When I first started reviewing the research on weight loss success, I found it extremely discouraging. You’ve heard the statistics, I’m sure: 95% of all those who lose weight gain the lost weight back, and often end up at a higher weight than when they started. What on earth is going on? Are we all that lacking in willpower? It looks like the more we try to lose weight, the more we fail. As a society we’re heavier than ever, yet the pressure to lose weight and be thin is greater than ever.
In fact, many obesity experts are beginning to find that the very effort we put into restricting our calorie intake may be exactly what’s sabotaging us.
I remember attending a popular weight-control organization’s meetings in my 20’s, and plateauing at around 120 lbs. This was a healthy weight for me, but the leaders really wanted me to be at 119 lbs. and were pretty dismayed that my body refused to cooperate. That week, I remember very clearly going to the supermarket and being hyperaware of where the cookie aisle was. I had to avoid it at all costs. Now, the weird part is that when not dieting, I didn’t usually buy cookies. I never went down that aisle anyway, couldn’t have even told you where it was in the store, normally. BUT, because I was “dieting,” somehow that aisle suddenly had the magnetic power of the North Pole, and I spent the entire shopping trip resisting its pull. I realized the program was having the opposite effect on me from what I wanted – it was actually making me want to eat MORE.
Some research has shown that dieting (or “restricted eating,” as they call it) actually increases the likelihood of overeating. In one study, researchers studied both dieters and non-dieters. They divided each group into 3 sub-groups and gave them milkshakes. Some got one milkshake, some got two milkshakes, and some were given no milkshakes. They were all then asked to taste test some ice-cream. As you might expect, the non-dieters who were given 2 milkshakes were pretty full, and ate the least amount of ice cream. The interesting part, though, is that the dieting group behaved exactly the opposite. Those who had no milkshakes ate the least amount of ice cream, and those who had 2 milkshakes ate the most ice cream.
Researchers call this the “disinhibition effect,” and think it might be what leads some people to start out intending to have only one cookie, only to find themselves a few minutes later in a full-on binge. When we diet or try to over-control our eating, it seems we actually lose the ability to listen to our body’s signals.
In a very telling study published in the International Journal of Obesity by Linda Bacon, author of Health at Every Size, researchers compared a traditional weight-loss program with a program emphasizing the mindfulness approach I described last week. Although both groups lost weight and improved their fitness, the dropout rate was 41% for the traditional weight loss program, compared to 8% in the non-diet group. That’s a huge difference. Furthermore, on a 2-year follow-up, the dieting group had regained the weight and lost the improvements in fitness, while the other group maintained their weight loss and their improved fitness.
These are pretty powerful results, when you consider the huge failure rate most programs show (but that you rarely hear about). Pharmaceutical companies, also, have a stake in not publicizing what really works. There isn’t a lot of money in letting bodies do what is natural – signaling the owner to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re satisfied.
If you’ve been frustrated by the refusal of your body to lose pounds, I would encourage you to look into the new wave of fitness theory that emphasizes fitness and health. Most weight-related health concerns are often not a result of the weight itself, but the behaviors (lack of exercise and poor nutrition) associated with obesity. Regardless of what you weigh, you can be healthy. Most people who adopt these changes in exercise and nutrition also lose weight, but that’s a by-product. Start focusing on your health, paying attention and taking good care of your body, and the results will not fail you, even when the scale might.
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