending out this message are Ragen and the HAES folks, some feminist ethics/bioethics scholars, and some cultural critics and fat studies researchers. And a lot of blogs (most notably this one), of course.

    Something we DON’T do, but SHOULD, in terms of research (in my view), is focus more on the phenomenal features of health and well-being (like eating and activity patterns that feel good, stable, and can be integrated into one’s real and complex life). There are researchers who point out both connections and disconnections between these and the more standard metrics we use to measure health and predict risk of adverse health outcomes, but we don’t know enough and this isn’t part of mainstream medicine. I don’t know what it’s going to take to bring about this shift. Some prominent people (like Don Berwick, former chief medical officer of the US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid under Obama) have been saying this for years. I really hope the powers that be will start listening.

    1. But diets do work in the long term. I know many individuals that have lost and kept the weight off. The bigger question is why does it work for some, and not for others.
      I can tell you what works for me, but that really doesn’t matter because you are not me. That is what I think makes this such a confounding topic.

  4. Love this post! Being a professional in the fitness field, I absolutely hate how it’s completely framed around “weight loss” and improving physical aesthetics. It should really be framed around getting healthy, strong, and reducing the risk of chronic illness -lifestyle changes, THEN I think we would see happier, healthier people

    1. I, too, agree that the fitness field is framed around loosing weight. I’m skinny, always have been. You know how awkward I feel walking into a gym to work out? Everyone’s staring thinking she doesn’t need to be here. Physical fitness isn’t about your size. It’s about your internal health.

  5. In my experience WW ‘sell’ it to people by preying on their negative self talk and poor body image. The idea of selling a solution to solve all problems is created by the consumers and WW just fuel that fire. WW has damaged me in many ways, but I am working on it!

  6. Great blog Tracy. Totally agree. Have to stop living as if we are waiting for something and just get on with the “now”. This is where you are, this is what you look like. Enjoy it! My body has become something I love because it helps me achieve goals I didn’t think were possible – running marathons. Stressing and obsessing over our bodies is a bit of a time waster I think and a distraction from the things that we know are truly important. Really liked what you had to say. Thanks for putting it out there.

    1. Yes! Obsessing over any area of our live that we are unsatisfied with is unhealthy. We think that once we make that one area right, we’ll be happy. Then, when we reach that goal (or loose the weight in this instance), we aren’t any happier, which makes us gain it back again. Our culture bombards us with images of others (not just appearances, but the cars they drive and the homes they live in) and we end up comparing ourselves to others and that’s not a way to live.

  7. The only thing I’ve seen work for women in particular is focusing on building lean muscle and getting stronger rather than focusing on losing weight. We do that with resistance training (and some cardio/hiit/interval training). I help my clients transform their mind and body and the way they view themselves. Focusing on how they feel, progress in the gym, hitting PRs instead of obsessing over the scale is a win. That coupled with a whole foods plant-based diet AND consistency works for weight loss and keeping it off. It has to be a lifestyle not a “diet”.

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