Cause and Effect

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The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics releases a daily Nutrition and Dietetics SmartBrief, which contains summaries of and links to recently released health and nutrition articles. Earlier this month, a headline in a recent issue read, “Too much sitting increases risk of early death, study says.”

The problem is that no, that is not what the study says. In fact, the HealthDay article that the SmartBrief links to states, “The study couldn’t prove cause and effect . . .” and a couple of paragraphs later, the article continues, “It’s not clear why prolonged sitting is unhealthy, Patel [lead researcher, Dr. Alpa Patel] said. It’s possible that people who spend a lot of time on the couch also have other unhealthy behaviors, such as excess snacking, she suggested.”

Okay, let’s back up a moment. First, the author who wrote the SmartBrief’s headline misrepresented the study’s findings by implying causation, and second, Dr. Patel herself seemed to disregard the limitations of her own research by labeling sitting as “unhealthy” based on an association.

This was not just a SmartBrief problem. Other news outlets picked up the story and similarly misled consumers. For example, the headline on NBC News read, “Here’s more evidence sitting too much can kill you,” with the subheading, “Sitting more than six hour [sic] a day during your free time raises the risk of early death by 19 percent.” No, that is not what the research found at all, but such sensationalism probably draws more clicks than a mundane – but more accurate – headline.

We see similarly misleading language when it comes to reporting on the research that investigates the relationship between weight and health. Headlines summarizing these pieces oftentimes imply a causal relationship between increased body weight and morbidity. Remember, however, that when researchers set out to investigate the consequences of obesity, they are also studying the impacts of weight stigma, dieting, weight cycling, socioeconomic disparity, healthcare discrepancies, and everything else that tends to come packaged with the experience of having a bigger body in today’s world.

While increased adipose tissue in and of itself could be a causal factor for certain health conditions, similar to how having fair skin increases one’s skin cancer risk, establishing a causal relationship is extremely difficult given the confounding variables. To assume causation because of correlation is premature at best, and at worst, it could be completely wrong.

Next time you see a headline that implies causation, remember that said headline might be more sensational than factual, as the actual research behind it is probably more complex and nuanced than can be accurately distilled into a single line of text or a sound bite.

The Tipping Point

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You probably heard about Gina Kolata’s piece in the New York Times earlier this month detailing commonplace weight regain among Biggest Loser competitors, but you may have missed Dr. Sandra Aamodt’s excellent follow-up piece in which the neuroscientist shares research showing just how unlikely long-term weight loss is for any of us, not just the show’s former contestants.

While this information might be news to some of us, data showing commonplace weight regain among people who attempt to lose it has been available for quite a while, yet it has not garnered much mainstream attention despite years of efforts from researchers, advocacy groups, activists, and practitioners around the world, including myself.

Regardless of what our goals are, nobody wants to hear that they are probably unattainable, which partially explains why the myth of weight loss has survived. Unfortunately, yet understandably, people are reluctant to listen when receiving a message they do not want to hear.

The problem, however, runs deeper. The notion that we can lose weight and keep it off if only we try hard enough has taken on “everybody knows” status. We hear it in our fitness centers, around the proverbial office water cooler, up in the bleachers at Little League games, and at spring cookouts. The message is so commonplace that we do not stop to question its validity.

Doctors, dietitians, and other healthcare practitioners can inadvertently contribute to the mess. We are human and vulnerable to the same “everybody knows” paradigm too, and sometimes we take treatment guidelines at face value without looking into them for ourselves.

Lump the green version of myself in there as well. I shake my head with embarrassment and shame at some of the advice I doled out early in my career before I knew better, and I wish my profession as a whole would get up to speed.

We see the “success stories,” the people in our lives who were able to lose weight and keep it off, at least so far. The Massachusetts State Lottery website features pictures and stories of its recent million-dollar winners, but their enticing smiles do not change the reality that the most likely outcome of buying a ticket is financial loss.

Children observe their parents looking critically in the mirror, associating guilt and virtue with eating and exercise behaviors, and oscillating between rigid restriction and binges. The torch of dieting and weight obsession passes to the next generation.

If the myth of weight loss dies, so do the $60,000,000,000-per-year diet industry and the privilege enjoyed by the thin in a culture thick with fat shaming and weight stigma. They keep the fantasy alive and have plenty of incentive to make sure we continue to feel bad about ourselves.

Cognitive dissonance is a powerful force to overcome, not just for laymen, but for everyone. Given the strong headwind, I am pleased to see this information finally receiving the widespread attention it so desperately needs.

Ms. Kolata and Dr. Aamodt certainly deserve credit for their parts, but so does everybody who has ever made an effort to get the word out – practitioners and researchers who risked career suicide, activists for whom death threats are a daily way of life, and patients who have stood up and demanded evidence-based care – as they have also contributed to what I hope is finally the tipping point.


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Earlier today I found out that one of my former tennis partners, Ed, passed away. While I was at a conference (more on that in a future blog entry), a presenter made a comment that reminded me of Ed, so I took out my phone and googled his name thinking that perhaps I would find his Facebook page. Instead, I found his obituary.

When I was in the process of making my second of two comebacks following my initial back operation, Ed was one of a small handful of players who were gracious enough to help me integrate into the local tennis community. My game at that point was covered in rust and I would not have blamed Ed for distancing himself from me, but instead he invited me to become a regular in his twice-weekly games. He and I played doubles together on Wednesday and Sunday nights for years. No matter who won, we always had fun. Those nights comprise some of my favorite tennis memories.

Tennis aside, Ed had a greater influence on my life than he ever realized. In fact, I mentioned Ed in passing in a previous blog entry. Out of everybody I played tennis with, Ed was probably the skinniest. He also happened to be, at least to my knowledge, one of the sickest. He suffered a mild heart attack soon after we began playing together and I came to find out he was also diabetic. He later died of cancer.

Like many people in our society, I held a weight bias without even realizing it. How could a man so lean have diabetes and cardiovascular disease? Aren’t those conditions reserved for obese people? When Ed revealed his conditions to me, I had to reconsider the stereotypes I was holding, the first step of which was to acknowledge that they were, indeed, stereotypes.

My mind opened: Weight does not equal health. This notion has since been further compounded by many sources, including formal schooling, clinical experiences, research, and collaboration with colleagues.

But while many other influences came after him, Ed planted the seed, and I owe him a great deal of gratitude for that. Whenever I help someone shift away from weight stigma or I hit an unreturnable lob over my opponent’s head, I will be sure to remember Ed and say a quiet thanks for all that he taught me.

HAES® and Eating Disorder Workshops

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Geographical fortune afforded me opportunities to recently attend two fantastic workshops right in my backyard: the Association for Size Diversity and Health’s (ASDAH) half-day workshop on Health at Every Size® (HAES) at the Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association, and the Hynes Recovery Service’s symposium on eating disorders in adolescent and young adult patients.

These conferences offered me chances to meet and learn from some brilliant colleagues, including, but not limited to, Ellen Glovsky, Lisa Du Breuil, Marsha Hudnall, Dawn Hynes, and Kim Dennis, some of whom I have known for years and others with whom I have been connected virtually but had never before met in person.

Dr. Glovsky’s talk, in particular, was terrific. They always are. She and I first met in 2007 when she gave a talk at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where I was a dietetic intern. As soon as she finished speaking that day, I went up to the front of the room and introduced myself. We have stayed in touch ever since.

For lack of a better term, Dr. Glovsky just gets it. Having been a dietitian for approximately 40 years, she has evolved her counseling approach away from a classical directive style to the more effective motivational interviewing model that Joanne and I learned from her and use at our practice. Although Dr. Glovsky probably does not realize it, nobody has been a greater influence on my career than her.

Over the course of these two workshops, Dr. Glovsky and the other speakers shared many interesting points and anecdotes. The nuggets that really struck me are below.

  • Research indicates that 95% of people who intentionally lose weight regain the weight within five years. Of those 95%, 60% of them will end up heavier than they were at baseline. Said differently, if 100 people attempt to lose weight, five of them will keep it off, 38 will return to baseline, and 57 will end up heavier than when they started.
  • Because outcomes are only somewhat in our control, our goals are better constructed around performance and behaviors, not outcomes. For example, instead of saying we are going to lower our cholesterol by a certain number of points, we are better off setting goals to perform certain behaviors that may lead to lowered cholesterol with the understanding that some influential factors, such as genetics, are out of our hands.
  • Parents and doctors often miss the signs of eating disorders or incorrectly explain away said signs with other conclusions. Joanne asked one of the speakers how much of a dip in the growth charts should be considered a red flag. The speaker said a drop of five (for example, a patient’s body-mass-index-for-age drops from the 50th to the 45th percentile) or more indicates that something serious, such as an eating disorder, is likely at play. That reminded me of a patient’s mother who literally laughed in my face and never brought her daughter back to see me when I expressed concern that her daughter might be suffering from a yet-to-be-diagnosed eating disorder. In addition to the other reasons for concern that I saw, over the course of the last eight months her daughter’s body-mass-index-for-age had dropped by almost 20.
  • People suffering from an eating disorder or disordered eating frequently use the elimination of certain foods (“carbs,” dairy, gluten, animal products, etc.) as a means to restrict under the guise that the choice is supposedly about health, an allergy/sensitivity, or ethics.
  • A lawyer I spoke with between sessions told me she is working on using occupational safety laws to implement regulations for models in the fashion industry. According to her, the World Health Organization defines starvation as having a body mass index below 16.0 kg/m2, while the average runway model has a body mass index of 14.0 kg/m2.
  • Websites and social media groups that encourage eating disorders and offer tips to further their destructive behaviors are prevalent and easy to find. After a quick Google search that I did myself, I was shocked and saddened by what I saw in just the first few seconds. As one of the speakers explained, individuals with these conditions often seek out like-minded people online and isolate themselves from others. Pretty soon, these online communities become their entire world.
  • For some people, the term “fat” is an insult loaded with unfair and inaccurate stereotypes. For others, the word is nothing more than a neutral adjective describing body shape or size. Practitioners need to pay close attention to the language that our patients use and the intended meanings behind their words.
  • Every once in a while, I get someone who erroneously believes that HAES is just an excuse that larger people use to justify their size. As I looked around the room at the ASDAH event, I could not help but wish that those same people were there with me to share what I was seeing: People of all sorts of shapes and sizes were there, including many slender folks.

Obesity Cuts Life Expectancy, Santa Is Responsible for Your Christmas Presents, and Other Misleading Statements

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My interest in writing a blog right now is pretty much nil, but I cannot let today’s misleading article entitled “Obesity Cuts Life Expectancy by Up to 14 Years, Study Shows” go by without reacting, for I know the damage that pieces like this do to people, including some of my patients.

Long story short: The researchers who authored the primary source article did not adequately control for behaviors. They screened out potential participants who had ever smoked and/or had a history of certain diseases, but the lifestyle behavior information they collected from participants was limited to alcohol use and physical activity level. Researchers collected no information about other lifestyle factors, like stress management and eating and sleeping habits, all of which can impact health. The behavioral data they did collect was self reported, which introduces all sorts of error. Other research has shown that when behaviors are controlled for, body weight does not seem to matter, but the study design that these authors used prohibited any opportunity from being able to confirm or refute those findings.

The piece discusses a second article as well that examined the relationship between obesity and exercise. In reference to this latter article, the piece’s subheading concludes with, “And it’s under-exercise, not overeating, that’s causing America’s [obesity] epidemic.” That eye-catching text will certainly garner many clicks, which is unfortunate because it is not true. The actual research piece reads, “The research highlights the correlation between obesity and sedentary lifestyles, but because it is an observational study, it does not address the possible causal link between inactivity and weight gain.”

I cannot stress it enough: Correlation is not causation. They are entirely different. I know, I know, we each know somebody who has put on weight after they stopped working out. Sure, that does happen sometimes, but on the macroscopic level that is the population, the picture is much more complex than that with many other factors in play.

The article’s final paragraph begins with, “Losing weight is proven to significantly reverse the health effects of obesity.” Wrong. When we adapt healthier lifestyle behaviors, our body weight might change as well, but if we credit the weight change instead of the behavior change then we have it backwards.

The harm in all of this is that it reinforces a weight-centered model of eating and physical activity that ultimately fails nearly everybody who uses it. If we take a weight-centered approach and do not maintain the weight we want, we risk losing motivation and reverting to old behaviors because the goal was unattainable.

There is a better way. In the health-centered model that we advocate, the behaviors in and of themselves matter independent of weight. Whether weight goes up, down, or stays the same is irrelevant because the behaviors themselves are what count. Better-designed research seems to support this model: When we control for behaviors, health and weight look to be independent.

Looking the Part

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Wow, I am hard pressed to remember an instance when something I read made me as angry as Juliann Schaeffer’s article in Today’s Dietitian entitled “Dietitians and Their Weight Struggles.”

In summary, the article contains quotes from dietitians who offer their opinions as to whether or not a dietitian’s weight and appearance should matter. Although the piece improves at the end when some sanity and rationality is injected into it, the beginning quotes from one of my fellow dietitians are so shamefully off base that I feel deeply embarrassed to be associated with her.

“If someone has a weight issue, then in my opinion, they should choose a specialty that does not conflict with being overweight.”

“If you can’t make it work for you, how can you make the case for someone else?”

“. . . the reality is that health care is a business, and people do judge you by appearance. Is it right or wrong? That doesn’t make a difference. It’s a business, and it is what it is whether we like it or not.”

“I wouldn’t think much of advice from a cardiologist if I knew he had had a heart attack.”

So wait, are we dietitians supposed to list our BMIs on our resumes and websites now, or how does this work?

It is one thing for some personal trainers, chiropractors, life coaches, “nutritionists,” therapists, doctors, and other dietitian wannabes to go outside the scope of their expertise and give harmful dietary guidance, but when an actual dietitian represents the profession the way she has there is just no excuse for it. This is our wheelhouse. We should be better than that.

When I was an intern, I had a rotation in a bariatric surgery clinic where two dietitians worked. One was heavier, one was leaner. Some patients did not want to work with the heavier one because they questioned, “Look how heavy she is; how can she possibly help me?” Yet other patients did not want to work with the leaner dietitian because they worried, “Look how skinny she is; how can she possibly relate to what it is like to be fat?”

Last year, a new patient told me she almost cancelled her appointment because she was intimidated by what a “great athlete” I was. Just a few months ago, another new patient came to me all impressed that I had “beaten cancer.” Well, no, I did no such thing. She had misunderstood my online autobiography. When I told her that, she deflated like a balloon.

Let’s get real for a moment. The whole notion that a practitioner has to look or behave a certain way in order to help patients is incorrect. Out of all the questions I asked the surgeons I met with before my most recent back surgery, I never thought to ask who among them has back problems. But I should have because if a surgeon has back problems then it is logical to conclude he or she cannot help me with my issues, right? Or wait, I want a surgeon with back problems because he or she can relate to my experience, is that how it goes?

How about just finding the surgeon whose approach, experience, and demeanor made me feel most comfortable and confident? I know, crazy me and my outlandish notions.

During my first year as a personal trainer, few members were interested in my services. Although I had good relationships with many of them and they routinely asked me questions about exercise, few were willing to cross the line of actually hiring me. However, after I took two months off to ride my bike across the country, suddenly members were booking sessions with me left and right and my boss began to refer new clients my way, too. Other trainers treated me and my opinions with more respect. The gym even gave me a raise without me asking for it.

Come on.

Sure, more money and clients were great, but the driving force behind the upturn in business was so ridiculous that I felt insulted. It took riding my bicycle 4,000 miles, up and down mountain ranges, through all sorts of weather, for my expertise to be recognized and taken seriously? The ride did not make me a better trainer. If anything, I was a worse trainer after my trip because I was rusty from not having worked in two months. But hey, perception is all that matters to some people.

Right now, I have a patient who wants to be a CrossFit coach and feels she needs to lose 15-25 pounds in order to be taken seriously by potential clients. Sure, she has room for changes in her lifestyle, just like we all do, but she generally eats well and takes great care of herself. As disappointing as it is for her to hear, it seems her body just naturally belongs 15-25 pounds heavier than she would like it to be. Do I push her further down the path she feels obligated to follow, risking perhaps disordered eating or an eating disorder, as she sacrifices health for a number and a look, or do I guide her towards the reality that she can be a great trainer no matter her weight and appearance?

Due to my surgery, it has been seven weeks since I lifted weights and did any physical activity in earnest. Muscle atrophy is setting in. My shoulders and chest are smaller. My six pack is gone.

Am I a worse dietitian now than I was two months ago?

What if you did not know that major surgery had affected my fitness and you came in here and saw a scrawny dietitian without any context? Would you have less confidence in me than if you knew about my operation?

What if I had not undergone surgery and I just decided to take two months off from working out?

What if I had a healthy relationship with both physical activity and food, but my body just happened to be thinner, less muscular, or heavier than society feels its dietitians should look? Would you go elsewhere?

I have blogged about my athletic accomplishments, such as my mountain running, on a small handful of occasions because it can enhance patient care for them to understand that I am a human being with a life outside of this office and I face challenges just like everybody else. Perhaps patients garner some inspiration from those postings, but if anybody reads one and then comes to see me with the mindset, “Jonah is thin and Jonah is an athlete; therefore, he can help me,” God, that would just make me want to take all of the posts down. I just cannot be part of that act.

The purpose of self-disclosure is to enhance patient care, not to serve as an advertisement, not to capitalize on misconstrued ideas, and certainly not for a practitioner to defend or justify his or her behaviors or body shape.

I disagree with the notion that health care is a business. The first priority should be patient care, not money. If the dietitian I quoted earlier had her priorities in order, she would be helping to reeducate her patients and change a culture of misunderstanding rather than playing into it for profit. Giving people what they want and expect for the sake of financial reward does not justify providing poor care and perpetuating a myth.

Or maybe I should just play along and take up steroids, lest patients go elsewhere because I no longer look the part, right?

Come on.

How should one measure health?

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“I really like your blog posts.  They’re really well thought out and are a step above what I imagine normal nutrition blogs are like.  It’s like the philosophy of nutrition or something.  Question, though, when you say this: ‘Joanne and I advocate focusing on health rather than weight.  In that sense, weight outcomes are only somewhat interesting to us.’  I think you’re right, but it also seems challenging to measure one’s health without focusing on weight.  There are very few things a person can do other than stepping on a scale (without regular blood draws and periodic EKGs [electrocardiograms]) to measure their health.  In other words, how do you recommend someone measure their health to see if their health is improving?”

The above email arrived in response to a blog I posted earlier this month in which I compared the slim hopes of winning the lottery to the poor success rate of weight-loss endeavors.  Indeed, Joanne and I do advocate adapting lifestyle changes in pursuit of better health as opposed to taking a weight-centered approach because the latter rarely turns out well.

Furthermore, weight in and of itself is generally not a good indicator of health (although there are some exceptions to this generality, such as for a patient who is recovering from anorexia nervosa).  About a decade ago, I had a weekly doubles game with three other guys.  One player was very lean and clearly had the lowest body mass index (BMI) of any of us.  Was he the healthiest in the group just because he was the lightest for his frame?  After we had been playing together for a few months, I got a call one afternoon saying he had had a heart attack.  I came to find out he was also diabetic.

So if not by weight then, by what should we measure our health?

First, we need to understand that just because a measuring tool is convenient and easy to use does not mean it is valid.  In other words, just because gaining access to a scale and stepping on it are actions that most people can perform does not mean that the resulting data are automatically useful.

You know from my biography that I have an undergraduate degree in mathematics.  For a statistics class project, I analyzed the November 6, 1997 trade between the Red Sox and Rangers that sent Aaron Sele, Mark Brandenburg, and Bill Haselman to Texas in exchange for Damon Buford and Jim Leyritz.  In an effort to determine which team got the better end of the deal, I analyzed the past performances of the trade’s cornerstones, Sele and Leyritz, and determined which metrics were the best predictors of the outcome that ultimately mattered most: team wins.  Some statistics, like strikeouts for a pitcher or home runs for a hitter, are easy to compute and understand, but it turned out that other metrics that were more complex to calculate and comprehend were better predictors of team wins.

While I was in the process of switching careers, I did a similar project in my nutrition assessment course in which I tried to determine which anthropometric measurement is the best predictor of cardiovascular disease.  The results were complex, but the conclusion that I reached is not the point of this blog entry.  The point is that just as I found with the baseball project, the ease of obtaining a particular measurement has nothing to do with the utility of said measurement.  In other words, just because it is easy to count the number of home runs a player accumulates or to step on a scale and find out our weight does not mean that these numbers are great indicators of team wins or our health, respectively.

With that in mind, let us now turn our attention to just some of the ways we can measure health.  This list is far from complete, but it gives a sense of all of the measurement tools healthcare practitioners have at their disposal.

We have anthropometric data, such as waist circumference, waist-to-hip ratio, body fat percentage, and BMI.  We have the numerous biochemical markers that doctors can examine through blood and urine tests, including blood glucose, insulin, total cholesterol , LDL (“bad cholesterol”), HDL (“good cholesterol”), triglycerides, red blood cells (RBC), white blood cells (WBC), and markers of liver health, protein stores, electrolytes, and inflammation.  Clinical indicators include hair and skin quality, finger nail appearance, and tests for hydration status.  Electrocardiograms and blood pressure readings comprise part of a cardiovascular system assessment.  Men and women can screen themselves for signs of testicular and breast cancer, respectively, through regular exams.

When I was a personal trainer, I used tests like the eight-repetition maximum bench press, Rockport walk, and sit-and-reach to assess my clients’ fitness and track their changes over time.  In my realm of nutrition, dietitians will sometimes use tools, such as a 24-hour recall or food frequency questionnaire, to assess the health of one’s food intake.  Aside from one’s intake of fruits and vegetables, for example, one can track other health-related behaviors themselves, such as physical activity duration and frequency as well as usage of tobacco, alcohol, and recreational drugs.

Health is not just about the physical; emotional and psychological health is also important.  This is not my area of expertise, but I am sure psychologists and psychiatrists have ways of screening for and assessing the magnitude of conditions ranging from depression to schizophrenia.

With all of these different tools we have for assessing and tracking health, the criteria that one uses has to be individualized, which is why it is important to talk with your healthcare team about how you should track your own health.  For example, diabetics may measure their health in part by monitoring their blood sugar at home and keeping their A1C under a benchmark value set by their doctors.  A patient with a family history of cardiovascular disease may monitor his health in part through periodic blood lipid level checks and self-monitoring of blood pressure at home.  A patient with celiac disease may monitor her health in part through bone density screenings and tTG blood tests.  A patient with a history of skin cancer may measure his health in part through routine screenings with the dermatologist.

The permutations of how to measure health are endless and must be customized with the help of your doctor and any other healthcare practitioners who are on your treatment team.  Just because weight is easy to measure does not mean one should put much stock in the number or even track it at all.

The Wrong Idea

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In addition to the many patients I see for eating disorders, I often have individuals come to see me for help with weight loss. This goal is completely understandable in the current context of our society. Most of us have been told by numerous sources that weight loss is essential for health, and only if we are at the “right” weight will we live long and healthy lives. And up until about five years ago, I would have agreed with this assumption.

But, as I have written about in many other blogs, I’ve had a paradigm shift. There is more and more scientific evidence out there that weight and health are not inextricably linked. In fact, it is completely feasible for someone to weigh considerably more than the BMI and weight charts tell her to and to be perfectly healthy. In contrast, I have seen countless patients in my office who are at their “ideal” weights, yet are using extremely unhealthy measures to stay there and have numerous health issues as a result.

Therefore, I am concerned when the New Year comes around, as I know that our office will become busier than ever with people wanting to lose weight. I’m afraid that prospective patients will have the wrong idea about what I will and will not do. As a registered dietitian, I am knowledgeable about nutrition for health promotion. This means I can provide nutrition education for my patients and help them figure out ways to establish some healthier eating habits.  While these healthier eating habits may lead to some weight loss, weight loss will not be the inherent goal of our work together. If any weight loss occurs, it is just the byproduct of the lifestyle changes one instills. It isn’t the primary goal.

Maybe 2014 will be the year that we can all start taking our eyes off of the scale and instead focusing on making healthy lifestyle changes instead.