If you've stepped outside at some point in the last few decades, you've probably noticed two things. One, we're in the middle of an "obesity epidemic," and two, we have entire aisles in our stores dedicated to weight loss products. But shouldn't that second thing have nullified the first? Isn't it kind of weird that this epidemic has grown right alongside the industry that claims to sell its cure? What if these products and plans aren't merely wasting your money? What if they're a cause?
An estimated 45 million of us go on a diet every year. We've covered before how losing weight and keeping it off is almost impossible with dieting alone. But there's a theory that takes this idea much further. And the more you learn about it, the more it makes sense.
Let's start with a 2015 study from the American Journal of Public Health. It claims that not only does dieting not work, but also that it may be a major cause of the so-called obesity epidemic. I know, it sounds nuts. Isn't watching what you eat a good thing? How could people eating less and trying to be healthier cause them to gain weight? Wouldn't this run contrary to decades of data we've been give in the form of "before" and "after" photos in dieting ads? "The person on the left is overweight and sad! The one on the right is clearly thin and happy! Checkmate."
But if you know a little bit about the physiological effects of dieting -- i.e. abruptly changing eating habits to drastically cut calories -- this makes a scary amount of sense. When it comes down to it, dieting is a form of self-imposed famine. And when we're starving, our bodies do some seriously intense stuff in response. Stuff that may keep you overweight forever.
There's a reason nobody seems to know anything about long-term weight loss, and why every year there's a new diet fad that's just the flip of the last one. ("Actually, you should only eat the bacon! It's the bun that was bad!") Most studies of food and nutrition are notoriously unreliable. They often get their data from self-reporting, which any fourth-grader who has "totally finished their homework" knows is questionable. But studying nutrition any other way would actually be pretty unethical. I mean, you can't just lock people up and force them to eat exactly the way you want them to. Except in the best study we have, that's pretty much exactly what they did.
The Minnesota Semi-Starvation Experiment was originally embarked upon to study how to re-feed starving people at the end of World War II, but its most compelling findings were about what happens to our bodies when we starve in the first place. The wartime desperation meant volunteers were happy to put up with constraints that under normal circumstances would result in the researchers involved getting called into the chief's office to have their science badges taken away. And unlike most modern nutritional studies, this study used perfectly healthy men who had no history of attempting weight loss.
The men in the study were fed an average of 1,800 calories a day (more than many modern weight-loss diets suggest), and their reactions to this deprivation were telling. These formerly happy and healthy dudes experienced severe psychological problems, temper tantrums, violent outbursts, and an extreme obsession with food. They basically became hangry toddlers. And most importantly, even after the experiment was over, they experienced lifelong changes in desires and attitudes around food. Even when they were allowed to eat normal amounts, they had serious trouble following basic hunger cues, like figuring out when they were full, and reported frequent binge-eating. One man even compulsively broke the diet with a huge string of ice cream sundaes and malted milkshakes, and wound up having to be removed from the study.
So to break that down, the very caloric limit that we now see in modern-day diets like Noom, Jenny Craig, Medifast, and Nutrisystem made the men in that study way hungrier and way more likely to binge if given the chance. And it's not just this experiment that tells us restriction leads to binging. Studies also show that eating disorders like binge eating are a physical response to starvation -- even self-imposed starvation like dieting.
If you're wondering whether this is a psychological or physical response, please remember that those are not separate things. Your brain is just another organ, and like all of your organs, it has built-in mechanisms to help you survive. Under the right circumstances, though, those very reflexes can work against you; ask any lifeguard how hard it is to save a drowning person who is thrashing around. That's why dieting long-term can also mess with your metabolism, making it much harder to burn calories efficiently. Your body is trying to adjust to these mixed signals. "Are we starving? Or is there lots of readily available food around? It can't be both!"
And while some people, like your cousin Deb who has been on and off Weight Watchers 15 times, will desperately disagree and say that [Insert Latest Diet Fad Here] saved their life, the scientific argument for rapid weight loss plans is very thin (sorry). Most studies that claim dieting works have some major flaws. They often define success within a short time frame, like under a year, even though most people who regain weight after diets do so in the two-to-five-year range. Oh, and they're also usually based on self-reporting. How well do you think that works when people have been trained to credit the diet when they lose weight but blame themselves when they gain?
One of the largest databases of "successful" weight loss is the National Weight Control Registry, which you stay on even if you stop reporting your weight. So if you've regained weight and are ashamed to admit it, you're still on that list as a skinny person. Those factors -- along with small sample sizes, an inability to isolate specific factors, and other shortcomings -- are in virtually every pro-diet study. If you want to pull back and see the real results, well, it's not hard to find that data. Obesity rates are higher than ever. If any other industry had this kind of track record, the backlash would be massive. Would we keep buying fire extinguishers if it turned out that instead of putting out a blaze, they just made the flames invisible for a while?
For what seems like such an intractable problem, the obesity epidemic doesn't actually go back that far. It started in the 1980s, and accelerated from there. There is no shortage of theories about what caused it, from a rise in sedentary hobbies and jobs (thanks, computers) to increased sugar consumption (thanks, lobbyists) to a shift toward fast food (thanks, chaotic work schedules). But the weight loss industry itself probably deserves a spot on that list.
The '80s, after all, saw the rise of extreme fads like the Cabbage Soup diet. It's hard to look back on people eating nothing but fruit for 10 days followed by bread and three cobs of buttered corn and think it was a good idea. It's also easy to see the formation of a vicious cycle. Obesity starts rising, and along with it comes an extreme cultural fear of being overweight (think of Oprah's enormous wheelbarrow of fat). But where you'd think this cultural obsession with weight loss would shift the tide (the way Americans drastically cut back on smoking thanks to awareness, legal restrictions, and stigma), the opposite happened.
Remember, these weight loss diets aren't just unhealthy and ineffective. There's an entire marketing-driven culture that comes along with it. Obese people declare their weight gain to be a personal moral failure, rather than trusting the overwhelming amount of research that says weight loss is not about motivation or willpower. If it was, a generation of sitcom fat jokes would have shamed everyone back into shape. Instead it turns out that stigma can cause physical effects, like spiking cortisol levels that can lead to a loss of self-control, binge-eating, and weight gain. It's like if every time you thought of how much you hate spiders, a spider walked up and slapped you in the face. And then everyone around you said "Oh my god, she is not doing enough to avoid spiders." And then more spiders showed up and everyone was suddenly drowning in spiders. I've lost the metaphor, but I think you get it.
If scientists and dietitians agree that dieting can make obesity worse in the long term, how else can we solve the supposedly big problem of our big selves? How are we supposed to get to a healthy weight if we can't diet?
If we were selling a diet plan, here's where we'd hit you with the sales pitch, something like "Westerners need to learn the diet secret ancient tribes have known for centuries. You can kill hunger and burn fat with GUAVA ROOT EXTRACT GUMMIES (TM)." But this is one of those cases where any answer that's simple is also wrong.
Experts have been studying nutrition for decades, and humans have been eating food for millions of years, but the more we learn about the subject, the more complicated it gets. Even something that sounds simple, like calorie absorption, can fluctuate wildly depending on how a food is cooked, the length of our intestines, and even how we feel about what we're eating.
So it's ridiculous to suggest that eating nothing but cabbage for a month will undo all of the dozens of factors that got us here, from our genes to our hormones to habits that took a lifetime to cement. Our mental health, our sleep schedules, nonstop marketing of foods high in salt, sugar, and fat ... it all ties in to an increase in hunger urges that, statistically, cannot be resisted by "pride" or "grit" or "willpower." Telling an overweight person to "just stop eating" is like telling someone with bronchitis to "just stop coughing." They can do it for a while, if they really concentrate. But eventually the body takes over.
Maybe we can start by building a culture of being healthy versus just looking healthy. Many a coke addict has had co-workers tell them they look fantastic because they dropped 40 pounds in two months. Our health is impacted by our environment, how much money we have, our mental health, how socially isolated we are, and even the buildings we spend time in. Some people live to 104 by drinking Dr. Pepper, while others get cancer in their 20s. Excess weight is just one component, and is often just a symptom of what's really wrong.
That's part of the point of movements like Health At Every Size. Instead of setting goals around making your body conform to beauty standards, find healthier habits that you can stick with for the rest of your life. It means realizing you have to find healthy foods and activities that you actually want to do, versus bitterly complying out of fear of ridicule. And maybe most of all, it means realizing that the weight gain/loss cycle will never be broken by the industry that profits from that cycle.
For more, check out If Every Famous Diet Idea Was Honest - Honest Ads:
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