Real Quick: Weight loss is easy, if you marry your diet.

By | July 7, 2011

1970s (?) ad for sugar, showing a woman licking an ice cream cone. Text reads: "Enjoy an ice cream cone shortly before lunch. Sugar can be the willpower you need to undereat. When you're hungry, it usually means your energy's down. By eating something with sugar in it, you can get your energy up fast. In fact, sugar is the fastest energy food around. And when your energy's up, there's a good chance you'll have the willpower to undereat at mealtime. How's that for a sweet idea? Sugar... only 18 calories per teaspoon, and it's all energy."

LOGIC: A sugar diet? Sure, why the hell not.

Time has published an article about a marvelous new study out of Penn State on how the behaviors necessary to lose weight differ from those needed to keep said weight from returning. They’re not the same! Penn State knows, because they did a telephone survey.

Let’s have some fun with definitions, shall we?

First, the researchers surveyed more than 1,100 people who had achieved significant weight loss and maintained it. The researchers identified 36 weight-loss and weight-maintenance practices that at least 10% of the group used.

Then the researchers conducted a national telephone survey of overweight people (with a BMI of 25 or higher) who had tried to lose weight and keep it off with varying success: about 11% reported successfully losing weight, defined as losing at least 10% of body weight, and 21% were able to maintain that loss for at least a year.

Call the hyberbole police because, my friends, we have stumbled upon the BEST DIET SURVEY EVER. Unfortunately Time doesn’t specify what counts as “significant” in the first group, and the study is going to be published in the August issue of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, which means I can’t actually go and read it yet. Indeed, odds are good that neither Time nor any other media outlet covering this story will have read more than a press release.

But let’s look at what we’ve got here. The researchers pinpoint 36 techniques used by 10% of the group modeling successful weight loss. I have been on many diets in my life, but I’d be hard-pressed to come up with 20 individual “techniques” I used, much less 36. The fact that this number is so large would seem to indicate that the “techniques” for long-term diet maintence are diverse and varied — in other words, that there is no handy list of simple rules to follow for assured success. Add to this that these 36 techniques were only used by 10% of the surveyed losers, and… well, what useful information is this imparting, really? That one in ten successful long-term dieters do the same 36 things? We are still looking at a 90% share having different experiences.

Then we come to the phone survey! Phone surveys are great, because they rely on self-reported figures, and I should not have to tell you that if you ask a stranger on the phone about their weight and their eating habits, they are probably going to fudge the truth a little. Unfortunately, as a culture we have invested so much of our self-worth in these numbers and behaviors, it’s almost inconceivable that the narrowest majority would be fully honest on this point — even people who have “successfully” lost weight.

To put the percentages in context, here’s an example. According to current BMI standards, a 5’6” woman weighing 186 pounds has a BMI of 30 and counts as “obese”. We’ll just ignore all the massive failures of the BMI as a useful measurement — such as its disregard for body fat percentage or overall fitness — for the moment. Let’s imagine that among the telephone-survey respondents, we’ve got a hundred ladies who are about this size. Ten of them would have reported a loss of around 18 pounds, which would actually still keep them squarely in the BMI’s “overweight” category. Of those ten women, only two would have reported maintaining that loss for at least a year. (Take it out to three years and other studies of long-term diet efficacy suggest that only one of those two will still be maintaining the loss.) Two, out of a hundred.


Still, say many nutrition and obesity experts, the basic underlying principles of weight loss and maintenance are the same: you have to eat a healthy diet and increase your exercise. People who lose weight and keep it off tend to eat significantly healthier foods and do a lot more exercise than the average American.

But if this is true — if it is simply a matter of oft-cited thermodynamics — why do only 10% of the survey respondents report a whopping thirty-six shared techniques? Why don’t 100% of successful long-term weight-loss maintainers agree that they all do two things: eat healthy and exercise? And why do so many “overweight” and “obese” people do these things in real life without instantly experiencing “significant” weight loss?

The study’s author has a charming analogy:

“It seems somewhat similar to love and marriage,” study author Dr. Christopher Sciamanna, a professor of medicine and public health sciences at Penn State College of Medicine, told WebMD. “What gets you to the altar is likely to be quite different than what keeps you married in the long-term. [And] not recognizing this transition and adapting with different practices will also get you in trouble.”

Basically, in order you succeed at long-term weight-loss, you need to marry your diet*, to recognize and accept that the rest of your life will be spent making compromises with your metabolism — and that may not even work past that first year post-loss anyway. You know, I am not opposed to long-term effort for the sake of building something good. I have a human marriage of my own that is built on an enormous amount of love and sacrifice from two incredibly stubborn individuals. But the fact is the overwhelming majority of these diets will fail, and not because of individual inadequacy, but because some folks are never going to weigh 120 pounds for any appreciable length of time.

Ultimately what we have here is a study that tells us little of value, aside from the fact that the scant few individuals who manage to lose weight and keep it off for a year all seem to have their own unique methods and circumstances for doing so. Which we already knew. Thanks, Penn State! For nothing.



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