Weight – the Wrong Question?

How should fat people go about loosing weight, so that they become healthy, positive, skinny, happy, beautiful, successful people?

Hopefully you noticed the tongue violently pushing on my cheek-lining there, but the diet industry doesn’t actually market itself so very differently.  Such marketing is successful: the industry is valued at £2 billion in the UK alone.

One survey (part-funded by SlimmingWorld) said that nearly a quarter of us admit to having lost and regained weight more than five times.

Another (this one by Wharbuton’s) said that the average woman starts a diet 31 times between the ages of 16 and 45.

A statistic from the 2012 UK All Party Parliamental Group on Body Image report is that one in four 7-year-old girls have already dieted.

Which is a shame because….

Wait for it….


Diets don’t work.

If diets worked and lasted, we’d be all be slim by now.

I am told by friends that diets do work in that they always reach their target weights. It’s just that they themselves are weak and lose motivation, so they need to start again occasionally. The diet industry is supportive: ‘We are all weak sometimes. Come back / give us more money and tomorrow’s a new day.’

But what the industry calls ‘your weakness’ (another reason to dislike yourself, why not) is actually a known physiological response: once about 10% of body-weight has been lost, the body chemistry changes. The fat-cells start sending signals telling us to eat more. This is a strong evolutionary urge. The ‘loosing weight’ euphoria may keep it in check for a while, but it is not only the ‘weak’ who eventually stop following the diet: it is most people. This applies for all calorie restricted diets, whether marketed as ‘eating fewer carbs,’ the ‘points diet,’ ‘5:2’ or ‘Atkins.’

Traci Mann is a researcher based at the University of Minnesota. Her group traced dieters two years after reaching their target weight. 41% of participants were actually heavier than before the diet. However, Mann believes her study to be flawed: she would put the actual percentage closer to double that. This is because of problems with data-collection: many original participants withdrew or didn’t respond, likely because they hadn’t kept the weight off, but only respondants counted. Furthermore, people may have embarked on a second or third diet before the data collection. Many ‘weighed themselves at home,’ submitting their own ‘present’ weights by e-mail.

Psychologists believe that dieting brings about a longer-term weight-gain, pushing the body into ‘hungry’ mode and by ‘confusing’ the part of the brain that tells us when we feel full. It is possible that our diet industry – not necessarily out of malice – has actually made things worse.

The dieting culture also confuses our emotional relationship with food; certain ones become associated with a mixture of pleasure and guilt; we call them ‘treats’ and eat them for emotional reasons.

In summary, diets probably aren’t good for us.

So, back to my question – how should people loose weight?

Weight – but isn’t it the wrong question?

Whatever the number on your scales says and whatever emotional impact this has, the number itself is rarely the reason for dieting.  Let’s consider what dieters are actually trying to ahceive.

To feel better about ourselves  Plenty size zeros don’t feel good about themselves. We forget that slim people suffer from eating disorders because they look ‘normal.’ We forget that fat people can be happy in their skins. So weight does not correlate with self-confidence or happiness. Could we just aim for self-confidence and happiness instead? Self-actualisation courses? A new sport?

To be fitter. I knew a twenty-five-year-old whose body epitomised the words: ‘Phwoar! Fit!’  He was fond of telling people that he his BMI fell into the ‘obese’ category. This is because muscle is heavy. Since I have been exercising, my weight hasn’t gone down at all: I have changed fat into muscle.  Fat is heavier. Yet I am fitter. So might it be better to concentrate on what a body can do, rather than on its weight.

To be healthier. This is a sticky one: ‘healthy’ can be so many things. Mann reveiwed data from that rare beast, ‘successful’ loosers of weight (at 1-2 years). Improvements in participants’ blood pressure and cholesterol were seen, but ‘slight’. She found stronger positives, for instance relating to Diabetes (control and incidence); but none of them correlated with the amount of weight lost.

What this paper does NOT show is that the successful participants weren’t healthier as result of their new lives: arguably that would have been in many ways. However, it does suggest that the numbers on the scales are not the thing that dictates the perameters chosen.  Loosing 10kg is not necessarily better for a Type 2 diabetic’s blood sugars than loosing 6kg: it depends on concurrent muscle increase, for example. So perhaps we could just aim for a ‘healthy’ lifestyle and leave the numbers of kilos and the ritual weigh-ins out of it.


More fat-cells: Ethan Hein, Flickr

Medical commentator Gary Taubes wrote in the BMJ last year that doctors don’t know why people become fat:  that the widely accepted ‘energy-in-more-than-energy-out’ model has never been proven; that the poor success rate of dieting should tell us something; that plausable alternative hypotheses involving the endocrine system have never even been researched. It is worth signing up for the free introductory membership of the BMJ to read this article.

It proved contraversial but amongst the many replies was an observation about the number of accepted ‘facts’ that have already been proven wrong throughout the history of medicine.

I suspect that our understanding of treating obesity will one day be very different.





Some Interesting Links


Confronting the Failure Of Behavioural and Dietary treatments for obesity. Over twenty years old now, this still makes interesting reading and supports the substance of its title. ://www.indiana.edu/~k536/articles/behavior/failure%20Garner%201991.pdf


One of the surveys mentioned: (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/03/20/average-woman-61-diets-age-45_n_1366665.html) Huffington Post 61 diets between 16 and 45


Traci Mann’s website, the University of Minnesota Research papers can be found under ‘Publications’ http://mannlab.psych.umn.edu/index.html


Another WordPress Blog This is written by a “fat activist” i.e. a campaigner against a general prejudice against fat people. http://fatshionhustlings.com/2013/11/28/being-comfortable-in-my-body/




2 thoughts on “Weight – the Wrong Question?

  1. This is such a fantastic, thoughtful post.
    I feel a lot of the time that I sound like a whiny young buzzard full if crazy ideas when I talk about fat activism with people I know, but I feel like I wouldn’t be happy or proud of myself if I stopped.
    What has bothered me lately is noticing the sort of things that I would previously have not even dreamed of doing because I was too fat. Dancing, wearing revealing clothes, dating… it’s liberating to feel like I can actually do these things now, but it’s worrying that I restricted my chances of having fun without even realising I was doing it.
    Anyway, I’m tired and rambling, so I’ll end by encouraging you to keep writing on here because I’m liking what I’m seeing.

    • Thankyou; I love the attitude that comes across in your writing and I’m sorry that you haven’t always felt like that. You ever seen a British film Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, there’s a sequence with a massive schoal of salmon all heading downstream…. then one of them turns and starts swimming the other way, against the rest. Then another starts swimming the other way. And then another. And then, one by one, the rest turn until they’re all headed upstream, the direction they’re meant to be…. maybe thats going to happen with attitudes towards bodies. Wouldn’t it be nice? Go read this woman’s blog everyone, it’s terrific.

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