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What if we all just stopped trying to lose weight? (video)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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By focusing on weight, we may be missing the broader picture of what it means to be healthy.

Brian Mattson is not the picture of health. Few would look at him and say: “There’s a healthy fellow.” But that’s a shame, because Mattson is a pretty healthy guy. In fact, by a number of measures, he’s healthier than most Americans.

Mattson walks every day, on average exceeding the CDC recommendations for daily aerobic physical activity. Less than half (48%) of Americans meet this benchmark. Mattson also eats about three servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Estimates of the average American fruit and vegetable consumption range from one and a half, to three servings a day. The target should be 5 to 13 servings, or at least “half your plate” according to latest USDA dietary guidelines.

Sure, Mattson is the first to admit it’s not perfect, but compared to his situation five years ago, he’s doing quite well, and the changes he’s made in his life have become habits that he’s been able to maintain over years.

Brian took his first steps towards healthier living in 2009, when the wellness organization Blue Zones initiated a pilot project in his home town of Albert Lea, Minnesota. As part of the program he took a life expectancy assessment, the results of which had him on the road to dying young–in his 50s. This wake up call got him walking every day and eating more vegetables. The walking group he joined also got him out into the community, interacting with people, and even resuming his involvement in the local theater. These simple things extended his estimated life expectancy by 20 years. He didn’t start a restrictive diet. He didn’t join his local gym’s extreme weight loss challenge. And that’s probably a good thing, because the weight-loss industry has yielded poor results.

Mattson told me on the phone that since we met last year, he’s lost 20 pounds, averaging a pound of weight loss per month. Not because he was trying to lose weight, but merely as a side effect of the healthy habits he developed. The habits were encouraged by changes instituted in Albert Lea as part of Blue Zones’ efforts to emulate the healthiest and happiest communities in the world. The book The Blue Zones, points out that dieting and exercise are not common in these long-living communities. I asked author and Blue Zones CEO Dan Buettner why weight loss was not a primary focus of his organization’s efforts:

“To see your weight go down isn’t an answer for a happy life. People we’ve seen in the Blue Zones not only live a long time, but they’re also in the top quintile of the happiest places in the world. It turns out most of what makes us feel truly genuinely happy is also good for our health. I’d just as soon lead with quality of life and leave the weight-loss as a happy byproduct.

Sure, Albert Lea collectively shaved about two tons [of body weight] among the [participants], but that’s not what we set out to do. We set out to get them more connected socially, to change their environment to make walking easier, and to make fruits and vegetables more available, and eating them more socially acceptable and a common part of daily life.”

I asked Brian Mattson how he thinks things would have turned out if he had started with a weight loss goal, rather than his modest eating and walking goals.

“I don’t think I would have done it.” He said. “It’s the same as the 10 or 12 other times in my life I’d tried to lose weight. I’d last about a week and a half and then give up and gain it all back. Now I’m taking small things each time, and I’m not killing myself doing it. A pound a month doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a consistent pound a month.”

A meta-analysis published late last year suggested that obesity in and of itself is a risk factor for heart attacks and early death. The ensuing media coverage shouted “you can’t be fit and fat!” Another study published this January seemed to respond: “yes you can!”

In light of this, a brief thought experiment:

Assuming the you-can’t-be-fat-and-fit study is accurate (it didn’t actually take into account fitness among other issues), the risk for cardiovascular events and/or death was 24% higher in metabolically healthy overweight folks compared to metabolically healthy normal weight folks.

Compare that with a 2003 Danish cohort study that found a 29% reduction in risk of death from adopting regular moderate physical activity, and another more recent cohort study describing a 53% higher mortality rate among non-fruit and vegetable eaters, versus those getting their 5-a-day.

Why do we obsessively focus on a very-hard-to-affect risk factor (body weight) that yields no better results than easier-to-adopt habits, that provide clear health benefits? If you were an inactive person who eats a poor diet and suffers from obesity and were presented with these numbers, knowing that dieting and sustained weight-loss are very difficult and usually unsuccessful, what would you do?

Everywhere we go, from the mouths of our peers, on every magazine rack, Internet ad, and weight-loss reality show, we get the message: you need to lose weight. You are too fat. Maybe it’s time to retire this line of thinking.  Maybe it’s time to go for a walk, or eat some asparagus, just because those are good, pleasurable things to do, and will make our lives better, whatever our weight.

Brian Mattson’s story should help us rethink what health looks like. If we decide that health looks like chiseled abs, toned arms and  yoga pants, we’re leaving a lot of people behind. When our health ideal comes in the form of a cover model on Shape, no one will ever be healthy, and if we can’t be healthy, what’s the point? It’s a recipe for defeat.

I’ve heard it rightly argued that we should refrain from judging someone’s health based on appearance. For all we know, that overweight woman we see on the street might be exercising every day, eating better and may have already lost a lot of weight, and just “isn’t there yet.” I would take it further and argue that if those habits are now a part of her life, she’s already made it.

If we were to shift the conversation towards a culture of health–one that values healthy eating and regular physical activity as ends unto themselves, we may be happily surprised to find that not only are we living longer, happier lives, with less disease and fewer health costs, but also, we may need to drop a collective pant size or two. Or not. Either way, we’re better off.

Post Script:

This reads as if health outcomes were entirely dependent upon what individuals consciously choose or choose not to do. Most of the literature indicates that a vast number of complex environmental factors have far more to do with our health outcomes than our personal choices. However, the choices we make certainly come into play, and this post explores a new way to approach those choices and how we talk about them.

Photos courtesy of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

Patrick Mustain About the Author: Patrick Mustain is a Communications Manager at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. He is interested in how environmental factors (built, social, media, economic, etc.) affect health behaviors and outcomes, especially those places where media and public health intersect. You can find more of his work at his website, patrickmustain.com. Follow on Twitter @patrickmustain.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 9 Comments

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  1. 1. larkalt 1:52 pm 05/22/2014

    A lot of what makes it so hard to lose weight is our culture and food environment. There are so many TV ads promoting high-fat and sugar-laden foods. There are so many candy stands, even in stores that aren’t for food. Like the local Kinko’s, has a candy stand by the register. People get fat at work, when their coworkers bring in donuts and other junk food. Etc. etc.
    It’s very hard to resist.
    If you adopt a lowfat, low-sugar vegan diet with lots of vegetables, it’s very hard to overeat significantly. And regular moderate exercise added in, will also help.
    So while the author has a good point about changing the risk factors that are easier to change, obesity is a huge problem that is going to cause huge medical expenses. Even just type 2 diabetes is a huge weight-caused problem.
    I get around on my bicycle, eat a lowfat, low-sugar vegan diet and weigh less and have the same blood pressure that I did as a teenager.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Jerzy v. 3.0. 4:53 am 05/23/2014

    Just in case – if you want to lose weight, change also your eating habits. Change pasta, potatoes and rice to vegetables. Change processed food to ‘recognizable’ meat or fish. Change sweets to fruit. Change soft drinks to tea. In practice, even in McDonald’s or KFC you can eat healthy meal – just take twice meat and vegetables and half of chips.

    Not eat less by volume, do not eat zero fat, because both will kick in hunger.

    Link to this
  3. 3. larkalt 10:46 am 05/23/2014

    @Jerzy
    There are no “zero fat” diets, because even lowfat plant foods have some fat. A very lowfat vegan diet has about 10% calories from fat.
    This does not cause hunger once you get used to it. If you are used to a higher-fat diet, you may feel hungry on a lower-fat diet unless you gradually decrease the amount of fat.
    There are several satiety mechanisms your body uses – stomach fullness, fat-triggered, satiety triggered by insulin release and probably others.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:15 am 05/26/2014

    @larkalt
    Yes, there are several hunger mechanisms in the body. Simply trying not to eat, or not to eat fat or not to eat carbs will only make you feel very miserable. At the end you will break and gorge yourself anyway.

    One last trick I forgot: plan your next day and prepare healthy food (fruit, healthy sandwich etc) if your day schedule will keep you long time without food. If you allow yourself to get very hungry you will gorge on the first food avialable – usually unhealthy food.

    Link to this
  5. 5. larkalt 9:46 am 05/26/2014

    @Jerzy
    One gets used to a certain amount of fat, and highfat foods don’t seem tempting.
    I have not found this to be true with sweet foods :) A liking for sweetness seems to be innate.

    Link to this
  6. 6. larkalt 10:47 am 05/26/2014

    @jerzy
    Once one gets used to a lowfat diet, highfat foods tend to seem unpleasantly greasy, and may cause GI distress.
    People in the USA are so overweight because they eat like lumberjacks but they don’t exercise like lumberjacks. TV is continually pushing luxury highfat and sweet treats to them, but a bulky, lowfat and not very sweet diet is appropriate for people who aren’t getting a lot of exercise.
    It’s not like a certain amount of fat is “natural” and a lower-fat diet will make people want to return to what’s “natural” for people to eat. A lowfat vegan diet has about 10-15% fat. It’s difficult to seriously overeat if one is eating a lot of vegetables, lowfat starch staples and not much sweet food.
    That’s the issue that I have with this blog post. Most people would lose weight eating this way, although they might have to gradually change their diet.
    The difficulty many people would have with this kind of diet, is that others around them aren’t eating that way. High-fat, high-sugar “treat” food is offered to them all the time. In advertising, at candy stands, at parties, at work. And likely they live with someone who isn’t eating a lowfat bulky vegan diet.
    We have a dysfunctional food environment that causes obesity.
    I get moderate exercise but not like a lumberjack :)

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  7. 7. brianabolic 12:08 am 05/27/2014

    The struggle to lose weight is such a trap of shame and deprivation. This causes stress which makes us more likely to binge on food. After a lifetime of diets I stopped trying to lose weight–and lost 80 pounds: http://brianabolic.wordpress.com/opening-salvo/

    Link to this
  8. 8. larkalt 2:28 pm 05/27/2014

    @brianabolic There’s “National Weight Control Registry” http://nwcr.ws/ that studies people who lose a significant amount of weight and keep it off for years.
    According to the NWCR, many of these people had gone on repeated diets that failed. They kept on changing how they approached it and finally were successful.
    Summaries of their research are at http://nwcr.ws/Research/published%20research.htm

    Link to this
  9. 9. myherbalife 5:18 am 06/12/2014

    I am forever searching for more and more knowledge and this list is a fantastic resource thanks for your contribution really helps

    Link to this

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