Live Well, Do Good

Diets Don’t Work . . . But What We Can Do Instead

November 18, 2012 - David McConkey

With all the hype about obesity and being overweight, you would think that going on a diet to lose weight would be a good thing to do. After all, isn’t that the best way to feel better, look better, and become healthier?

Uh, actually, no.

We should throw out the whole idea of the obesity epidemic and the goal of losing weight. Turns out we can almost always improve our health by ignoring our weight altogether.

Part One:  The Issue     (Or, go directly to Part Two:  Seven Things To Do)

Amidst the hoopla of the war on obesity and the ridiculing of anyone even slightly overweight, we best remember a few things. How normal healthy people come in different sizes. How much of our public health discussion is led by a food industry that is profit-driven. How health experts disagree and have been wrong before. And, finally, how shaming people into going on a diet almost always backfires as a motivational strategy to live more healthily.   

I like starting with the background to this issue by referring to Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto.

Pollan traces the history of the big change in recent decades to eat more processed and artificial food. He recounts the recommendation from experts beginning in the 1970s to eat less saturated animal fat. The perceived concern then with fat was health problems, especially heart disease.

Telling the public to eat less meat and instead to eat more vegetables and fruits would have been sensible advice. But, because of industry lobbying, the message became “Eat more low-fat foods.”

The public certainly followed the “eat more” part. People thought they were doing the right thing by eating more “low-fat” processed food. But some of the new foods turned out to be not so good – like those with trans fats.   

To top it off, scientists have since found that there is little or no link between eating saturated fat and heart disease. Oops!

Pollan is withering in his criticism: “Thirty years of nutritional advice have left us fatter, sicker, and more poorly nourished.”

The public has become overwhelmed and confused by often-conflicting advice from nutritional scientists, government, the media, and – of course – the food industry, with its huge marketing budget.

In the case of scientists, they do not agree with each other about the healthfulness of different foods. What’s more, Pollan says, they have become consumed in arguing with each other.

As for the media, where’s the demand for describing the virtues of eating sensibly? There is so much more interest in covering the latest controversy, fad, or wonder diet. 

And then there is the food industry. It promotes processed foods, because those have higher profit margins than unprocessed foods. Plus, processed foods can have fancy labels promoting their supposed health benefits. Real foods – especially vegetables and fruits – because they do not have fancy labels and because they have lower profits, are often not promoted by industry and not noticed by us food shoppers. “The silence of the yams,” quips Pollan.

The information consumers are getting is highly biased. For example, foods that are supposedly better are often the ones that have been studied, because they have an industry group promoting them and funding the study. It's easy to forget that the foods not as carefully researched also have benefits. Also - and counter-intuitively for our consumer society - the most nutritious foods (like vegetables and fruits) do not have nutritional labels listing their nutrients!

But what about the obesity epidemic? Almost certainly, any health problems associated with obesity and being overweight have been overstated. And anyway, we have a classic Catch-22 here. About the only remedy we know of to lose weight is to tell people to go on a diet. But diets don’t work. So, in recommending that people go on a diet, they are being set up for frustration and failure.

But why don’t diets work? The problem with going on a diet – or even trying to lose weight in general – is that we are confronted by two almost insurmountable obstacles: biology and economics.

First, biology. When we reduce what we eat in order to lose weight, our bodies rebel. We have evolved over millions of years to maintain weight during times of food shortage. If our bodies suspect that a famine is imminent, then we go into weight-conserving mode. This happens at a deep inner level, below any level of consciousness.
 
We don’t understand all the factors involved. But recent research details how various metabolic and hormonal changes enable our bodies to thoroughly subvert our conscious efforts to lose weight. After weight loss, our whole metabolism changes so that we use fewer calories than before in maintaining our bodies. Our muscles change so that they burn fewer calories to perform the same activity. And our brains physically change: our desire for high-calorie foods is increased and at the same time our willpower to resist is decreased.

That is why almost everyone who goes on a diet will eventually gain back all (and often, more) of the weight that they initially lose. (Promotions and studies that report successful weight loss are usually short-term, like a year or so, because they invariably don’t work for any longer.)

Go on a few “yo-yo” diet / weight gain cycles and our bodies become extra resistant to losing any weight.

As a result, many of us become discouraged dieters with our self-esteem battered. And then we don’t want to even think about exercising or eating those vegetables like we know we should.  

That brings us to the second obstacle to losing weight: economics. Unhappy people are just what corporate marketers want. Billions of dollars are to be made when we crave buying more of everything – including diet programs – in an endless attempt to feel better.

Making us desire being thin (especially for women) is a very well planned and well funded effort. Fashion models have been getting skinnier over the years. Today’s super svelte bodies of magazine models are increasingly not even real; they are just computer-generated images.

We are trying to live up to an ideal that can’t be achieved. As we consume more and more, we feel worse and worse. When shown a picture of chocolate cake, Pollan notes, the top response of Americans is “guilt.” The top response of the French? “Celebration!”

In North America over the past few decades we have undergone one of the most radical changes in our eating since the discovery of agriculture. We have also been subjected to a huge effort to make us feel uncomfortable in our own skin. We are confronted by competing and often confusing health claims. We are encouraged to feel anxious about ourselves, about what we eat, and about our weight - no matter what our weight is. And we are tempted to consume ever more: including more stuff in general, more food, and more diet programs.

So, what can we do? Because, after all, we do want to be healthy and to enjoy our lives.

We can chart our own course. We can ignore the advice of much conventional wisdom, including advice from the health experts as well as the messages from mass advertising. We can discover ways to eat well, and to live well.

Part Two:  Seven Things To Do

* * * 

See also:

Healthy Eating – 15 Tips 

Authors Offer Food for Thought

Community Shared Agriculture:  A Growing Notion

Michael Pollan on Amazon.com   (on Amazon.ca)



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