Is Fat Really a Trap?
There are no easy answers to the obesity “epidemic”.
I’m not trying to diminish the issues faced by so many Americans by putting epidemic in quotation marks. But that word makes it seem like we just need to create some vaccine to kill the monster.
I know most people are well-intentioned in their pursuit of weight loss, or in their pursuit of their partner’s, or parent’s, or child’s weight loss. I know that many are heartened to watch people cry in joy on The Biggest Loser after a contestant has finally ‘broken through’. But all of these bright outlooks on permanently losing weight (which many people mistakenly believe will automatically lead to a happier life) are not really based in reality.
And that’s the part I appreciate most about Tara Parker-Pope’s recent cover article in the New York Times Magazine, The Fat Trap. She scientifically, and rather bluntly, shows us that permanent weight loss is damn near impossible for most people who take it on.
Not completely impossible, mind you, but close. Essentially, most people who lose a large amount of weight will have to closely monitor their diet and exercise every day for the rest of their lives.
And before you go thinking that it’s simply about calories in, calories out and will power, Pope explains what is finally breaking into mainstream medicine – our metabolism and weight is dependent on a myriad of body functions, including hormones and brain receptors that act similarly with food as they do to with other addictive substances. Our evolution, emotional landscape, and deeply wired brain patterns all play roles in maintaining weight loss.
Even more disheartening is that science has proved a person who has lost a large amount of weight will have to eat less and work out more than a person who was already at that lower weight to begin with. In fact, a person who is naturally 150 pounds can consume 300-400 calories more per day than a person who has lost weight. For those who don’t know, that’s a meal – or a good chunk of one.
The part of the article’s revelations that made my heart open is that maybe, just maybe, people will begin to realize that condemning others for their weight isn’t fair (particularly when they have dieted often, lost weight, and then gained it back. Which is true for almost every ‘obese’ person). That people will begin to understand losing weight isn’t simply about will power, or lack thereof. That people who try to lose weight unsuccessfully, particularly when they have previously been successful, will stop beating themselves up.
That the paradigm on weight loss is beginning to shift.
The Science of Weight Loss
In this interview on NPR, Parker-Pope and Dr. Arthur Frank, founder and former director of George Washington University Weight Management Program, discuss the fact that the people who do lose weight and keep it off long term – which is only an estimated 5-20% of the people who diet, meaning an 80-95% failure rate – remain “enormously dedicated” every single day, exercising the equivalent of four extra miles a day just to maintain their new weight.
This group often still gains a few pounds back from their lowest weight.
It’s worth listening to why this is the case – for example, even a year after a person stops dieting, hunger hormones are still at high levels, while the part of the brain that controls will-power is diminished. Our ancestors packed in as much food as they could to survive during famine, and our DNA is hard-wired to do the same. That means quickly packing on pounds via less food then before starting a diet.
But I couldn’t help but think as I read Pope’s article and listened to the NPR podcast, what kind of weight loss are we discussing here? Fast, manic weight loss, to be sure. Weight loss based on drastically changing ones diet and dramatically upping exercise.
Toward the end of the NYT article even Pope admits, “One question many researchers think about is whether losing weight more slowly would make it more sustainable than the fast weight loss often used in scientific studies.” Though some experts believe the rate of weight loss is “unlikely to make a difference”, I beg to differ.
Because weight loss that happens slowly, that is due to health changes incorporated over time, is a whole lot different than throwing the body into upheaval, which is what happens when you diet.
What if we threw diet out of the equation?
Slow and Steady
I’m not here to sell you something that is going to work for everyone. I’m not down with shelling out quick fixes. I agree with much of what Pope talks about, and appreciate the fact that she was open with her own weight struggles.
But I am here to tell you that I’ve seen, time and time again, people get healthy by taking slow and strategic steps toward a better life. They start to incorporate new foods that are healthy, ones they actually like. They slowly remove old foods, not based on the fact that these foods are ‘bad’ for them, but that their tastes have changed and they don’t desire those foods so much anymore.
They have found ways to move that feel innate, instead of listening to people tell them they need so many hours and reps at the gym. They have given up on “achieving” a particular number on the scale, and focused instead on loving their bodies as they are as much as they can.
It’s not a simple weight loss plan. This approach goes far beyond just diet and exercise. It’s a lifestyle change, and that goes down to the very core – do you love your work? Are you able to process your emotions in a way that’s good for your body? Do you have support in your life? Do you believe in something larger than you? Can you disconnect at least partially from what society says is a “healthy”, “fit”, or “hot” body and unconditionally love what’s in your skin?
For each person, it’s different. Food addiction is very real. A society full of easy, processed foods that impact our hormones at every turn is something we have to face. Chemicals in our food and environment act as endocrine disruptors and mimic estrogen while slowly diminishing our thyroid function. All the science Pope so eloquently elaborated on is fact.
But slowly unwinding from these traps so as to not shock our bodies is a stronger option than dieting. Sometimes, our bodies don’t want to move as quickly as our minds want them to.
Pope notes that people losing weight have to “find a new normal.” In other words, they can never go back to how they ate before. With this, I totally agree. But what if you found your own new normal first, and the weight came off because of it?