What is weight loss really about?

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We know that the long-term success rate of weight-loss attempts is poor, yet patients often act like their reasons for wanting to lose weight are so justifiable that the odds should change just for them, as if I hold some magic solution that I keep secret and only break out when somebody gives me a really good reason to do so.

Attaining the ability to fly like a bird would sure make my life easier. No more getting stuck in traffic, spewing environmentally-harmful emissions, or spending money on gas, and perhaps I could save money on a gym membership since my physical activity would be built naturally into my daily commute. All good and valid reasons, but still the chances of me acquiring a superpower are probably not very high.

Whenever a patient tells me he or she wishes to lose weight I always ask why, but not so he or she can build a compelling case that somehow changes the dismal odds, but rather so we can find alternative paths to achieving the underlying goals.

If someone says, “I need to lose weight because I have hypertension (or high cholesterol, or high blood sugar, etc.)” I suggest we explore more effective ways of directly addressing those markers. One particular person comes to mind, a woman who had been dealing with high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol for most of her adult life, who had gone from diet to diet trying to finally achieve the long-term weight loss she had desired since her teen years. Ultimately, when she gave up that weight-centered model of care, and instead focused on improving her relationship with food and finding modes of physical activity that were enjoyable rather than punishing, both her cholesterol and blood pressure improved even as her weight actually increased.

One of my long-term patients talks about how he feels bad about himself and his appearance. He is afraid to take off his shirt at the beach for fear that he will disgust other people and himself. In my experiences, patients who link their weight to how they feel about themselves only sometimes feel better when the weight drops. Oftentimes, someone reaches his or her goal weight and then expresses a desire to lose more because the negative feelings did not dissipate with the weight lost to date.

The weight is really not the issue, but rather just the vehicle through which emotional complexities are playing out. Even for those who do feel better about themselves when the weight drops, we know that almost all weight loss is only temporary so what happens when the weight comes back? Although this particular patient does not feel ready to go yet, I have been gently encouraging him to see a therapist to work on his body image and self-esteem. For his sake, I hope that someday he learns that one need not have a certain body shape or size to feel good about oneself.

Earlier this year, a man came to me saying he wanted to lose weight in order to complete a marathon. I explained that if he chose to continue working with me, I would help him change his eating to run his best, and as a result of said eating changes he may or may not experience a change in his weight, but that I would not be directly helping him to lose weight. Skeptical, he made some condescending and rude remarks, left, and never returned. Weight and running performance are not synonymous. In fact, I ran my fastest marathon when I was at my heaviest. If someone wants to improve sports performance, then let us focus directly on that and put issues of weight aside.

Our reasons for wanting to lose weight and the importance of said reasons do not dramatically impact our ability to achieve it, but by looking deeper at our motivations to lose weight, we can move beyond focusing on weight and more effectively target the underlying goals. For example, I may never attain the ability to fly, but you know what I could do that would satisfy all of my reasons for wanting to do so? Ride my bike.

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