The Way of the Turtle - The Slow and Steady Path to Better Health

Why Do We Yo-Yo?

Misguided Expectations, or How the Diet Industry has Misled us

The diet industry in the U.S. rakes in 40 billion dollars per year. Expensive specialized "diet foods" are big sellers as well. As the editors of every "women's magazine" at your grocery store checkout know, promises of weight loss on the cover lead to more sales. And yet...we just seem to be getting fatter. Is there a connection?

Well, think on this: They wouldn't be raking in all those bucks if their methods really worked! To the contrary, promoting false expectations brings in more customers! Lest you doubt my interpretation of all this, let's take a peek at a little "insider information".

In 1997, a group of government agencies* sponsored a conference getting together people from a broad range of points of view concerning weight loss programs. These included scientists, public health officials, and representatives of the weight loss industry. The conference title was “Commercial Weight Loss Products and Programs -- What Consumers Stand to Gain and Lose.” Its purpose was to explore how to improve the quality of the information consumers get about obesity, weight loss, and weight loss programs. Some of the main points coming out the conference:

- Long-term weight loss maintenance rates are ghastly.

- Rates improve when people are encouraged to lose weight slowly and learn to maintain modest weight gains.

- Consumers aren't told the usual outcomes of the weight loss programs which are capturing so much of their time, energy, money, and emotional investment.

- Members of the weight loss industry stated that giving the public accurate information about weight loss outcomes would be discouraging to them, and would take away "the dream" of achieving their "ideal" weight through their programs.

Let's take a look at some of the common unrealistic expectations about weight loss promoted by the weight loss industry. These ideas are so commonplace now they are often assumed to be the truth.

1) Short Term Focus - Usually the main idea is to focus on losing the weight. This is assumed to be the "hard part", and best to get it over as quickly as possible. People who lose weight quickly are applauded. Plateaus and "stalls" are the enemy to getting to the goal.

I believe this is totally backward.

Most overweight people would do much better to make a realistic long-term plan from the very beginning - something that can work for the rest of their lives. The lure of quick weight loss programs is strong, and there is a temptation to "just get the weight off, and then figure it out from there". I feel strongly that long-term planning MUST be part of the initial weight loss process.

2) Ideal Weight - Many people have an unrealistic expectation of a proper goal weight, which is reinforced by many diet programs.

To begin with, body fat percentage makes much more sense as a goal than weight. In the best case, when weight is lost, as much muscle is preserved as possible, as increased muscle mass is very helpful in maintaining weight loss. Especially for people with more muscle mass than average, paying attention to body fat percentage is more meaningful than weight. The BMI, which is becoming the standard measure, tends to be less accurate for people who are more fit (have a lower body fat percentage).

Additionally, many people who are seriously overweight need intermediate goals, and may need to take "weight loss breaks" in order not to trigger the body's biological defenses against weight loss.

Ultimately, the weight goal should not be obtained from a chart, but by determining each person's Lowest Sustainable Weight (LSW). Genetics has a hand in determining what this is for each person. It takes time and experimenting to determine what number (or range) is.

3) Rate of Weight Loss - It's clear that as a group, dieters want to take weight off as fast as possible. Figures quoted by the weight loss industry reinforce the idea that rapid weight loss can be healthy, when in fact it makes it more likely that weight lost will be regained. Scientific reviews of the literature suggest that a 10% reduction in weight taking approximately 6 months should be the maximum rate of initial weight loss. After 6 months, a serious reevaluation should take place. This means that for anyone who has a starting weight under 260, a goal of losing one pound per week is too fast (more details on this in other sections).

In general, slow weight loss, including plateaus and stalls, help the body adjust to the change and lessen the chances of triggering counter-reactions.

4) Maintenance - Most weight loss programs hold out maintenance as a sort of magic land where the dieter will be able to go back to eating "more normally". In fact, especially after a substantial weight loss, this is not often the case. As a minister friend once said, "how you OBtain something is how you must MAINtain it". Realistically, maintaining a weight loss requires the same effort (or more), with a similar diet and exercise program as weight loss. In fact, most people need MORE exercise to maintain the weight loss than they did to lose it. This is why concentrating on finding a "diet for life" is crucial.

5) Everyone is the Same - It seems that almost every diet out there is touted as working for everyone. Even the ones that assure you that they are "individualized" or "personalized" are usually only different within very narrow parameters. Perhaps the one most successful thing I have done with my current approach is to prove to myself that this is what works for me. This gives me lots of motivation to commit to it for the rest of my life.

I believe our primary goal should be health. We should try to find a way of life (including diet, exercise, and other factors) that help us feel our best. Weight loss will happen for many people secondary to this, but it must be managed in a way that is likely to be permanent.


* The sponsoring organizations were:

-The Bureau of Consumer Protection of the Federal Trade Commission

-The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

- The American Society for Clinical Nutrition

- The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases

Read the Conference Report for Yourself

More on this topic:

FTC Report on Deceptive Diet Advertising (oriented towards products rather than programs)

Diet Industry Will be Winner as Battle of the Bulge Goes to Europe - article in The Guardian

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The material on this page and Web site is for informational and educational purposes only, and should not substitute for medical advice. Anyone having questions about the application of information appearing here to a specific person or situation should obtain advice from a qualified health care professional.

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