You may lose more weight in cold weather… if you’re a mouse

A small brown mouse outside in the snow

Congratulations, blog readers!  You’ve made it through the minefield of New Year’s Resolutions, including all of those articles promising ways to lose weight this year.

However, now that we are settled into real winter (in the northern hemisphere), the writers of those weight-loss articles need a new angle.  And they have one: the role of cold weather in weight loss.

a thermometer with icecicles, surrounded by snowflakes

Honestly, I didn’t know this was a thing until I started googling, and found a bunch of articles touting the idea that we burn more calories in cold weather, or we can harness our shivering reflexes to burn more calories.  I’m not kidding– check the article out here. Or better yet, (re)read Sam’s blog post about hot vs. cold on exercise and weight loss here.  The advice never ends:  we are supposed to be able to use the cold to activate our brown fat to burn more calories (read about it here).  If you’re pressed for time and can’t read the rest of my post, here’s my two-word analysis of these methods for weight loss.

the words


Of course, this blog has been ever vigilant in documenting the hot/cold weight loss/gain silliness; see Sam’s posts on this issue here and here.  I was reminded of this seasonal phenomenon while looking at the weekly email digest I get in my inbox, called Obesity and Energetics Offerings (thanks David Allison, for your continued compiling of this). It compiles articles on everything from basic science to meta-analyses on topics related to body weight and weight loss. One of my favorite parts of the newsletter is the “Headline vs. Study” feature. It illustrates why we would do well not to take sensational news stories about diets or weight-loss at face value.

This week, the cold-weather-weight-loss meme was back.  First, the actual scientific article, from the journal Cell:  Gut microbiota orchestrates energy homeostasis during cold [for mice]. The tests were done on mice, and the results were illustrated like this:

a description of the process of insulin uptake after introducing gut microbiota into mice

It’s kind of pretty, don’t you think?  But also pretty complicated in such a way that doesn’t make for a catchy headline.  But fear not, for the news media will happily remedy that problem.  Like so:

Headline saying Study: cold weather helps you lose weight

You can find the article here, which does in fact mention the mice, but also suggests that this might work for humans:

The study states that its findings on the role microbes play in obesity should be useful in finding treatments in the future. For now, while you’re shivering outside, remember that it could lead to that perfect beach body.

Okay, I get it that news outlets are always looking for anything that will get more page views.  And any story that says “If you do X you may lose weight” is bound to be popular.

Just for fun, I decided to google losing weight in spring/summer/fall, and I found articles for every season, saying that it was the best time for weight loss.

Spring is the best time for weight loss because:

  • you can run outside (so you run longer, burning more calories)
  • you just happen to burn more calories in spring (yes, this keeps coming up but still isn’t true)
  • Bathing suit season (with impending fat shaming) is coming, thus motivating us through fear to lose weight (yeah, that always works)


Summer is the best time for weight loss because:

  • the weather is nice
  • we’re all in better moods (okay, I give them that one)
  • the damn bathing suit thing again (we’re wearing bathing suits, so are afraid of eating lest we be judged; thanks for that!)


But wait, Fall is the best time for weight loss because:

  • Fall produce is yummy and good for you
  • It’s slow-cooker season (I didn’t make this up; look here but there’s no explanation)
  • The gym is not crowded

I have an idea:  we can fight back by figuring out which season is the best season for loving our bodies.  Here’s me:

Winter is a great season to love my body because it knows how to cross country ski and glide around.  Also, I love the feel of gloves and hats and scarves. And the crunch of snow under my boots.

Spring is a great season to love my body because I start to bare a little more skin and also spruce up with brighter colors.  And I ride my bike more, which my body and I love.

Summer is a fantastic season to love my body.  One word: water! I love the feeling of being in and moving through water.  And sweat, too– I do plenty of that on the bike and elsewhere.  And I love summer produce– yum yum yum!

Fall is a great season to love my body, with cool nights and feel of putting on a jacket after months of bare arms.  There’s fall riding and hiking, and festive rides, and the promise of eating more yummy orange foods.

Do you have a favorite season for loving your body?  I know, it’s hard to pick just one.




What Women Weigh

The morning after the presidential election I had my regular quarterly checkup with my rheumatologist, a wonderful south Asian-Canadian woman who treats my Ankylosing Spondylitis. I was already reeling from exhaustion and sorrow and rage because, you know; then I remembered that I would have to get on the schmancy digital scale the nurses trot you past before taking your blood pressure and making you wait. Cue… feelings.

I don’t own a scale and I don’t mind them all that much, to be honest. I know what I weigh, for training purposes, and I know when my body feels strong and comfortable in my favourite outfits. (I am a clothes horse, for which I thank my fantastically hedonistic psychotherapist.) But I get anxious getting on the scale all the same; this is learned anxiety. I grew up fearing my weight – fearing being weighed. I grew up fearing the scale’s gaze, like so many of us did and do.


Me at 10. I found this roll of film in my mom’s old camera three years ago. Our dachshund was called Nancy; my friend was called Francesca.

I was a chubby kid. I didn’t exercise much until university, and I ate the menu at home – hearty German fare. When I moved out on my own I moved in with a long-term partner, and together we did the thing most couples do when they hit the comfort zone: we gained weight together. At my heaviest I was extremely unhappy in my body, my relationship, and my life. That was about 15 years ago.

Today I love my body. It has taken work on my psyche (see above, re hedonistic therapist), on my past, and on my relationships with loved ones. It’s thanks to my feminist support network, and to the sports I adore, but I am now at a place where I do not really care much what the scale says. Other things matter more to me.

Which is why, when I stepped on the schmancy digital scale at the specialist’s office on 9 November and it read 172.8lb, I did not feel much bother. This was a number I had not seen in many years – I’ve been hovering between 160 and 169 since about 2003 – but I understood its origin. I’ve been working with a personal trainer for 16 months; I have gained enough muscle in that time to be able to do body-weight pull-ups and many other badass things. I’m also substantially faster on my bike than I’ve ever been despite the added weight. So I knew it was largely muscle I’d gained, which mitigated the feeling I would have expected to experience at seeing that number:


The doctor helped further. (Did I mention how awesome she is?) She entered, looked at me, looked at my chart, and said: you look just great. How do you feel? (At which point a tearful conversation about the election ensued. Suffice to say my weight was soon forgotten!)

I left feeling buoyant. And then I got to thinking about why I was feeling these feelings, even though the scale had just told me something ostensibly fearful – because women fear weight gain, always. Right? I felt good because I had gained lean mass, and that was my goal. I felt good because my doctor saw the same lean mass gain in my shape and on my chart and knew it was a positive – for me and for my wellness.

I felt good because I understood what I weighed and why I weighed it. Because the number, in fact, matched my expectations – my own goals, not the social message about what weight is, or should be, for women.

I felt good because I saw the true correlation between my weight and my body – the human female body I know and love – perhaps for the first time, ever.

Women are told from a young age to stay small and thus be beautiful: the less of you the better. The scale is your enemy: unless it registers LESS than expected, you are a failure.


I spent my childhood knowing this; key numbers were taboo. (180lb was THE ULTIMATE TABOO. I remember this well. Mom, do you?) So I fought to lose weight. I fought to shrink my body. I fought to shrink my expectations. I fought to take up less space in the world.

Sound toxic?

It sure as hell is.

This is one of the reasons Tracy firmly believes in dumping the scale – and she’s not alone. Get rid of it. Get rid of those shrinking expectations! But I have an ongoing relationship to my trainer’s scale, for training purposes, and to the one at the doctor’s, and thus I don’t wish to ditch. Instead, I have decided to use my new feeling of buoyancy (weight + knowledge = light-heartedness) as a teaching and learning tool.

This past Monday, I hatched a crazy plan: to run a “guess my weight” game on Facebook.

I wanted to test a theory: that very few people know what a human female actually weighs. We know what she “ought” to weigh, according to the toxic mainstream messages we are fed constantly about female embodiment: 110lb-140lb, maybe ever so slightly more if tall and (of course) slim – but I was betting we mostly had no clue about real weights in the real, badass, girl world. And I think we freaking should.


70kg is 154lb. This image has some issues… but it was the best I could do after a lot of searching. Enough said.

Why? Because: real women weigh stuff. Real women take up space! If we understand this, really get it, maybe we can make some real progress.

This is what I did. I posted three recent images of myself (below), in which I weigh (from bottom right, counterclockwise) 161, 167, and 172.8lb respectively (the final photo is my #pantsuitnation photo, from election day. SOB). I asked friends not to share on FB feeds (no trolls, please), but to share the pictures with friends and family privately and ask all and sundry to guess. The more guys and kids the better!

I got dozens of responses. While they varied widely, they ranged from roughly 140lb (mostly guys) to roughly 180lb (mostly my athlete, female friends). In the aggregate men guessed low; I don’t know if this is because they feared embarrassing me by saying what they really believed I weighed (I’m thinking this isn’t that likely – these are guys I trust and care about), OR because they don’t actually know what human females generally weigh, even though they love us and have all the best intentions in the world (this one is my bet).

Women guessed much closer on the whole. True, my FB feed is filled with feminists and athletes, but even so I was surprised. And more: I was heartened, and made genuinely happy. And I felt empowered! I’ve got to be honest: even though I know why I weigh what I do, and am totally happy with it, I somehow expected everyone to look at me, guess 150lb, and then be profoundly shocked and appalled when I revealed my true weight. The fact that so many friends came properly close, easily and with generosity, told me something I did not know before: other women also weigh what I weigh. Other women also take up this much space. Other women know…


Now, I know that I’m coming at this as an athlete; my weight is different from weight based on lots of non-lean mass, and all the social stigma attached to that. But two caveats here.

First, I’m not all muscle, people. I’m 42. I like wine A LOT. And cheese. And chocolate. Some of that weight has nothing to do with climbing hills and crossing finish lines. Plenty of that weight is healthy, normal, female fat.

Second, it doesn’t actually matter that much! What matters, to me, is this: I said my (substantial) weight out loud, to a bunch of random people (to all of you!), and I did not die. Nobody looked at me sideways and decided I was too gross to live. In fact, a bunch of people I love and trust guessed damn close, and in the process told me that a) we look terrific, and b) we weigh a lot.

Why have we not told each other this stuff before? Because, ladies, listen up. If more human beings knew what – and SHARED what – human females actually weigh, the space we actually take up in the real world… maybe we could run more of that dumb-ass world ourselves.

Pitch your scale if you want: you have all my love and respect.

But if you keep it: say the number. Out loud. To friends and kids and loved ones. Be not afraid. You’re just taking up the space in the world that you deserve to own, every last bit of you.

And you’re freaking beautiful.






Is there a better name for the very rare people who lose weight and keep it off?



Here on the blog I’ve been calling them “unicorns” as in beautiful, rare, mythical creatures. And that’s caused some hurt feelings. I’m sorry. Here’s some background which may or may not help!

First, as a bisexual woman, I’m amused by the term “unicorn” to refer to “hot bi babes.

Colloquial; Synonym for hot bi babe or HBB, often derogatory, condescending, or ironic. A bisexual person, usually though not always female, who is willing to join an existing couple, often with the presumption that this person will date and become sexually involved with both members of that couple, and not demand anything or do anything which might cause problems or inconvenience to that couple.

So I start out with the thought that it’s a funny term and that it’s being funny doesn’t mean that such people don’t exist. They’re just rare.

Second, unicorns have two traits “mythical” and “rare.” People have thought I meant to be talking about them as mythical, saying people who lose weight and keep it off don’t exist. No. I meant to refer to them as “rare.” Within the mythology, unicorns are rare. Unicorns only exist in fantasy worlds but within the fantasy they’re also rare.

So, it’s true both that unicorns are mythical and that (within the mythology) they’re rare.

We’re getting into my home turf here, philosophy, and the issue that’s getting us into trouble is truth in fiction. Think about Santa Claus. It’s true that he lives at the North Pole and that he’s married to Mrs Claus. It’s also true that he doesn’t exist. Think about Sherlock Holmes, to use David Lewis’s example. It’s true that he lives on Baker Street. It’s also true that he’s a fictional character. So it’s in the sense of “true” that applies to Santa wearing a red suit, that it’s true that unicorns are rare.

We can all be bit touchy about narratives that deny our existence. As a fit and fat person, I know that feeling. Of course, there are people who lose a lot of weight and maintain that weight loss. Of course, there are. Calling those people “unicorns”  denies their existence, some readers think. I meant it in a light-hearted way but some people to whom the term applies took offense. I’m sorry.

So here’s my explanation, via a discussion of truth in fiction, and my apology.

Better terms for rare creatures that actually exist? Albino penguins, maybe?

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.

Keeping weight off: Can you put a positive spin on vigilance even knowing vigilance is no guarantee?


We know that keeping the weight you’ve lost off can be nearly impossible.

But some people do it. I’ve written here before about those rare beasts, the weight loss unicorns. See What are the habits of weight loss unicorns? Recently Gretchen Reynolds answered weight loss questions in the Globe and Mail, including the question of why do some people manage to stay at the new lower weight when others can’t. What traits do those people share?

She writes, “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.”

I’m going to write another post about the difference between modest weight loss and getting down to your desired goal, or as I’ve called it, the difference between being a unicorn and an alpaca. But for now, I want to talk about “constant vigilance.”

It’s a common phrase when it comes to maintaining weight loss. In my review of Timothy Caulfield’s book I wrote,

The bit that I found hard to take, though I don’t doubt he’s right, was Caulfield’s assessment of what’s required for long term weight loss and maintenance. People who lose weight and keep weight off in the long run have some traits in common. And this group, because they’re rare, have been studied closely.  First, constant vigilance. They remain as focused and determined as they were when losing weight and they log and track just as carefully as when they started. Second, they exercise a lot. Third, they also don’t eat very much. Yikes.

I’ve wondered if there are other ways to think about the kind of dedication that’s required to maintain long term weight loss. Can we rebrand constant vigilance?

Here’s Yoni Freedhoff in Vox writing about people in a weight loss registry who have managed to keep weight off.

Today there are more than 10,000 registrants who on average have lost 66 pounds and kept it off for five and a half years. Registrants have lost weight every which way. Some have lost rapidly, while for others it took years. Some lost weight with low-fat diets, others low-carb. Some used diet books for guidance, others self-directed, and others still went to weight loss programs for help.

The key to your success is actually liking the life and diet you’re living with while you’re losing weight

Looking to their success stories, published both online and as highlighted by Anne Fletcher in her book exploring the registrants, Thin for Life, the one common theme is that while maintaining their losses requires ongoing effort, that effort isn’t perceived by these weight loss masters as a hardship but rather as just living with new lifestyles, and lifestyles that they enjoy.

Okay, is there a kind of “constant vigilance” that could fit into a life I love? What’s “constant vigilance” even amount to in day to day life?

  • People who lose weight and keep it off continue to track and measure food.
  • People who lose weight and keep it off exercise pretty much everyday.
  • People who lose weight and keep it off tend to weigh themselves daily.

Put that way it doesn’t sound so bad to me. (Note that I ignored the not eating very much part.) I do lots of this anyway. Well, except for the weighing part. And possibly the not eating very much part but I’m ignoring that.

(One of the women interviewed in Caulfield’s book says that since losing weight she’s never had a full size entree at a restaurant, only ever a salad and an appetizer. Also, no dessert. Ever.)

Back to constant vigilance. Here’s the thing. It’s no guarantee.

It might be true that everyone who maintains a new lower weight does these three things. You might be like me, thinking about this, and thinking, “I could do that.” But while everyone who keeps weight off does these three things, it might also be true that not everyone who does these three things keeps the weight off.

To put in terms philosophers like to use, these three traits might be necessary for successful long term weight maintenance but it doesn’t follow that they’re sufficient.  You could lose the weight, remain constantly vigilant, and still gain it back. Constant vigilance is no guarantee of long term success. That’s a tough pill to swallow even if you do manage to find a way to make peace with constant vigilance.

If “necessary” and “sufficient” talk is new to you, here’s an explanation. Enjoy.

Extreme Dieting and Metabolic Adaptation: The “Biggest Loser” Dataset (Guest Post)

Let me start by stating that I am NOT a fan of the reality show, “The Biggest Loser”. The idea of sentencing obese people to 30 weeks’ hard labour and extreme food restriction under intense public scrutiny in the name of losing weight is basically torture for entertainment.

I saw some of them on a trip to southern Utah some years ago. While my husband and I were hiking in the magnificent desert of Snow Canyon State Park, these poor souls were marching along the road, heads down, sweating, panting, and really not having fun.

But was it worth it in the end? Did their strict 30-week regimen instill in them the discipline to maintain their now lean and mean bodies? Surely their metabolism had improved, and they were now fat-burning machines as a result of the 5 hour/day intense exercise.

A recent paper in the journal Obesity (Fothergill et al 2016 Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after “The Biggest Loser” competition”) addressed that very question. The authors conducted a very interesting study in which 14 of the 16 original “Biggest Losers” were recruited for follow-up studies on their metabolism and body composition. They had collected data from these subjects at three time points: before the competition, immediately after the competition, and 6 years after the competition.

Here are what I think are the most interesting findings of the study:

  1. While the subjects did regain weight, there was a mean weight loss of about 12% of body weight, and 8 out of the 14 participants in the study (57%) maintained at least 10% weight loss over the 6 years. That’s actually a pretty great outcome compared to most weight loss programs, where most people regain all of the weight within 1 year. 10% is really important, because some metabolic parameters can greatly improve after that kind of weight loss. In other words, it’s a very meaningful and significant weight loss outcome.
  2. The subjects maintained their high levels of physical activity. This is important, because….
  3. ….their Resting Metabolic Rates (RMRs) dramatically decreased at the end of the competition, and did not go back up, even after 6 years of maintaining their exercise regimen. This is called “metabolic adaptation”. The more weight the subjects lost, the slower their RMRs became.
  4. The most surprising finding was that metabolic adaptation did not correlate with weight regain. In other words, despite regaining weight, their RMRs remaining low, meaning that these subjects would probably have a low RMR permanently.
  5. Finally, the decrease in RMR did not correlate with changes in hormones and metabolites. Much has been made about changes in the circulating levels of the hormone Leptin. By the end of the competition, plasma leptin levels dropped dramatically (from 41 ng/ml to 3 ng/ml), but by 6 years, levels were up to 28 ng/ml; not quite normal, but it was increasing. Leptin is a hormone made by adipose tissue, and is secreted to tell the brain that the body has had enough to eat (what we call a “satiety signal”). Other metabolic hormones, such as thyroid hormone, did not change from baseline, and cholesterol levels did not change.

So, to summarize, these people did maintain some weight loss, but at the cost of their resting metabolic rate. Their metabolism has been permanently altered. Or, as Dr. Yoni Freedhoff says, destroyed.

This study also showed that exercise does NOT have much impact on RMR. So all that exercise did not alter their body weights’ “set point” value.

However, these subjects clearly showed that they had a tremendous amount of discipline in maintaining their exercise regimen, probably because they were under intense public scrutiny. And most of them did maintain a 10% weight loss over the long term. So perhaps “biology is NOT destiny”, and a disciplined approach to lifestyle changes really can result in sustained weight loss.

So if exercise doesn’t increase RMR, what about diet? It was expected that the RMRs would reset back to their original values once the weight was regained, but that didn’t happen. So the lowering of RMR after that kind of dramatic weight loss is persistent, and may be permanent. The implications are that the subjects would have to eat far less than the recommended 2500 calories per day in order to maintain their original degree of weight loss. You’ve heard that some subjects had an “800 calorie handicap”, meaning that they would have to consume no more than 1700 calories per day just to maintain their weight loss. That would mean that these people would literally be hungry all the time. That is the direct result of a persistently damaged metabolism.

My take on this is that is it far, far better to simply exercise and get healthy and strong no matter what your weight. The scorched earth policy of The Biggest Loser will result in some weight loss, but at the cost of a permanently damaged metabolism.

savita (1)

Savita is a scientist and professor in London, Ontario. When she’s not in the lab investigating the causes of diabetes, she’s in the pool trying to keep up with her Masters swim teammates, or in a nice downtown restaurant enjoying local food and craft beer.

Imagine if size really didn’t matter. Can you?

tape-measureOne of the most intriguing news items this week reported on a six-year study that measured what happened to the contestants who lost dramatic amounts of weight in Season 8 of the reality TV show we here at Fit Is a Feminist Issue love to hate: The Biggest Loser.

For those of us who have gained and lost, lost and gained, and lost and gained again, the most obvious result wasn’t a shocker. The contestants are heavier than they were when the show ended.  The season’s winner, Danny Cahill, went from 430 pounds to 191 pounds over the seven month period of the weight loss competition.

And he’s gained 100 of it back. According to The New York Times article “After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight,” the regain is despite his best efforts. “In fact,” the article goes on to say, “most of that season’s 16 contestants have regained much if not all of the weight they lost so arduously. Some are even heavier now.”

The study has been revealing, not because it told us what we already knew–that it’s hard to keep off lost weight–but because the researchers discovered just how hard the body fights to regain lost weight. The key: resting metabolism. We all know that the metabolism slows when we diet. But here’s the thing:

What shocked the researchers was what happened next: As the years went by and the numbers on the scale climbed, the contestants’ metabolisms did not recover. They became even slower, and the pounds kept piling on. It was as if their bodies were intensifying their effort to pull the contestants back to their original weight.

Mr. Cahill was one of the worst off. As he regained more than 100 pounds, his metabolism slowed so much that, just to maintain his current weight of 295 pounds, he now has to eat 800 calories a day less than a typical man his size. Anything more turns to fat.

The sad truth for the vast majority of people who try to lose weight and keep it off is this: “despite spending billions of dollars on weight-loss drugs and dieting programs, even the most motivated are working against their own biology.”

All of the contestants in the study burn hundreds fewer calories per day than expected for a man or woman their size.  The upshot seems to be that extreme dieting and weight loss permanently slows the metabolism.

There’s a lot more to the article reporting on this research, and you can read it here. But what I really want to consider now is how we are supposed to react to this news. I venture to say, from a quick look at the first few of the over 2600 comments (I know, I know), that people will look for an explanation that makes this group of people different.

The most frequent thing that was pointed out in the first few comments I read is that they lost the weight really quickly.  What about following the progress of people in, say, Weight Watchers? That’s a slower loss. Do they keep it off?  Actually, the answer is: no. Not really. Not many. Any WW promotional materials that include “success stories” will say “results not typical.”

So the first reaction people have is denial.  This can’t be representative. It’s hard to know why anyone who has tried to lose weight and keep it off would think this isn’t representative since, chances are, if that’s you, you gained it back too! Really, these findings should come as reassurance that we’re not all a bunch of weak-willed moral failures.

But instead, people find them threatening because they may show something that’s really hard to accept: that for most people, it just cannot be done. You can lose the weight, but your body will do its damnedest to regain what was lost.

Why should we recoil from this likelihood?  Because it’s really hard to imagine a world in which size doesn’t matter.

One of the comments I read said, “so can we stop fat-shaming people now?” But the groundswell of support for the idea that the Biggest Loser contestants just “did it wrong” suggests that fat-shaming is alive and well.

People with normative bodies–the right size, shape, colour–gain all sorts of social and economic benefits and privileges. They’re more likely to get jobs, high grades, good performance evaluations. They have a better chance of finding partners, earning more money, having friends, being acceptable to strangers. Their chances of suffering abuse and discrimination because of their size are lower; their chances of finding clothing that fits, of fitting into the seat on their next flight, and of being able to eat what they like without being judged are much higher.

In other words, being perceived as obese by others has enormous social and economic costs.  Our obsession with size is so far reaching and ranges over so many areas of life, that it’s hard to imagine what a world where size doesn’t matter would be like.

If size didn’t matter, people wouldn’t be denied employment because of their size. It wouldn’t be commonplace for people to police the food choices of others and to hide behind the claim that “I’m just concerned about your health.” No one would face abuse because of their size or be the butt of bad jokes. There’d be more roles for people of all sizes in movies, and fat people could be cast in roles other than “the fat friend.” Doctors wouldn’t zero in on weight when you go for a check-up. Weight-loss wouldn’t be a popular indicator of physical fitness. Fashionable clothes would be accessible to people of all sizes. No one would spend money on weight loss programs or special “diet” foods. And people wouldn’t post about their weight loss efforts on social media. A show like The Biggest Loser would hold no one’s interest. And the results of the study would be neither here nor there.

I’m sure not everyone believes the research results in this study are depressing. But for those who do, why do they? People want to keep believing that something can be done about being fat. Keeping this possibility alive supports continued discrimination and hate because it throws responsibility back on individuals who are larger than the normative standard.

It’s obvious from the number of people who are attempting to lose weight and keep it off themselves that it’s not only people with normative bodies who are fat phobic. Lots of folks have internalized the cultural messages and experienced the social/economic costs of being larger than what’s deemed okay.

When the costs are real, it can be challenging not to hold out hope for change. If there haven’t been enough other studies about set-points and weight regain and so on, by following a high profile group of “losers,” this particular study shows in sad detail that dieting can and does do serious and permanent metabolic damage to those who diet “successfully.” And that it doesn’t work.

The upshot is, though I would like to think the comment “so can we stop fat-shaming people now?” would win the day, sadly, that’s not about to happen. People are too invested in (1) despising fat and (2) making it up to individuals to make the right choices so they won’t be fat to accept what so many already know: dieting doesn’t work.

Can you imagine a world where size doesn’t matter? What does it look like?