When faced with “I’ve got some good news and some bad news,” most people seemingly prefer to hear the latter first. With that in mind, let us first look at the results of weight loss pursuits before coming around to the opportunities we have for change.
Short-term and long-term weight loss are two entirely different animals. The ease with which short-term weight loss is promoted creates false expectations for long-term weight loss. Pretty much any kind of restriction (Paleo, Weight Watchers, gluten-free, low-carb, low-fat, weighing/measuring portions, following a scripted meal plan, commercial meal substitutes, etc.) performs about the same: initial weight loss followed by regain that often surpasses the baseline weight. The overall body of research suggests that pursuit of intentional weight loss is approximately 12 times more likely to result in ultimate weight gain rather than loss.
The patients who come to me looking to lose weight often have similar stories. They list the various diets they have tried over the years before disclosing “and now I am the heaviest I have ever been in my whole life.” Frequently, they look back on their body size and shape from before the first diet, the body they were unhappy with at the time, with a new longing, like an empty-handed gambler wishing he had put his coins to better use rather than wasting them in the slot machine.
While their reasons for wanting to lose weight vary, they are all valid and understandable in the context of our society in which weight stigma, size discrimination, diet culture, and misinformation are so prevalent. These unfortunate realities bleed into our healthcare system and can influence otherwise-great doctors to recommend weight loss rather than evidence-based treatments.
The good news is that the underlying reasons for wanting to lose weight are oftentimes attainable if we pursue them directly rather than using weight loss as a proxy. Whether your goal is to improve your blood pressure, lower your cholesterol, control your blood sugar, perform your sport better, our build a fabulous wardrobe, or anything else along those lines, your likelihood of success is much higher if you put weight to the side and go for your goal head-on.
Weight is a heavy topic (pun intended) in my work with eating disorders. Even though I put a lot of effort into making sure that weight is not the focus of my work with patients, inevitably, it will come up. Usually, my patients express fear around the possibility of gaining weight by eating intuitively (or by following a meal plan). In addition to this fear of weight gain, many of my patients also desperately want to lose weight. When the patient is in the “overweight” or “obese” BMI category (a completely bogus way of measuring one’s health), the discussion of losing weight is particularly tricky. Oftentimes this patient will come into my office with a recommendation from their doctor to lose 10% of their body weight in order to improve their health. This, coupled with society’s belief that “everybody knows that being heavy is unhealthy,” also complicates matters considerably.
When a patient comes to see me with hopes that I will help him or her lose weight, I often feel like the Grinch. As I try to explain to them that weight is not a measure of health, that one can be heavy and healthy (or thin and unhealthy), and that society’s fear and hatred of fat is a real thing, I can see their eyes glaze over. And then, when I talk about how 95-98% of all intentional weight loss attempts (via diets) result in weight regain, sometimes I can see panic in their eyes. You see, even though “everybody knows” that diets don’t work, many people believe that if they just try hard enough and if they really, really want it, they can be part of that 2-5%.
As Jonah and I have written about too many times to count, we practice from a Health at Every Size® (HAES) perspective. This means that we believe that health is a multifactor concept that cannot just be boiled down to how much someone weighs. We believe that when someone eats in a nourishing, pleasurable, and intuitive way, when someone engages in physical activity that feels good to their body, when they manage their stress, get enough sleep, avoid smoking, manage health conditions with the help of a health professional, etc., that they can achieve health regardless of what the scale says. Weight only gives us a tiny bit of information about the person. It can tell us something is amiss if there is a large shift either up or down (unintentional weight gain or loss), but otherwise, by itself, it really cannot tell us if someone is healthy.
Another thing I talk about with my patients is that bodies are supposed to come in all shapes and sizes. Even though our society might disagree, some people are just meant to be larger than others. It’s in our genes. We all have a set weight range where our weight would naturally settle in if we ate and moved intuitively. While we might have some ability to move up or down a couple of pounds within this weight range, trying to go outside this weight range takes extreme measures. Our bodies fight these extreme measures in every way possible, but for 95-98% of us, we will return to our set weight range, regardless of whether or not we continue dieting.
But in our society, being heavy is seen as a weakness in someone’s character, that he or she is lazy, undisciplined, and reckless with their health. People make assumptions about others based on their weight, and it seriously stinks. So when an “overweight” or “obese” patient comes into my office desperately wanting to lose weight, I get it. No one wants to be seen as lazy, weak-willed, or stupid. My hope is that someday soon society’s views about weight will shift and that people will start to understand that we all have different genetic makeups, and that while weight can tell us what our relationship with gravity is, it cannot tell us whether someone is healthy, happy, or worthy.