Once I was having a conversation with one of my classmates about dieting and exercise. She knew I had been going to the gym lately and wanted to chat about habits she could pick up to start losing weight.
I gave her what I thought was good advice and tacked onto the end, “And remember, it’s not all about weight.” She asked me to clarify. I told her that I was significantly overweight for my gender and age but that I was nonetheless still very healthy.
She gave me a shocked once-over, looking for the image of “overweight” on my body. “Really?”
If you’re an athlete or a former athlete, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that muscle is more dense than fat and thus one pound of muscle takes up less space than one pound of fat. Most people I’ve talked to about weight are aware of this fact, and so was the classmate. She was just still surprised to hear that someone could be overweight from eating cleanly and going to the gym several days a week.
Why the surprise? Although weight of course plays an important role and can often be an indicator of our lifestyle habits, it doesn’t have the final say in how healthy we are.
I’ve come to learn this after being mildly overweight most of my life but always being given a clean bill by doctors. I was also very active and developed muscle mass in high school through varsity sports training. Still, it is always tempting to give into a culture that wants you to lose weight regardless of how healthy you are.
The U.S Department of Health and Human Services says that “Even for people at a healthy weight, a poor diet is associated with major health risks that can cause illness and even death.” Maybe you know someone who can’t seem to gain weight no matter all the junk food they eat. Maybe you’re that person. Either way, it’s important to note that these eating habits will catch up to the body, even if their appearance isn’t showing it yet.
People know healthy weights can vary. So why is there such an obsession with weight loss in our society if we know that weight doesn’t automatically determine your health?
I’m going to hazard a guess—the weight loss industry brings in around $66 billion a year. This includes gym memberships, weight loss surgeries, pills, shakes, and meal plans. Not only are products like this marketed to help you lose a ton of weight (probably more than you really need), but they’re also marketed to help you lose it really quickly and easily.
Do any of these actually work? Mostly, no, and not always for the reason you think. While the Federal Trade Commission website shows a slew of settlements over false weight-loss products, other methods of weight loss bring actual results. As far as diets go, the Harvard School of Public Health diet review shows that some have been shown to have significant short-term benefits beyond that of just losing weight. For example, the ketogenic diet, which drastically reduces a person’s carbohydrate intake, has been shown to lower blood pressure and insulin resistance.
We have evidence of diets working, but truthfully, they’re dreadfully hard to maintain. If you’ve tried to diet before and failed, don’t look at yourself as weak-willed yet. You’re among an average of 45 million Americans who report annually that they’re trying to diet.
The episode “Why Diets Fail” of the Netflix documentary “Explained” does a great job of summing up the effects of diet culture on society and why diets usually don’t work, citing information from experts in health and academic journals. Another great source of information is Alexandra Sifferlin’s Time magazine article, published online in 2017, titled “The Weight Loss Trap.” Many of the explanations boil down to a simple summary: people try to change too many habits at once and can’t sustain the changes.
Don’t lose hope. It’s not impossible to diet, but there may be better options if you’re trying to lose weight and keep it off. Making small adjustments to your current habits, ones that you can maintain for a long time, will be your best bet. These changes might look like cutting out soda, turning your afternoon snack into a healthy granola bar or fruit instead of chips, or ordering pizza a little less.
This way, “dieting” becomes less of a chore and more of a lifestyle. You’re less likely to be miserable because you’re abstaining from your favorite foods and desserts and more likely to feel lighter. Most importantly, you’ll feel healthier, and you’ll be able to keep it up for years to come.
“Diet Review: Ketogenic Diet for Weight Loss.” The Nutrition Source, 7 May 2018, www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-weight/diet-reviews/ketogenic-diet/.
“Federal Trade Commission.” Federal Trade Commission, 28 Mar. 2019, www.ftc.gov/.
HHS Office, and Council on Sports. “Importance of Good Nutrition.” HHS.gov, US Department of Health and Human Services, 26 Jan. 2017, www.hhs.gov/fitness/eat-healthy/importance-of-good-nutrition/index.html.
Sifferlin, Alexandra. “The Weight Loss Trap: Why Your Diet Isn’t Working.” Time, Time, 25 May 2017, time.com/magazine/us/4793878/june-5th-2017-vol-189-no-21-u-s/.
“Weight Management.” Boston Medical Center, 7 Sept. 2017, www.bmc.org/nutrition-and-weight-management/weight-management.
“Why Diets Fail.” Netflix Official Site, 23 May 2018, www.netflix.com/watch/80243755?trackId=13752289&tctx=0%2C14%2C4492308c-fcd1-4d7f-8799-a5e4fe63207f-498256248%2C%2C.