Weight Loss Myths

Shakesville posted about this Gina Kolata NY Times piece already, but I wanted to highlight this:

David B. Allison, who directs the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham [...] sought to establish what is known to be unequivocally true about obesity and weight loss.

His first thought was that, of course, weighing oneself daily helped control weight. He checked for the conclusive studies he knew must exist. They did not.

“My goodness, after 50-plus years of studying obesity in earnest and all the public wringing of hands, why don’t we know this answer?” Dr. Allison asked. “What’s striking is how easy it would be to check. Take a couple of thousand people and randomly assign them to weigh themselves every day or not.”

Yet it has not been done.

And, in the meantime, you have parents, doctors, families, and friends advising people to follow these myths. You have weight-loss companies making money from these myths.  And they don’t work. Or, they work for some people. Or, they work temporarily before all the weight comes back (plus more).  Feel like hitting one of the lying liars who lie and mislead people into putting all that time and energy and work and money into eventually gaining even more weight yet?

From Allison’s study abstract: 

Many beliefs about obesity persist in the absence of supporting scientific evidence (presumptions); some persist despite contradicting evidence (myths). The promulgation of unsupported beliefs may yield poorly informed policy decisions, inaccurate clinical and public health recommendations, and an unproductive allocation of research resources and may divert attention away from useful, evidence-based information.

What sort of myths?  Back to Gina Kolata, here’s some weight loss ideas that have been proven to not work, yet are commonly preached to people everywhere:

  • Small things make a big difference. Walking a mile a day can lead to a loss of more than 50 pounds in five years.
  • Set a realistic goal to lose a modest amount.
  • People who are too ambitious will get frustrated and give up.
  • You have to be mentally ready to diet or you will never succeed.
  • Slow and steady is the way to lose. If you lose weight too fast you will lose less in the long run.

Kolata also highlights some ideas that have not yet been proven true OR false:

  • Habits in childhood set the stage for the rest of life.
  • Add lots of fruits and vegetables to your diet to lose weight or not gain as much.
  • Yo-yo diets lead to increased death rates.
  • People who snack gain weight and get fat.
  • If you add bike paths, jogging trails, sidewalks and parks, people will not be as fat.

…and yet, again, these are in diet books, diet programs, and in the last, calls to change how cities are laid out.  (Not to say that bike paths, jogging trails, sidewalks or parks are bad. Just that they won’t automagically make people thin.)

Why is this?  Doctors believe that being fat is terribly, horribly bad.  They want to give people something concrete to do.  And, often, doctors aren’t educated about nutrition or obesity research.  We end up with these myths being repeated over and over, endlessly, and people blame themselves when they don’t work or don’t work long-term. Or they figure it probably works for most people, just not me.   Even the list of “Facts – Good Evidence to Support”, which starts with “Heredity is important but is not destiny”, makes me wonder how much of it suffers from the “must hold out hope of weight loss!” bias.  Especially when the article notes that losing 10% of their weight is typical, and very few lose more.

Overall, the NEJM paper is a call to improve the research.  Even so, they’re not tackling the big “weight loss improves health” idea, or how much of its support comes from short-term studies that include exercise as a component (and never mind that exercise can improve health on its own, independent of weight loss).  Even the reference to most weight loss being in the 10% range will likely not burst the FOBT.

As Liss notes, “What a different culture it would be if fat people weren’t a problem to be solved.

One thought on “Weight Loss Myths

  1. Re: the jogging trails/walking paths, exercise is a positive for people of all sizes. Of course there are people who literally cannot exercise because of physical conditions, and nobody should be shamed for not exercising regardless of their condition. But just putting it out there that exercise is healthy for people of all sizes, generally speaking.
    Yet if a person exercises (as I do) and yet is still fat (as I am) they are considered to still be a failure, regardless of whether or not they are healthy overall. It’s utterly maddening. For years this attitude led me to give up on exercising. Then I realized that I actually like to exercise, so I started doing it again anyway. I rarely weigh myself, because it actually doesn’t matter what I weigh.

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