Society's obsession with being thin doesn't seem to have motivated most people to lose weight and keep it off. One expert suggests that people give up on dieting and learn to listen to their bodies. Linda Bacon, a speaker and author, plans a free lecture on the subject Nov. 8 at the Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt Health System. She answers some questions here about weight myths and dieting.
Why do so many people diet, and why do they fail?
It's not surprising that so many people diet when you look at our cultural assumptions and the messages forwarded by some of our most influential and authoritative sources. Health professionals, government agencies, newspapers, fashion experts and celebrities bombard us with promises that losing weight is the key to becoming healthier, happier, sexier and more successful, and that dieting is the way to do it. Who wouldn't want to reap these rewards by trying out the latest, greatest weight-loss plan?
The problem is, weight loss remains elusive for the vast majority of people. Despite commonly held assumptions that we can control our weight by watching our diet and exercising regularly, both science and history prove that sustained weight loss is not possible in the long run for most people. While these behavioral changes might result in weight loss in the short term, the reality is that biological safeguards cause our bodies to resist maintaining weight loss. Most people, regardless of willpower or diet or exercise, regain the weight they lose over time. Research clearly demonstrates that few people maintain significant weight or fat loss by increasing their physical activity, even when diet and exercise habits are maintained.
The failure of dieting can't be blamed on the lack of discipline or resolve of dieters, but on our bodies' stubborn insistence to hang on to these pounds just in case we need them to survive. Regardless of the strength and determination of one's willpower, biology wins out and the pounds return. Even if you have strong willpower and can resist the biologically driven appetite surge, your body can slow down your metabolism so you spend less energy, thus compensating for the fewer calories you are now taking in.
Not only does research show that weight loss is not possible for most people, it also demonstrates that prescribing weight loss is not an effective way to promote improved health and well-being. All those promises of better health and greater happiness associated with losing weight just don't prove true. On the contrary, our cultural obsession with losing weight has inspired damaging side effects, including food and weight preoccupation, eating disorders, stress and discrimination. Few of us are at peace with our bodies, whether because we're fat or because we're afraid of getting that way. That very stress can increase our risk for diseases we blame on weight, like diabetes and hypertension, helping to explain why they are often more common in larger people.
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Is there a better way to help someone, or yourself, eat better without dieting?
Absolutely. The well-tested solution I promote in my books, "Health at Every Size" and "Body Respect," co-authored with Lucy Aphramor, is to stop trying to control your weight and allow your body to do the job for you — naturally and much more effectively. Your body can tell you how much to eat and which foods work best, if you are attentive to its signals. You will settle at a weight that is best for you. And rather than forcing oneself to struggle through a tedious workout because we think that's the only way to get fit, try expanding your notion of exercise to include any way of moving that actually feels good. Dance, shoot some hoops with your kids, walk to the store instead of always driving — all of these contribute to your overall fitness and well-being, and may even be fun.
Science supports these approaches to improved wellness as being much more effective than traditional dieting and forced exercise regimes. Randomized controlled studies, including one I conducted with funding from the National Institutes of Health, show that this approach improves well-being, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol while elevating self-esteem.
How important is a person's outlook?
Remember this: You haven't failed at dieting; the diet failed you. Ironically, it's when you dump the diet mentality that you have real opportunity to get what you're looking for.