Rethinking Thin and Mindless Eating

This Reason review of both Gina Kolata’s Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss— and the Myths and Realities of Dieting and Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think does something one doesn’t often see in writing about the efficacy of diets:  It recognizes that losing 10lbs is nothing like losing 100lbs.

In Rethinking Thin, Kolata, a veteran New York Times science reporter, focuses on a group of obese people enrolled in a University of Pennsylvania diet study. They exhibit the usual pattern of initial success followed by setbacks, typically ending up about as fat as they were to begin with. […]

By contrast, in Mindless Eating, Wansink, a marketing professor at Cornell University who has studied consumers’ food-related decisions for decades, focuses on the sort of gradual, modest weight loss that Kolata concedes is achievable. Declaring that “the best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on,” he urges small changes in everyday behavior that over the course of a year can result in a weight loss of 10 to 25 pounds. His book will not be much help to people like the research subjects Kolata interviews, who generally want to lose 50 to 100 pounds.

So many people seem convinced that there is no difference between losing 10lbs and losing 100lbs.   So many people have lost 10lbs by a “lifestyle change” like getting a more active job, or walking at lunch, or working out 3 times a week, or what-have-you—and assume that fat people who did the same thing would eventually weigh what they weigh.  It doesn’t occur them that a fat person might only lose 10lbs if they start exercising, or that the fat person may already be maintaining a similar level of exercise their body has already made a similar adjustment.

Now, I’m not saying that losing and keeping off 10lbs is easy or possible for all or necessarily desirable.  We all make our own choices.  But it is a different thing than losing and keeping off 100lbs.

19 thoughts on “Rethinking Thin and Mindless Eating

  1. Then of course, we need to remember that, despite what those who write books & sell diet programs are trying to sell us, even most of those who lose 10 or 20 pounds do not keep it off for the long term & that many of those who do do so by virtually making the maintenance of that (slightly) thinner body their life’s work. It generally involves living permanently on a diet (& Wasink is being disingenuous to suggest that there is such a thing as a “diet you don’t know you’re on”; if you are deliberately monitoring what you eat & consistently eating less than you really want, it is a diet) & not just taking a walk at lunch, but exercising at pretty serious, intense, even compulsive levels. During my last bout of long term compulsive exercise, I lost a grand total of 15 pounds in nearly three years, then regained 30-35 pounds while STILL getting between an hour & 90 minutes, occasionally more, of exercise every day.

    Is ‘moderate’ weight loss POSSIBLE? Yes, but it is not necessarily permanent even for those who are not very fat & can usually lead to them being temporarily thinner & permanently fatter, except for some men, whose body builds & metabolisms can occasionally allow them to lose 10 pounds or so just by cutting back on a slice or two of bread or a beer or two a day. And, as you say, certainly losing & keeping off 100 pounds or more is a whole other thing & much more difficult & unlikely.

    And quite frankly, the whole premise of ‘mindless eating’ just pulls my chain & has always reinforced the idea that all fat (or mildly chubby) people are built as we are because all day, every day, we just constantly shovel in food without thinking or knowing what we re eating. Whatever face or name they put on their premise, it always comes back to a belief in ‘calories in, calories out’ & that people who are fat or plump are so because they are lazy & gluttonous & refuse to take care of themselves.

    • I hate the title of Wansink’s book too, and not just because every time I’ve had the kind of “small” weight change he’s talking about it’s been due to changes in how much physical activity I’ve getting (quit day care job to work in 12-hour days at a computer==gain 20lbs; start working out 3 times a week==lose 10lbs).

    • “Is ‘moderate’ weight loss POSSIBLE? Yes, but it is not necessarily permanent even for those who are not very fat & can usually lead to them being temporarily thinner & permanently fatter, except for some men, whose body builds & metabolisms can occasionally allow them to lose 10 pounds or so just by cutting back on a slice or two of bread or a beer or two a day.”

      Not to mention those of us who have screwed-up metabolisms thanks to thyroid disease (even when “adequately” treated), PCOS, and similar conditions.

      I do eat when I’m not hungry. I do have lots of progress to make in listening to my body’s hunger signals and dealing with emotional eating, but I suspect more than one person in the office has been amazed to see me leaving the staff room with a giant salad for lunch (that I’m eating because I *crave* it), because certainly someone MY size couldn’t POSSIBLY eat a healthy diet!

  2. Actually, it was nearly FOUR years (I caught my mistype) of exercisng an average of 4 hours every day which resulted in a weight loss of 15 pounds, though of course I did lots of toning & tightening & lost lots more inches, which have ALSO been regained.

  3. There is a difference between losing ten pounds and losing 100 pounds.

    Thank you so much for putting it that clearly and simply.

    I think it’s easy for those of us who’ve been reading about FA/HAES for a long time to get bogged down in the details, or to have a hard time getting past our certain knowledge that dieting doesn’t work, when we’re talking with people who don’t believe us. This one, clear sentence is a great help, a tool to have ready for those discussions.

    I had a long argument with a thin friend about exactly this. She couldn’t understand why, if she can lose five pounds whenever she wants to, I don’t believe weight loss is possible. I pointed out that in the time we’ve known each other my weight has naturally fluctuated over a 25 pound range, and asked if she’d noticed. Of course she hadn’t, since 25 pounds on me is just a drop in the bucket. It’s comparable to five pounds on her. Sure, I might lose 25, but I’m not going to lose much more unless I fall into unhealthy, unsustainable behaviors.

    • Yup. I used to be able to lose 25 easily in my teens, but it’s many weight loss/regains later now and my inner thermostat seems to be much more diligent about guarding against weight swings. In the past I tended lose 10lbs when, say, I’d start working out 3 times a week.

  4. What the hell is wrong with these people? How much do they want to hate the truth?

    Altogether now, diet’s don’t work whether are fast or slow. The fast diets sometimes fail fast, sometimes they fail slowly.

    Slow diets sometimes fail slowly sometimes they fail faster than the fast ones.

    They all fail the same way for the same reason, the body re-gains the weight, because that is what it is programmed to do. In the same way that if you miss breakfast, you tend to eat more at lunch and so forth.

    You know this because fat people are still fat after long dieting careers. It is obvious, beyond any reasonable doubt, and not a few unreasonable ones too.

    That is it.

    If you disagree, it is because you’ve made the decision to delude yourself.

    Goody for you.

  5. When I was an activities assistant at a nursing home, it wasn’t hard to lose 10lbs because I was always up and active for 8 hours a day, five days a week. I barely had time to sit down. My diet never changed; as a matter of fact, it’s gotten a bit better AFTER I quit my job and went back to an office position where my physical activity decreased. The thing is, I never lost anymore than 10lbs, and I really didn’t care as I would have to lose over 100 for it to really be noticeable, but I still would be deathfat, and I would have to resort to dangerous activities to do it.

    • Exactly. I think that’s the sort of weight loss Wansink is trying to make happen, but the fact is you didn’t TRY to make it happen—your body made it happen on its own for its own reasons.

  6. I weigh ~195 and my weight fluctuates up to 5 lb. in either direction with no effort on my part. I can’t tell the difference. I only catch it on the rare occasions when I weigh myself at the doctor’s office or in an attempt to figure out if my suitcase is light enough for carry-on. My clothes don’t fit differently, I don’t feel different, no one else notices anything. Ten pounds means nothing to a fat body, really.

    If calories in/calories out was true, losing 100 lbs. would be the same as losing 10 lbs., only over more time. You’d think this might be a clue to people.

  7. My mother is obsessed with that mindless eating book. It drives me crazy, but to be fair he’s not saying that only fat people eat mindlessly. His idea is that everyone, for example, eats more off a bigger plate and less off a smaller one without reporting any difference in satiety. Or that people will eat more chicken wings if the bones are cleared away regularly. And so on.

    What bugs me about it, at least in so far as my mother won’t shut up about her new, smaller, plates is the implication that, well, OF COURSE it’s better to eat less! Duh!

    And, obviously, there’s no mention of whether people eating off those smaller plates LATER got hungrier than the big plate folks….

    (I know that, for me, a small dinner will often satisfy me equally well in the moment, but I’ll want a bigger breakfast the next morning.)

    • And, obviously, there’s no mention of whether people eating off those smaller plates LATER got hungrier than the big plate folks….

      I think you’re onto something. Anecdotal evidence ahead, but I do find that when I eat high-fiber, high-volume-to-calorie-ratio food, like “they” say is supposed to trick your stomach into feeling full on fewer calories, I feel fuller on less food at the time but I start to get hungry after 2 or 3 hours instead of 4 or 5. My immediate reaction is to feel that I can’t be hungry, I ate so much, and then I look at the nutrition facts… oh, I only ate 200 calories for lunch, no wonder I feel like I’m going to faint.

    • What bugs me about it, at least in so far as my mother won’t shut up about her new, smaller, plates is the implication that, well, OF COURSE it’s better to eat less! Duh!

      Well, if you’re short of cash and a smart shopper, it can be useful. But then OF COURSE you’re eating lots of peanut butter and mac’n’cheese and beans and only buying meat when it’s on sale and in bulk — right?

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  9. Found this post looking for responses to the “Rethinking Thin” book – just finished reading it and found it fascinating!

    About 7 years ago I made all the lifestyle changes you’re supposed to make (to this day I exercise daily and make decently healthy food choices), and lost most of the weight I wanted to (ok, lets be honest – that came from very heavy restrictions on foods I could consume, not “healthy choices”), then proceeded to yo-yo up until now, when I’m back at my heaviest again.

    I really like Kolata’s message, because it finally gives us overweight people permission to like ourselves – we aren’t weak-minded just because we’re not thin – in fact, I think most of us have razor sharp control…which is why our bodies learn to fight so hard to have us gain when we drop too low.

    The main reason I gained weight (which I’d sworn I’d never do) was because I began getting chronic stomach cramping, which caused me to binge (at the time, I assumed the reverse causality was true and blamed myself all the more). I really do think I’d hit a point that was too thin for my body to maintain without constant vigilance, and my body fought back in any way it could think of to “help” me gain weight.

    I’m trying to find ways to turn the message from this book into a realistic look at weightloss. My thought has been to start treating weight-gain as a symptom rather than a disease to directly combat, and try to identify the factors in my life that make my body think it needs to stay at the upper-end of its comfortable range (like, say, never sleeping 8hrs a night).

    Just a thought, but a good post, and an interesting comparison between the two books!

  10. I just took a little closer look through your blog, and realized that my comment may not have been altogether appropriate to the audience – I’m sorry!!! Just wanted to say it’s really a neat blog, and one that I will be following more in the future! :)

    • Generally I try to keep this blog off the “intentional weight loss” discussions, if only because those are so pervasive everywhere, but overall I thought your response to Rethinking Thin was useful :)

      By the way, have you seen Linda Bacon’s book Health At Every Size? It focuses on ways to improve your health, and let your weight fall where it may.

      • No I haven’t seen that, but I will definitely check it out! I read a brief description online, and am very impressed. :)

        I’ve been earning myself the ire of the weightloss-community lately because I keep asking if people really want to continue to tell me that being overweight is so terrible when I and many others I know are in great shape (like you, dance and enjoy other very active lifestyles) and have no particular health problems – why should we be willing to sacrifice so much to reach this arbitrary ideal size?

        It’s such a relief to see that I am not alone in questioning this, and I am looking forward to going through your blog in more detail!

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