There are few public health topics about which more has been written to less effect than dieting and weight loss. We are told to go low carb, low fat, to drink smoothies the color of radiator fluid or cleanse our bodies with all cabbage diets. There are books about eating like the French, or like those who live along the Mediterranean, or even our cave-dwelling ancestors. Nothing seems to work. Indeed, the recent TIME cover story “The Weight Loss Trap” notes that nearly 40 percent of adults in America are clinically obese.
The number is alarming and unsurprising. Like people who focus on their wedding day and not the marriage that follows, people who concentrate on dieting and weight loss are putting their energy in the wrong place. The object should be eating a healthier diet and exercising regularly. Whether or not that results in reaching some mythical “goal” weight is beside the point of the many other benefits that accrue from this simple (but hard to follow) strategy.
As the article notes, even as greater attention has been paid to dieting, the number of obese Americans has nearly tripled in the last twenty-five years. How is that possible? How is it that a subject for which more information than one could read in ten lifetimes is available, a $66 billion a year industry has sprouted and nearly $1 billion was spent last year at the NIH alone for obesity research, give us a country that is fatter and unhealthier than ever?
The article’s central thesis is that medical research has evolved into a consensus that there is no “one size fits all” strategy for weight loss - what works for some people might not work for others. And to her credit, the author, Alexandra Sifferin, points out several of the challenges anyone faces - that as you lose weight your metabolism slows, making it harder to continue to shed pounds, and that most people who lose weight regain it over time.
But in highlighting the obstacles, I thought the article could also be read by those attempting to lose weight as an excuse for their lack of success. For example, Sifferin cites one researcher who found that “biology,” and not merely a lack of willpower, may stymie your attempts at weight loss. That may have some truth, but if you are gorging on high fat desserts, burying your face in a bag of potato chips, or getting little to no exercise, I cannot accept that “biology” is the culprit.
Sifferin also frames her story around extreme dieting as seen on reality TV (the article singles out The Biggest Loser) as offering an unrealistic view of weight loss. I could not agree more. If you lock away overweight people whose time is meticulously gauged by a staff of experts in exercise and nutrition and remove all their other daily responsibilities, of course they will lose weight. If you stick a bunch of singles in a mansion for a few weeks with all-expenses-paid dates, they might think relationships are easy too - TV is not reality. But why bother stating the obvious?
Of more concern was the seeming contradiction in the author’s narrative. At one point she notes “that exercise, while critical to good health, is not an especially reliable way to keep off body fat over the long term.” Later, Sifferin discusses people who have successfully maintained weight loss over the long run, writing: “another through line: 94% increased their physical activity, and the most popular form of exercise was walking.” Huh?
The author’s dig at “fancy gym memberships” also seems misplaced. It always baffled me that people will shell out $150 or $200 or more a month for something like cable tv (which, by the way, encourages laziness and yes, weight gain) but clutch pearls at a gym membership of $50, $75, or even $100 a month (which, by the way, encourages good health). Sifferin may mock fancy gym memberships, but for those (like me) who use theirs to take advantage of the cardiovascular and weight training such facilities make available, it is money incredibly well spent.
Unfortunately, the good advice is buried and may be missed by readers. For example, encouraging a healthy lifestyle over weight loss goals and that sustainable weight loss occurs over a long period of time and not without fits and starts along the way are two critical ideas that I suspect make a lot of people throw their hands up in despair. I have always thought that was the dirty little secret of all of this - it’s actually not as complicated as the diet industry would have you believe, it’s actually much simpler but harder to sustain - drinking water instead of soda, a sugar-laden “sports drink,” beer, wine, or liquor is boring, portion control is hard, exercising regularly takes discipline and that is before factoring in all the stressors of life.
Weight loss should be viewed as an ancillary benefit to deeper, harder life changes, but because we like the quick fix over the long-term solution, the fact that the divorce rate and the percentage of adults who are obese are both stratospheric makes total sense.
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Ms. Sifferin’s article can be found at:
My own experiences with exercise, fitness and healthier living can be found at: