Saturday, January 2, 2016

Skeptical Saturday: Why Your Resolution to Lose Weight is Doomed to Failure (And Also Bullshit to Begin With)

Natalie asked if this was going to become a regular feature on the blog, and I joked that if I were to do that, I'd probably give myself a coronary. But I guess the holiday season is just rife with things that piss me off, so here's another one a lot sooner than you should probably expect!

Why is my weight loss resolution doomed to failure?

From the best studies we have on the topic, around 95% of calorie-restrictive diets fail. The odds are stacked against you, especially if you're set on dropping anything greater than around 10% of your starting weight—that seems to be the highest amount you're likely to keep off.

There are freakshows, and there will always be freakshows, but you have a 5% chance of becoming one of them. Not only that, but the price of being that 5% freakshow is eternal fucking vigilance. / Miguel Saavedra
Not just around food, but around exercise, too. You better learn to love the gym because you'll have to exercise an extra hour every day to maintain this new, smaller body compared to someone else who was always that size. Very few of us have the lifestyle to make that much exercise (since your job is probably something sedentary) a priority for the rest of our lives. If you read no other link in here, read the one in the previous paragraph ("The Fat Trap," New York Times). Or here, I'll quote what permanent, successful, significant weight loss entails:

Janice Bridge, a registry member who has successfully maintained a 135-pound weight loss for about five years, is a perfect example... 
Since October 2006 she has weighed herself every morning and recorded the result in a weight diary. She even carries a scale with her when she travels. In the past six years, she made only one exception to this routine: a two-week, no-weigh vacation in Hawaii. 
She always weighs everything in her kitchen. She knows that lettuce is about 5 calories a cup, while flour is about 400. If she goes out to dinner, she conducts a web search first to look at the menu and calculate calories to help her decide what to order. She avoids anything with sugar or white flour, what she calls her "gateway drugs" for cravings and overeating...She writes down everything she eats. At night, she transfers all the information to an electronic record...
Bridge also supports her careful regimen with an equally rigorous regimen of physical activity. She exercises from 100 to 120 minutes a day, six or seven days a week*, often by riding her bicycle to the gym, where she takes a water-aerobics class.
*Editor's note: For comparison, the American Heart Association's official recommendation is 30 - 50 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day, three days a week, for optimal heart health.

So that's why you're doomed to failure! But there's good news: it was a bullshit goal to begin with. You were duped, and there's a better way.

Why was it bullshit?

A couple of years ago, I wrote up a post on the bogus science of BMI for NEDA's Eating Disorder Awareness Week. If you haven't read it already, go check it out now!

This is relevant here because you often hear about lower or higher BMIs being associated with this or that, when the truth is that BMI is a flawed model that was originally intended as a statistical tool in the 1800s and was appropriated by insurance companies (not doctors, not scientists, not knowledgeable health professionals) to decide who were and weren't high-risk customers—that is, customers more prone to having heart attacks.

Now we take BMI as medical gospel when nothing could be further from the truth. It basically renders all of those studies you hear about being "too fat" having something to do with this or that medical malady inherently flawed, because their criterion for "too fat" is inherently flawed.

"Okay," you argue, "I cede your point that BMI is a broken system that would be better replaced by more accurate measurements of muscle-to-fat ratios specifically. But we can all agree that having too much fat is, objectively, bad for you. You said yourself that we've known since the 1700s that larger people tend to die earlier, after all."

You know how when you hit puberty, your parents, teachers, and helpful books told you that you need to shower every day? Because it's good hygiene? Yeah, that's a marketing scam from soap companies in the beginning of the 20th century. Advertisers convinced people that they were just secretly stinky and that their friends were gossiping about them because of it, so it became "common sense" that you should bathe every day for the sake of hygiene. In actuality, your skin does a good job of handling bacteria and icky things, and once a week is usually enough to be healthy and hygienic, really—so long as you're not training for an Ironman or Tough Mudder every day, or handling sewage or hazardous waste.  (You should still brush and floss every day, and you should still wash your hands with soap and water before preparing food and after using the toilet. But that's something else entirely.)

It's that same kind of common sense (OR "COM-NONSENSE" AMIRITE????!!!) we're seeing with fat and obesity now. Everyone "just knows" that it's unhealthy to be fat, but any study that avoids the trap of using BMI as a sorting tool almost always fails to take into account social stigma and how that affects health. Really, you "just know" that being fat is unhealthy because everyone is mindlessly repeating it: advertisements, your clueless Facebook friends, Michelle Obama. (Advertisements especially. Do you realize how much bank companies like NutriSystem, Jenny Craig, and WeightWatchers make? Never mind gyms that deliberately overbook their memberships because they know that people will panic about being fat or unhealthy but then most likely not actually turn up? Books about this or that new fad diet?)

In reality, it's actually very difficult to tell if it's fat that makes you ill, or the stigma around being fat. If fat people are dying earlier, is it because they're fat, or because they put off going to the doctor, sometimes to the point that whatever medical intervention they receive is less effective? Is it because even when they go to the doctor, doctors often dismiss legitimate medical complaints as just being a result of their obesity?  Is it because we have no way of knowing which of these fat people haven't given into the pressure from society to lose weight, only to go and gain a whole bunch more back—a process called yo-yo dieting or "weight cycling" that can cause long-term damage? Is it because they can receive hundreds of messages a day from media, friends, and family that they are unhealthy, an Other, a less-than, leaving them in a state of perpetual semi-stressedness? Elevated stress hormones are demonstrably bad for you, and as long as we keep treating fat people like shit we'll never know if having fat elevates those hormones or if it's people being dicks (it's probably people being dicks, though).

Why were larger people keeling over from heart attacks 200 years ago? Who knows? Maybe it was too much food and not enough physical movement that did it—making fat a symptom of an underlying problem rather a problem and in and of itself. Maybe it was something they ate. Maybe it was stress. Maybe it was a direct result of too much body fat. Maybe it was just a huge coincidence.

The truth is that the fear of fat is a marketing tool designed to make you feel bad about yourself, no matter what. If you're already thin, the fear is of becoming fat. If you're average, the (misguided) fear is that you're already too fat. If you're actually fat, well, how could you not feel bad about yourself? A capitalist society wants people to be insecure and unsure of themselves because that's how companies can sell more items. (Remember that soap example I mentioned earlier?) This isn't tinhattery; this is how marketing works. This method is called "the halitosis method," after Listerine's unbelievably successful campaign to get people to start using mouthwash—by creating an imaginary enemy called "halitosis" and then selling you the solution.

If no one felt bad about their bodies, companies like Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, and NutriSystem would be out of business. Most of the "casual gyms" across the country (as opposed to the hardcore bodybuilding gyms) would close their doors as well. We would no longer compulsively buy clothes and cosmetics we don't need in an attempt to look/feel beautiful (or that we need to buy because of endless yo-yo dieting and closet purges). Hell, how many blogs that you follow would suddenly have nothing left to sell or say? There are lots of people invested in you feeling like crap, and invested in you trying to "better yourself" according to society's impossible beauty standards and also moral health imperatives.

This is where I see a lot of people try to sidestep all of this. "I don't care how I look," they claim, "I just want to be healthier."

Who told you that you weren't already healthy? Who told you that you have a moral imperative to be healthy? Who told you that less of you means a healthier you? Who told you that being fit and athletically competent was a good barometer of health?

How do you feel?

How can we do this better?

If you're feeling sluggish, achey, or otherwise unwell, then yes: you might well benefit from moving more, or from making changes in your diet. If you're having a hard time keeping up with friends in your favorite physical hobbies, you would probably be happier if you invested in some more training.

Because there is nothing wrong with wanting to feel better. I picked up a lot of awful habits in college, but one good one was keeping an eye on my fiber intake because I learned that without it, I could be left in excruciating abdominal pain that wouldn't relent for days. Gallstones? Constipation? Lactose intolerance? Hell if I know, but I figured out a change that worked and I made it part of my adult life. Did I get thinner? Temporarily, only. But was I in less pain? Permanently. Did I feel better? Permanently.

People who have lost a lot of weight claim to suddenly feel better in a similar way. Is it because they've started moving and eating a more balanced, nutrient-rich diet, rather than because they're smaller? Is it a psychological thing about successfully belonging to the group? Most likely. Is it just because they're smaller? That the shrinking of their fat cells kickstarted some mysterious and positive metabolic process? Probably not.

If you make the resolution a habit, and you make it for its own sake rather than wanting to be smaller, you'll succeed. For more on creating and achieving habit-based goals, please read this series on habits at Power, Peace, and the Porch Gym. And don't do it as a mind hack to "win" at dieting. Very few people win at dieting, even with the "not a diet" diet. Do it because you will be stronger, sleep better, have more energy, or be in less pain. Do it because those are things that you value and want in your life. Not because you want to be smaller. Not because someone else told you that those are things you should value.

You are enough. Just as you are.


  1. YAAAASSS thank you for writing this!! the bullshit "lose weight" crap annoys the shit out of me. My dad has been dieting for most of my life and has never lost or gained any weight, even though he religiously follows every new fad (Atkins! Protein shakes! Portion ratios!) and it just makes me sad that he bought into the bullshit.

    1. It makes me CRAZY. By being really selective about who I allow in my daily digital life (like, the Facebook friends who I "follow" versus the ones I boot from my feed) I've managed to create like an awesome little body-positive bubble, but it's not a perfect system. After the new year I definitely unfollowed a few blogs that did a total 180 from their stated purpose and started talking about their new diet. I wish them all the best in life but having that shit pop up in my RSS feed was making me cross-eyed.


    I'm going to share this post around because I know a lot of people that would benefit from it. BMI is such bullshit, it drives me crazy. Its been proven time and time again that it's flawed, yet every time I go to the doctor I'm judged by a number on a chart because it's supposedly too high. It's really awkward when you're not sure if you should trust your own doctor, hahah.

    1. There's, like, one doctor I've had that I've ever really felt totally chill and comfortable with (unsurprisingly, she was a pretty heavyset woman herself so she probably understood the struggle from the inside), but then I had to go and leave the country just a couple years after I found her. ;_; I know that I should go see a doctor for a check-up and to get all the routine bloodwork done and numbers crunched at some point soon (I'm 30, FFS), but the stress of even the FEAR of being judged and side-eyed is enough to make me go, "Well I FEEL fine...!"

      I mean, compare that to the dentist. EVERYONE hates going to the dentist. Why? Because most people have a crappy experience there. (I assume.) But I LOVE going to the dentist because my teeth kick ass (#blessed); I didn't get my first cavity until my late 20s and I've had just two my whole life. There's no historical background stress going on when I book a time at the dentist's. I'm just like "yup my teeth are probably still baller!" and dentists don't really ask what I've been consuming or if I brush, they just say, "Yeah, looks pretty baller, we cleaned you up a bit, here you go!" All of that experience adds up over time, whether positive or negative. So all of the "you should try losing weight" "have you considered more exercise" "you really could be healthier" stuff piles up on one end, and all of the "GIRL YOU GOT BALLER TEETH!" piles up on the other.

      Also it helps that there's no misapplied pseudo-scientific statistical equation that's been applied to teeth.