The truth about weight loss

I wrote this blog quite a few weeks ago, but then got occupied changing web hosts and making some fixes to my website…  Apparently that was fate, because I just listened to a podcast which goes perfectly with this topic and should be required listening for everyone, whatever weight you might be: “Tell Me I’m Fat” on This American Life.

Have you ever tried to lose weight?

If you are an adult living in the world, chances are that your answer is “yes”

Weight loss is a pervasive theme in daily life, a big business, and a tough nut to crack for most people.  Even people, like myself, who are of a normal/appropriate body weight feel pressure (I think mostly self-imposed) to look better, which usually means to get thinner.

In addition to feeling this way sometimes as an individual, in my naturopathic practice I observe that most of my patients, no matter what their current physique, want to lose weight.

weightHow hard is long-term weight loss?

There are certainly those for whom weight loss is easy, but what happens over the long-run?  I’m sure we all know people who have lost a great deal of weight and are deemed a “success story” but what happens one year, three years, and ten years later?

We can see in our lives and in the media, those people who lose weight only to gain it all back (sometimes more!) within a few years.

There is no shortage of answers to the question of “how to lose weight” but by now I think we can agree that actually achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is not easy for most people.

Myth-busting articles about weight loss

Recently I’ve read a trio of articles highlighting some under-recognized realities about weight loss.  These are definitely just the tip of the iceberg of information about weight loss, but they each make an incredibly important point that should help us reframe how we look at health and weight.

1. Your body doesn’t want to change

The New York Times features the article After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight which is a fascinating look at what happens to people in the years after major weight loss, and (spoiler alert!), it’s not pretty.

While the immediate outcome of appearing on The Biggest Loser is a seemingly-positive transformation, it has turned out to be incredibly detrimental to the majority of contestants.  While metabolisms of contestants entering the show were normal, after the show their metabolisms were altered such that maintaining their new weight was nearly impossible.  Their bodies fought to get back to where they were, even if that was obese.

Is this the effect of traumatizing the body with massive caloric deficits and excessive exercise?  I think that is definitely a factor, but regular people trying to lose weight often face the same issue.

Key messages:

  • Your body seems to achieve a “set point” of weight which can be difficult to shift
  • Weight loss may alter your metabolism long-term
  • Fast/dramatic weight loss does not seem to stick long-term

2. Exercise does not help you lose weight

Calories in, calories out, right?  Wrong!

While I think that becoming more aware of the calories you consume and burn is incredibly important, weight loss is not only about simple math.  By the same token, working on the “calories out” side of this equation is not as effective as you think it is.

The article Why you shouldn’t exercise to lose weight, explained with 60+ studies summarizes an impressive volume of research that concurs that exercise alone results in only minor changes in weight.  In fact, for many people, exercise actually undermines weight loss by increasing appetite, altering baseline energy expenditure, reducing overall activity level, and leading people to believe they can/deserve to eat more/worse because they have exercised.

The most important factor in weight loss is what and how much you eat and its effect on your body’s physiology.

Key messages:

  • Exercise is the number one thing you can to do improve health
  • However, exercise does not do much to promote weight loss
  • What you eat and how much is the most important influence on weight

3. Slow and steady (and ready!) wins the race

Finally, an example of what actual weight loss success over years looks like and what it took to get there!

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff shares one of his cases in the article Real Life Weight Loss: 3 Years, 3 Kicks at the Can, 31% Loss.  In this case it took 2 full years to see a steep decline in weight – before that you can see periods of progress, followed by periods of regaining weight.

This patient began as most people do – focusing on “dieting”, resisting the need to self-monitor, and fixating on numbers rather than behaviours.  While this is extremely typical of dieters, it also demonstrates that she wasn’t ready to face the reality of what her body needed to be healthier.  Once she was ready, the change happened when she “embraced two things – consistency in self-monitoring, and imperfection in her efforts.”

I have seen this in my practice too – the people who lose weight for the long-haul do it SLOWLY, they have SETBACKS, but in the face of this they are patient and consistent about maintaining their behaviours because they know what is healthy for them.

Key messages:

  • Consistency and healthy behaviours are required to achieve long-term weight loss
  • Self-monitoring via a food diary is an important strategy
  • Embracing healthy, whole foods that you prepare yourself is key

Give up on weight lossGive up on weight loss

It’s time to deprogram your thinking about weight…

Whatever number you have in your head for what you SHOULD weigh, erase it.

Whatever picture you have in your mind for how you SHOULD look, delete it.

What if the way you look right now and what you weigh right now are exactly right?  What if your weight is the outcome of living your life exactly as you want to live it, and you are happy with your life?

Having trouble with this mindset?  Did you listen to the podcast I linked to at the top of this post?  If not, here it is again: “Tell Me I’m Fat” on This American Life.

If you are happy with your life and feel mentally, emotionally, and physically well, then stop trying to mess with that and choose to accept yourself.

If you want to feel better and improve your HEALTH (not your appearance), then keep reading for some simple suggestions on improving your health which MAY result in weight change over the next several years or more…

Goals don’t work.  Systems do.

I’m about to tell you you to read a book about life advice written by a cartoonist.  I’m not joking.  Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert, has a great book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.

One of my favourite ideas from this book is Goals vs. Systems.  Weight loss is a goal, but few people take this goal and develop it into a system of behaviours that will actually achieve it.  Eating appropriate amounts of healthy food is a system that will result in improved health, increased energy, and probably weight loss for most adults.  However, just focusing on the goal of losing weight usually results in unsustainable dieting and willpower fatigue.

Another example: Running in a 10km race is a goal, while maintaining a habit of running regularly because you enjoy it is a system.  Who do you think is going to end up fitter and happier in the long-run, the woman who trains for the race and stops running afterwards or the woman who perhaps never runs 10km at a time but runs that distance consistently every week?

So, do you see how goals that are NOT systems don’t result in long-term behavioural change and can actually sabotage your ability to change long-term?

Healthy behaviours lead to healthy outcomes

In conclusion, I think you should stop worrying about what you weigh and start focusing on your potential for excellent health.  For this you need to follow the right systems:

1. Exercise regularly doing something you enjoy

2. Face the facts about your diet

3. Accept your need for sleep

4. Embrace the power of habit

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