It’s been a busy spring for body weight researchers. I’m still working hard to catch up on the latest publications. A recent article to come across my (virtual) desk is one from JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), with the intriguing title “Change in Percentage of Adults with Overweight or Obesity Trying to Lose Weight, 1988–2014”.
If you’re in a big hurry right now (maybe you’re trying to get out the door to ride or run or walk or go somewhere, in which case I promise not to delay you), here’s the takeaway:
From 1988 to 2014:
- More American adults are overweight or obese (that is, have BMIs 25–30 and 30+). No news there.
- Fewer of these adults with BMIs 25–30 and 30+ are now reporting trying to lose weight. Hmmm. Possibly interesting.
- The authors seem very worried about this trend. They think it’s a potentially bad thing.
- I am not worried about this trend. I think it might be a good thing, or maybe just a thing.
Now, if you’re not on your way outside (it’s a gentle sunny spring morning here in Boston), here are some of the details (both about what they said and what I think about it). If you’re a data person, here are some numbers:
- The percentage of adults with BMIs 25–30 and 30+ increased from about 52% to about 65%– from about half to about 2/3 of the population.
- The percentage of those adults (BMI 25 and above) who reported trying to lose weight declined from about 55% to about 49%– not a big drop, but it’s notably lower.
- The article reports prominently that group with the biggest decline in weight loss attempts is black women, with a change from about 65% to about 55%– a 10% drop in weight loss attempts. It reminds us that this group also has the highest incidence of BMIs 30+ (55%).
- White men as a group also declined in weight loss attempts– a 6% drop (46% to 40%).
- Also found in the table and in one sentence in the article is the fact that white women as a group also declined in weight loss attempts, by a bit more than 10%.
If you’re still reading (in which case, thank you; I do appreciate it), here are some messages in this article that struck me full in the face (and not in a good way).
First, the article seems really worried about the suggestion that the range of socially acceptable body weight is increasing. They say this explicitly:
If more individuals who are overweight or obese are satisfied with their weight, fewer might be motivated to lose unhealthy weight.
Later on, they try to explain this phenomenon:
This observation may be due to body weight misperception reducing motivation to engage in weight loss efforts or primary care clinicians not discussing weight issues with patients.6 The chronicity of obesity may also contribute. The longer adults live with obesity, the less they may be willing to attempt weight loss, in particular if they had attempted weight loss multiple times without success.
Body weight misperception? In this context it means that people think their body weight is just fine, when really it’s not. The authors suggest that people might mistakenly believe their body weight is okay because their health care provider hasn’t told them that it’s not. And people might accept their bodies as fine because they’ve tried to lose weight, failed, and thus given up that fruitless pursuit in favor of a more profitable one, namely accepting their bodies as they are.
If body acceptance is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
But the medical literature just doesn’t agree.
While looking over this paper, I came across a 2010 article called “From ‘overweight’ to ‘about right’: evidence of a generational shift in body weight norms”. This article seems to say that if people stop trying to lose weight and accept that their bodies are “about right”, bad things will happen. From the 2010 article:
Such complacency among overweight and obese individuals may limit the effectiveness of public health campaigns aimed at weight reduction and associated improvements in health outcomes, including efforts to raise awareness of BMI thresholds for overweight and obesity.
In fairness, they do add:
On the other hand, there may be health benefits associated with improved body image, such as higher self-esteem and, potentially, a decline in the incidence of eating disorders.
Ya think? Why is that not in the beginning of the article? Why are we not celebrating and taking advantage of what could reasonably be interpreted as a nationwide increase in body positivity among lots of demographic groups?
One more point, which I can’t do justice to (I promise to address this in a future blog post): the authors emphasize the decrease in weight loss attempts among black women, when in fact the decrease among white women is almost exactly the same. It is true that the the black women as a group have a higher incidence of BMIs over 30 than white women as a group, which the authors also pointed out. The implication is that this means that it’s worse (medically) for black women to be body accepting than white women.
Argh. There’s something really wrong going on here. To unpack the wrongs will take some time and more research. I promise here that I’ll do that and report back. But you’ve been alerted– the ways research like this gets reported treats racial groups differently, and that has all sorts of ramifications. I’ll leave this here for now, but will return to it soon.
Ending on a positive note, as it’s just too pretty a day to stay negative: This blog is all about the joy to be found in celebrating our bodies, taking them out for spin, and feeding and caring for them, as we want them to work for us throughout our lives. Body acceptance helps us function in all sorts of ways– physically, emotionally, sexually, socially, intellectually, etc.
So readers, I love you all just the way you are…