We all know that being fat is the worst thing ever, which is why we have a multibillion dollar diet industry and why researchers expend significant resources on studies determining how to make people less fat.
Consequently, I’m constantly reading about some new research that usually contradicts common logic, compassion and numerous prior studies. Hence, my lack of surprise about this article in the latest issue of Metabolism: “History of weight cycling does not impede future weight loss or metabolic improvements in postmenopausal women” is making headlines, and for all the reasons you might think.
The way the media is reporting this study is basically: “Hey, weight cycling isn’t bad for you after all! So you should keep dieting even if you have a history of failed dieting, so you’ll stop being so fat.” In other words, “Even though diets don’t work, you should keep dieting.”
The truth of the matter is a bit more complicated, though, because when you’re looking at a study like this, you need to take a close look at the methods involved. So let’s pick this apart a bit. The study involved 439 women in the Seattle area, all of whom were medically classified as overweight with a history of inactivity. They were also postmenopausal.
Study subjects were assigned to four groups: One that just exercised, one that just dieted, one that dieted and exercised, and one that wasn’t directed to do anything. The study continued for a year, at which point the researchers reassessed all the participants.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest change was seen in the diet and diet and exercise groups, where some women were eating as few as 1,200 calories a day. Participants lost an average of 10 percent of their starting weight, which is what happens when you put someone on severe calorie restriction for six months, have them move around a lot, and follow up with a six-month maintenance period. Exercisers alone lost almost 2.5 percent of their body weight.
The researchers also noted that prior weight cyclers were successful; they managed to adhere to the plan and lost weight along with other participants. Their metabolic profiles also remained comparable to non-cyclers in the study, which the media are using as an argument that chronic weight cycling doesn’t cause long-term health effects, despite the fact that many people feel otherwise.
The conclusion of the researchers? “A history of weight cycling does not impede successful participation in lifestyle interventions or alter the benefits of diet and/or exercise on body composition and metabolic outcomes.”
In other words: “We put people on a diet for a year and it worked, ergo people should just work harder to be less fat.”
Except that it’s not that simple, and the researchers themselves admit that. When you’re only tracking people for a year, you miss out on a huge part of the picture. The question isn’t whether people can diet and hold a given weight for a year, but whether they can hold that weight for two years, three, four, a decade. The real important mark is the five year one; although the claim that 95 percent of dieters gain the weight back within five years is a subject of dispute, it’s inarguable that people have a lot of trouble losing weight and keeping it off.
Which I (and many others) would argue is a result of trying to fight the body’s set point; every body is different, and chances are that your body doesn’t want to fit neatly into a height/weight chart any more than mine does.
Furthermore, the study only followed postmenopausal women. Talk about metabolic differences. As people of all genders age, their bodies change with them; as you may yourself have noticed, since you probably don’t have the body you did when you were 16 (unless you’re 16, hi!).
Your metabolism shifts with time, and consequently, a good overview of dieting success and history of dieting should include a much larger sample of women.
While selecting within one age group is a good way to control for these metabolic variances, at the same time, it provides an incomplete picture. The media shouldn’t be generalizing this study to all women, because it’s not valid for all women. A 30-year-old woman using diet and exercise to lose weight is going to respond differently than a 60-year-old. And both women are going to have different profiles at the one and five year mark.
The bottom line of the way this study is being reported, and with the way the researchers are talking about it, is that being fat is bad and thus people should exert every possible effort to not be fat. Even if that means repeatedly gaining and losing weight; “So just because you've lost and gained, lost and gained, lost and gained, you now have no excuses. Do it again. And likely, again.”
The whole premise here is that obviously everyone should and wants to lose weight, so people should just keep trying, at any cost.
Fat folks are pretty used to hearing that they have no excuses, meaning that they are supposed to justify the existence of their bodies in the world. Studies like these are used as ammunition to batter people who don’t diet, or diet and fail, or who are struggling with their self-image. I’d love to see these kinds of resources dedicated to a study on the psychological impacts of being fat in a society where you’re constantly told you’re gross and ugly, that you need to try harder, that your body is offensive.