The “I Dieted Successfully, So You Can Too” Mistake

Dieting and SuccessI was recently part of a discussion about weight loss online. I was pointing out the research about intentional weight loss methods – and the fact that what the research shows is that most people can lose weight short term, but almost everyone gains it back long-term with most gaining back more than they lost. Someone immediately jumped in and said “I lost weight and kept it off, so what about that. Anyone can do it if they try hard enough.”

I see this a lot in these types of discussions. Hell, the National Weight Control Registry is literally built on this mistake (by people who should know better, but there seems to be more profit in acting like they don’t.)

The careful reader will note that in the original conversation I said “almost everyone” gains the weight back. The term here is “outlier,” someone whose experience/outcome is far different than what is typical.  The existence of outliers cannot be used to prove that the outcome they experienced could have/can be achieved by others.

So the fact that a tiny percentage of people don’t regain all their weight does not indicate that everyone can have the same outcome. There are people whose parachutes don’t open but they survive. That doesn’t make it reasonable for them to insist that their experience proves that anyone can survive their chute not opening if they just try hard enough.

That’s ludicrous. And yet every time we state the facts about the failure rates of intentional weight loss attempts, here comes someone who wants to talk about how their aunt’s best friend’s babysitter’s mom did it, like that cancels out the mountain of evidence that shows that only a tiny fraction of people succeed at significant weight loss long term.

When it comes to maintaining significant weight loss there are a number of factors that may contribute. A couple common examples:

It’s possible that they haven’t gained their weight back…yet. Most people gain their weight back in 2-5 years (which is why so many of the people you see on diet commercials are within that time frame.) This is the one I see most often. When challenged, I find that many of these people think that saying “I’m definitely not gaining it back” is someone evidence of their future purported success. Spoiler alert – it is not.

It’s possible that they developed disordered eating/an eating disorder (which wouldn’t be surprising since many diets encourage the exact same behaviors that people dealing with eating disorders struggle to stop.) This is a worst-case scenario since they are likely to be congratulated and supported for their dangerous eating disorder behaviors, and terrified to regain their weight because of the positive reaction they are receiving.

Regardless, if “trying hard” to be thin would make us thin, every fat person I know would be thin. The truth is that almost everyone who attempts weight loss will lose weight short term but gain it all back longterm, with many gaining back more than they lost. This means that the vast majority of people who commit to dieting will waste time, money, and energy in a futile – sometimes dangerous – pursuit.  Alternately, we could get off the diet roller coaster and never, ever get back on.

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4 thoughts on “The “I Dieted Successfully, So You Can Too” Mistake

  1. Ah the badge of: “I did it, so what’s your problem?”

    I wonder if they would be so arrogantly blasé if everyone really did do just as they did… lost the weight-kept it off (forever). That shiny badge would get a bit tarnished. You need failures to make your WIN truly superior. Or did this person really want to show how easy (accomplishable) this is, that you all, we all, they all can AND should do as they say they do/did?

  2. A friend of mine recently did weight loss surgery. In a post where everyone was gushing about the weight loss (both before and after surgery, when she was eating extremely limited food) I said I hoped her nutrition was good. While she hearted my comment, a while later I didn’t see my comment on that post. I don’t know if it was deleted or hidden by mistake or what, but it truly bothered me that it was no longer visible. But hey, weight loss.

    1. Herd mentality. You didn’t join in the blatherings of: “You look so good now that your less of a fat pig.” isms and it makes them un comfortable.

      Health schmelth. If she can fit into a smaller dress size, success! If she is sick for the rest of her life along with it. Hell, it was worth the risk. I guess think your happy thoughts but don’t join in.
      I have a pen friend who has been anorexic, deathly so, and is worried about her eating sweets too often now… How do I even respond to that? All I got is “try fruits…”

      Why does this HAVE to be such an insane deal!

      No, I know the answers, class, sexism, advertising. But I am so tired of it!

  3. A while ago, I saw a TV show that, each episode, would focus on food of a different era. A man and woman would go somewhere and recreate that era (they would play a couple, or brother and sister of a chosen class), and eat accordingly for a week or two.

    From a historical viewpoint, it was fascinating. However, one episode just saddened me so much.

    At the beginning of each episode (filming), they would visit a doctor, and get a baseline check-up, and at the end of the episode they would go back to the doctor, and run all the same tests to see what, if anything, had changed in their health, and by how much. It was really illuminating!

    Well, when it came to the Roaring 20’s, the actress found, at the beginning, that her perfectly normal modern body was “too fat” for a 20’s socialite (she actually had a bosom, y’all), so she had to go on a 20’s diet. It was a “healthy” 20’s diet, according to the “science” of the time. You know, the “Dr. Lookgood’s special diet” sort of “healthy” diet, with no scientific backing, whatsoever.

    So, over the course of 1 or 2 weeks (I don’t know exactly how long it was), she lived the life of a “fat” 20’s socialite on a diet, although still drinking as much alcohol as a 20’s socialite was expected to do. At the end, she went to the doctor, and had several BAD numbers. As in, “If you kept this up for a couple of months, you’d be in serious danger of permanent damage,” but you did lose X (small number) of pounds.

    She stopped listening completely at “you lost weight,” and completely forgot all the bad news she got BEFORE “you lost weight.” She exited that doctor’s office, and DANCED down the street, singing “I lost weight!”

    Yeah, you lost weight, and you endangered your liver, kidneys, heart, and brain. But you go, girl! You became LESS! Woot!
    /s

    I was saddened by this episode, not because they advocated for weight-loss, but because they showed that (at least this particular) weight-loss dieting was NOT healthy, and how silly it was to be dancing in glee that you lost weight, even though you were objectively less healthy than you were before you started. And she felt bad, physically, so I was sad for that, as well as the suffering she went through during the whole thing. And I knew that the odds of her keeping that weight off long-term were horribly NOT in her favor. Because I knew, even then, that most people gain the weight back. Now I know it’s more like 95% of humans regain their weight and only 5% of humans keep it off long-term, and that 5% is made up of at least 50% of people who gained the weight temporarily BEFORE they lost it, so it was mostly just their body going back to its original weight, in the first place.

    To be fair, the way the show presented it, they pointed out how ridiculous that attitude was, so I’m glad of that. I would watch the show again, because of that. They focused on SCIENTIFIC indicators of health, and pointed out that the visual indicators of “health,” were really rather worthless.

    Also, they showed that eating a peacock is visibly impressive, but the meat is not that delicious, and the peasants, with their chickens and ducks, had it better from a culinary standpoint, or at least as modern viewers would look at it from a modern culinary standpoint.

    I just now looked it up. It’s called “The Supersizers.” Odd name, since they rarely discussed weight or size.

    I just edited out about a page and a half of talk about supporting TV shows that show food as food, and not as a moral failing or some evil thing. I do think we should support shows that show food as food and not as some evil thing, just as we should support shows that show people of all sizes eating, without talking about how they’re “being bad,” or “need to lose weight.” I support normalizing eating in TV and movies, without using it as a visual shorthand for characterization and moralizing. “See? This person eats a lot! They are the villian!” No. Just no. I actually stopped reading an otherwise good book because of that. All the heroes ate sparingly, at every meal. Every single meal that was shown, even at a victory feast, the heroes “ate sparingly.” It had to be pointed out every single time, just to show how “good,” they were. It pulled me right out of the story, and I couldn’t read it any more.

    That said, if you’re interested in a TV show about food that (for me) was not triggering, and seemed pretty neutral on the subject of size, I would recommend this show, with the caveat that I saw it a few years ago, and my memory of it is fuzzy, as well as the constant caveat that your level of sensitivity is your own, and your mileage may vary. As far as I can recall, the 20’s episode was the only one that actually addressed weight loss (due to the fashion of the time), and even then, it seemed to me that they were not encouraging weight-loss dieting, but pointing out that it was not healthy (or at least that particular type of weight-loss diet), so if you skip that episode, the rest of the show should be pretty much OK, and not triggering, but I cannot make a guarantee. You might even like the 20’s episode. It just depends largely on how hurt you have already been by jackasses and their stereotypes and assumptions.

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