body image · diets · weight loss

More in praise of moderate weight loss, or it’s okay to celebrate being an alpaca

In a much older post I made a distinction between those rare, magical creatures, the weight loss unicorns (people who lose a large amount of weight loss and sustain that weight loss) from the more common, but less appreciated, weight loss alpacas (people who lose a small or moderate amount of weight and manage to sustain that weight loss.)

There are at least two different ways to measure long term weight loss success. We can focus on those who maintain a goal weight or on those who maintain a weight loss of just five or ten percent of their starting weight. By that more easygoing measure, I’m in, I’m a success story. Lots more people are in even if we don’t typically think of only losing 5-10 percent of your body weight, a weight loss success story.

Call the people who meet standard 1, getting to goal and staying there, the unicorns. They are rare. Far more common are people who meet standard 2, exotic but not unfamiliar. Call them the weight loss alpacas. I’m a weight loss alpaca! (I’ve got a soft spot for alpacas.)

Savita notes in her recent analysis of the Biggest Loser study that one thing people miss is that some of the participants did keep some of the weight off. Again, small amounts but it’s not nothing.

Why does this count as failure?

Yoni Freedhoff often suggests we should change our standards and count as successful those people who lose and keep off small or moderate amounts of weight.

I think what hampers people more than anything else with weight loss is how success has been defined. Whether that definition comes from the glorification of extreme weight loss on idiotic television shows, or from public health messaging around the risks of obesity, or doctors discussing “normal” weights or body mass indices with their patients, or from personally held desires, the shared goal post is one of losing every last bit of excess weight.

When we look to those folks, my alpacas, three things stand out:

First, the moderate weight loss seems to be easier to maintain.

Second, there are more of them. Unicorns are rare but alpacas aren’t.

Third, they get most or all of the health benefits of weight loss.

Gretchen Reynolds says the same thing in her recent Globe and Mail piece on weight loss.

So what hope is there for weight maintenance?

Anecdotal reports by people who have succeeded in keeping weight off tend to have a common theme: constant vigilance, keeping close track of weight, controlling what food is eaten and how much (often by weighing and measuring food), exercising often, putting up with hunger and resisting cravings to the best of their ability. Those who maintain a modest weight loss often report less of a struggle than those trying to keep off large amounts of weight.

So here’s the question for further thought. Why don’t we celebrate modest weight loss?

Here’s some of my thoughts.

I’m with Yoni Freedhoff that we stigmatize overweight so much that we can’t believe we should count as a success people who are still very much overweight.

But more significantly, I think as long as we focus on looks, and think of weight loss in terms of getting down to normal BMI, or some ideal weight, we’re getting something seriously wrong. To my mind that’s where Weight Watchers and other commercial weight loss programs go wrong.

Let’s start cheering for the alpacas and celebrating small amounts of weight lost and maintained.

12 thoughts on “More in praise of moderate weight loss, or it’s okay to celebrate being an alpaca

  1. Well, yes to not calling people failures for not losing a massive amount of weight.
    But how about not labelling anyone as ‘success’ or ‘failure’ based on their weight? Or anything to do with their bodies?

  2. I’ve loved your alpaca idea for a long time ( although your alpaca pics have provoked a new love for alpacas themselves). This idea really has legs ( which are also furry?). That is, it may not be the case that everyone over say 30 BMI should lose 5–10% body weight. That’s not the normative claim. Rather, those with troubling medical metrics (BP, cholesterol, triglycerides especially) would benefit significantly from that amount of sustainable weight loss. The literature is moving in that direction. But you’ve got the idea and the mascot for it! Love this.

    1. I came across it when trying to see why obesity researchers and I disagreed about success rates. The rate they cite comes from including small amounts of weight lost. But almost no one else thinks of that as success. For me it’s thinking of my own story as success rather than failure. Though as the commentator above notes, no bodies are failures.

  3. I love, love, love this post! If more of us lost just 5 – 10% of our excess body fat, it would exponentially improve our health outcomes! I believe that public health has been saying this for a while now. And what you say is completely true: even small successes should be celebrated. Thank you for writing this. And I love the pictures. 🙂

  4. Adorable post! I define success as taking advantage of the opportunities life presents us with. No matter if the outcome seems grand or on the small scale. Rock on all you alpacas out there!! <3

  5. I’ve said this before, repeatedly, much less bluntly, but you obviously haven’t heard me. So gloves off.

    Referring to people like myself as “rare” and “magical” fantasy creatures is hugely dismissive of our life experiences. If you were to respond to fat people who say that they are happy and healthy by saying, “Healthy fat people are as rare and magical as unicorns” they would rightly disagree. If you were to repeat it in the face of that disagreement, there would be outrage.

    Unicorns don’t exist. People like me – 20% weight loss, 7 or 8 years ago – do. If all bodies are good bodies (which I fervently believe) then that includes mine. Kindly stop implying I’m not real.

    1. Apologies. I agree. You’re right here. I’m wrong. Unicorns are mythical and your experiences are very real, even if they’re rare. Being rare doesn’t make them any less real. I’ve tried to think of another comparison, albino leopard, that sort of thing, rare but very real. Suggestions?

    2. I agree, and I’ve been trying to figure out why posts about weight loss on this blog have been making be feel bad. I was at one point almost 190 pounds, and I have maintained a 40 pound loss (now at 150) for 6 years now. I may be doing the math wrong but is that about a 20% loss? Does that mean I’m a “unicorn” too? And if so, is it wrong for my story to be shared or celebrated? Is it wrong for me to be proud of what I see as working hard to accomplish a goal that has given me more self-confidence and a body that is easier to move in (as in, I can be more athletic and hike up taller mountains now, which is very important to me!)? I’ve always seen my weight loss as “modest,” and I suppose this is partially because I remain at an “overweight” BMI, but my body feels better at this weight than it did at 190. So I feel like weight loss was a good thing for my body, even as I accept that every body is different and therefore weight loss may not be great, advisable, or possible for every body.

      1. There’s a blog post Monday on the “unicorn” thing. Thanks for your feedback. And congrats.

  6. I think that it is harder for people to notice weight when their was not that much weight to lose. I think that it would also be harder to lose a larger amount of weight, but maybe not because you may not know what pills they could have used. I’m in the same boat though. The most weight I have ever lost is 20 pounds, and NO ONE notices. I mean technically its for me, and no one else but it would be nice if someone else noticed.


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