Dieting and Logic Make Poor Bedfellows

There are a couple of things that I see used as “proof” of why we should continue to cling to the idea that intentional weight loss is a good idea that involve some seriously questionable logic.

The first and most obvious issue is that, while most people can lose some weight on almost any diet, almost everyone gains it back in the long term. We have no idea how to make people permanently thin. But we get fooled into believing that if temporary weight loss is possible then permanent long term weight loss must also be possible by just doing the same things for longer, or forever.  There’s absolutely no reason to believe that. In fact, the evidence shows the opposite.

The evidence we have says that nearly everyone regains the weight within 5 years no matter how they lost it.  So a lot of studies stop follow up after a few months or a year and say “See, look – it worked!”  I’ve actually seen studies where the researchers said “we assume that if the weight stays off for a year then it will stay off permanently.”  That’s a completely ridiculous thing to say in general for a researcher, but especially when the data we DO have says that weight is regained in 2-5 years. The diet industry has refused to study long-term efficacy of dieting because it would be “too depressing for their clients”.  That’s like giving women thalidomide for morning sickness but not tracking the incidence of birth defects because it’s “too depressing for future moms.”  How is this defensible?  If you can’t get funding for a study with 5 year follow up then any study that you do on weight loss at this point is a waste of money.

The next faulty logic they employ is the belief that losing weight will make people healthier. This weight loss = health idea is based on the assumption that becoming “normal weight” is the same thing as having always been “normal weight”.  There’s no proof that’s true – that assumption has never been tested.  People come in lots of different sizes for lots of different reasons.  In some cases illness causes weight gain, or medication, the person’s natural body size, or something else. Not to mention that the weight loss/ weight cycling process itself could cause health issues, weight loss causes a host of physiological reactions that change the body’s metabolism and athletic potential, sometimes permanently.

By far the most common outcome of weight loss attempts is weight gain, that much is clear. Weight loss attempts have the exact opposite of the intended effect a staggering percentage of the time.  It’s possible that fat people have shorter life spans than thin people, or have more illness than thin people (though I think the evidence shows that is mitigated by healthy habits, and we don’t know what the numbers would look like if fat people didn’t have to deal with so much shame and so many barriers to getting good evidence based healthcare) but if being fat is bad for us then dieting is the absolutely LAST thing anyone should be recommending since the most likely outcome is that we’ll be fatter. It’s like saying that the only way we know how to help joint pain is for people to fly, so everyone with some knee pain should grab a sheet and jump off their roof.  If they don’t want people to be bigger than they are now, then recommending weight loss is the worst idea.

Based on the weight loss industry’s numbers, the more dieting we’ve done the bigger we’ve become (since they tell us that obesity has increased at the same as their profits)  Yet the recommendation that we keep hearing is that we should keep trying to lose weight.  This is just nuts!  Anyone can see that it’s not going to work.  Putting bunches of people on diets sets us up for years and years of “obesity epidemic” rhetoric since dieting will reliably create bigger people.  The only people who benefit from this are the ones selling the diets…hey, wait a minute – you don’t suppose that’s what this is about do you?  They have over 50 years of data to say that their product will work in the short term, fail in the long term, but that people will just keep coming back from more.  Plus they get to use the money we paid them for the product that didn’t work to sell it to us again (including celebrity endorsers who get paid more than 30,000 a POUND to lose weight) to sell the product back to us. What the hell?

I wonder how much encouragement of weight loss there would be if we all stopped giving money to the weight loss industry.  No weekly Weight Watchers fees, no $20,000 stomach amputation surgeries.  If we de-funded the diet industry there wouldn’t be anyone left to spend millions of dollars (to make billions of dollars) selling us magic beans that, in billions of tries over half a century, have never reliably produced beanstalks.

If you’re looking for some inspiration, a slideshow that a number of us have been working on for a while is finally up on NBCs iVillage!  Thirty Three women who said “I quit” to dieting and are happier and healthier for it!

Don’t Forget to Pre-order my book and  get an autographed copy and free shipping!

Fat: The Owner’s Manual – Navigating a Thin-Obsessed World with Your Health, Happiness, and Sense of Humor Intact, with foreword by Marilyn Wann is now available for pre-order.   No diet tips, no magic beans.  Just  a book about living life in the body that you have now, making decisions about what you want in the future, and how to get there.  Whether you want to change your body, fight for size acceptance, just live your life, or understand and support your fat friends and family, this book was written to provide the insights, aha moments, humor, and hard facts to help.

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I do HAES and SA activism, speaking and writing full time, and I don’t believe in putting corporate ads on my blog and making my readers a commodity. So if you find value in my work, want to support it, and you can afford it, please consider a paid subscription (it works like a fan club – you get extra stuff, discounts, and you’re always the first to know about things) or a one-time contribution.  The regular e-mail subscription (available at the top right hand side of this page) is still completely free. If you’re curious about this policy, you might want to check out this post.  Thanks for reading! ~Ragen

14 thoughts on “Dieting and Logic Make Poor Bedfellows

  1. Hi Ragen, Great post and that montage is awesome – those women are so incredibly beautiful, it’s sad that it took me so long to recognise it in myself.

    The link to the 30,000 per pound didn’t work so I googled it, and came up with this one:

    Do you have a citation for “The diet industry has refused to study long-term efficacy of dieting because it would be “too depressing for their clients”.”? I would LOVE to use that in a talk I’m preparing.

  2. As for the ‘health’ arguments, the most reliable research indicates that, on average, fat people actually live LONGER than thin people, that indeed dieting itself damages health, the more you diet, the more damage, & that, especially as we age, being fatter is protective of health & that dieting increases mortality risks by several hundred percentage. This seems to be true across the board, whether or not people have ‘healthy’ habits. It is irresponsible & showing a great lack of respect for people’s rights & concern for their actual health to recommend dieting at any age, but for people my age (62) & older, pushing weight loss is downright criminal.

    There are NO health problems which fat people have that thin people do not also have, it is very likely that much of the ‘increased risks’ come from the stigmatization, ostracization, poor & biased health care & limited opportunaties with which fat people deal every day rather from the fat itself. Some years ago, when it was still POSSIBLE to find some cultures where fat was not stigmatized, research showed NO increased risks of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, or any of the other things we are daily threatened with as just punishment for daring to be fat. And, among people who DO have health problems, especially older people, fatter people have better, faster recovery rates, better survival rates, etc., than their thin counterparts. Everybody has risks, LIFE is a risk, but overall, in very many instances, medically being thin carries more risks than being fat. Strangely enough, we don’t see people being all up in arms about THAT. No one says, Oh, those poor thin people, what are we going to do about THEM?! or Why don’t thin people have enough self-respect, discipline & respect for MY health care dollars to gain some weight & get healthier? And the single biggest risk factor for early mortality is being MALE. However, I also haven’t heard of any large campaigns to eradicate maleness, despite the fact that it is likely that an average 350-pound woman may well outlive an average 170-pound male by 3 or 4 years.

    The weight loss industry is selling a ‘cure’ which does not work for a ‘disease’ which does not exist. We are fine at whatever size is natural for us & we would be even finer if more people truly understood, believed, & accepted that as a fact.

  3. When I hear about diets not working for the vast majority of people, it reminds me of the way they found that there was no point in building fighter planes which could accelerate so much and turn so sharply that the pilot blacked out.

    It doesn’t matter what your physics says if it doesn’t work for the human being the physics is being applied to.

  4. My mother who is probably in the healthiest weight category slightly overweight is now going to WW. If I were talking to her, I would tell her it the worst thing for a mildly overweight person of 68 to do. First, losing weight for any reason is unhealthy especially when one is older. Second, she is trying to make herself go from a weight BMI of 26 or 27 to one that 22 to 23 which the numbers show for especially older people don’t live as long. Also by dieting, she is making herself more likely to get sick by other means since people dieting get colds and other infections easier.

    I remember when I was activity dieting and on the Sparks board all the time. Everyone there seemed to get sick often. A number of people went to great efforts to lose weight and ruined their health or even died from it. It’s not easy to lose weight. The reward might be looking better in the short term, but for many people dieting is a death sentence. You can’t be at your best when you’re weak from hunger all the time.

    Older people need to realize that losing weight is a vanity. We gain weight during our middle years because nature isn’t making a mistake. We need that weight in our later years to live through disease and accidents of the later years. For example, when I was bed ridden for two weeks due to an injury, I lost close to twelve pounds; it’s hard to eat when everything hurts. If I was older and frail at the time, those pounds could have been the difference between life and death.

    1. You’re absolutely right. The other part of that – and I haven’t had great success with this with my mom, but maybe you will – is that strength training for older women, while it shouldn’t lead to weight loss, is a really great way to slow the loss of boss density, build lean muscle mass, increase strength, improve balance, and overall increase the length of time that she can stay independent. I wish that “don’t lose weight/do physical training” were something that more older women were hearing.

      1. Those of you with elderly mothers who have yet to be persuaded to incorporate resistance training – try giving them a copy of ‘Strong women stay young’ by Miriam Nelson. It’s quite old now, so you should be able to pick it up really cheap. My 70 year old mother who was brought up to believe that nice ladies don’t sweat, went out and joined a gym. It really got through to her.

  5. Yesterday, a friend told me that her boyfriend’s doctor advised him to lose weight and suggested the Montignac method.

    I asked if he exercised–yes, he rides his bike to and from work every day (about 40 minutes in total). Then I said that probably, if there is a health problem (and that was not at all clear from what she said, despite my questions), maybe he should change what he eats rather than how much he eats to see if that makes any difference. Again, I insist on the fact that she would not answer my question regarding any current health problems.

    I also said that I would be the bank on him regaining any weight lost.

    My friend was adament: Montignac is good (not that she follows it) and that he should follow his doctor’s orders.

    La, la, la, fingers stuck resolutely in ears, I’m not listening, la, la, la…

  6. Ragen, I am a senior citizen who fought the “Battle of the Bulge” far too long. I finally gave up dieting and am trying to erase a life time of programming and finally love my body. I am grateful for all you do….and loved reading the stories of the women who have given up dieting. However, I found it ironic and distracting while reading the testimonials, to have an ad for “Slim Fast” flashing constantly. It is SO pervasive in our culture– Even a story about giving up diets is accompanied by diet ads——I know we are the ones who must change that culture, but it seems monumental. Sigh. What I CAN change is me and I am choosing to love my aging, overweight, still functioning living breathing body.

  7. Amen. And you just hit on one big reason why I am not & never will be a member of AARP, Marilyn. AARP is supposed to be about helping & protecting older people, yet AARP fully supports & encourages weight loss in people up to 80 years old. Somehow I find it difficult to believe that this organization can possibly have my best interests at heart.

    And my mother-in-law, who just turned 90 & who generally eats little anyway, thinks that if she were rich, she would go on Nutrisystem, despite the fact that her ‘extra’ pounds are almost certainly the largest single reason WHY she is still alive at age 90. Also, my husband, who will be 69 in August, says every so often that as soon as he returns from a trip to visit his sister this summer, HE ‘needs to go on a diet.’ He has yapped about this several times before, so I have hopes that it will not come to pass, but he & his mother both believe everything they see/hear in the media, & are classic examples of, “la la la, fingers stuck resolutely in ears, I’m not listening, la, la, la..”. I am fat & no one has put me on tv & given me an audience, therefore, I must not know what i am talking about & my FA friends & I are making up things as an excuse for staying fat. Raise your hand if you have heard THAT one before.

    1. (raises both hands, both feet, and any other appendage it is possible to levitate on the female anatomy)

      Dang. If I was a man, I could raise one more thing.

  8. Ragen, as you know, we all know this. The problem is getting it into mainstream society. Maybe we should do a class action law suit against the diet industry. (A little tounge in cheek.) It all takes me back to what you posted a week ago or so that the belief the sun revolves aroung the earth. “I use the earth is flat…” for everyone knows it to be true. I hope your book is a great success and I hope mine is too. We need to touch as many people as we can. For now, we are preaching to the choir. Please do write your blog about what we can do. I believe we can support each others attempts to teach the masses. Any other ideas?

  9. What has logic got to do with it? If people relied primarily on logic, would they buy lottery tickets?
    Also, I don’t think the weight-loss industry is the only one at fault. Certainly, they get tremendous financial benefit from promoting current attitudes about weight. But why have those attitudes in particular caught on, to the extent that many who have seemingly nothing to gain by them also enthusiastically promote them? The guy who yells insults out of the car window; the department store that steadfastly refuses to carry sizes larger than 14, even in a bad economy – what are they gaining by behaving this way?

  10. Thanks so much for your, and everyone else’s, hard work on the montage. It’s really inspiring and I realize how lucky I am to have escaped dieting on the whole. I chock it up to nonjudgemental parents and being Canadian. We’re less obsessed about weight and appearances up here, IMO, compared to the States or the UK.

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