When it comes to losing weight and keeping it off, I tell myself I’m self-disciplined. I watch what I eat and exercise a lot. Let’s hear it for free will.
But others prefer to say I’m either superhuman or a winner in the genetic lottery game. Those are the choices given in a New York Times Magazine article by Tara Parker-Pope, a health writer for the newspaper. The cover of the magazine asks: “Do you have to be superhuman to lose weight?” A display quote on the first page says: “Science is uncovering a painful truth about obesity – that in the battle to lose weight, and keep it off, our bodies are fighting against us.”
Forget about the traditional reasons dieters regain weight: lack of discipline and a failure of willpower. The real reason, Parker-Pope says, is that dieters who lose a lot of weight undergo hormonal changes that put pressure on the body to regain the lost weight.
“What we see here is a coordinated defense mechanism with multiple components all directed toward making us put on weight,” Australian researcher Joseph Proietto says. “This, I think, explains the high failure rate in obesity treatment.”
While eating less and exercising more remain good advice, the sobering reality, Parker-Pope says, is that heredity plays a role in who gets fat, and “once we become fat, most of us, despite our best efforts, will probably remain fat.”
An opposing view comes from Rena Wing, a co-founder of the National Weight Control Registry, a joint project of Brown University’s Alpert Medical School and the University of Colorado’s Center for Human Nutrition. The 10,000 people in the registry have all lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for at least a year. Registry scientists want to know how they do it.
Wing, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown, contends that those who permanently lose weight do so through a combination of limiting their calories and exercising a lot. While acknowledging that physiological changes may make permanent weight loss difficult, Wing says that the real culprit is overeating and surrendering to the inundation of food messages in our culture.
As a college freshmen athlete, I was 6 foot 1 and weighed between 205 and 210 pounds. Five years later, having become a decadent would-be intellectual, smoker and indulger in Hostess cherry pies and Sunshine Cheez-Its, I peaked at 242 pounds. After a round of seemingly mystical insights in the late ’60s, I tapered off the vices, ate better and started exercising regularly. Before long, I returned to my freshman weight level and maintained it for the next three decades. At 55, with my waistline edging outward, I decided to drop down to my high school weight of 195-200. That’s where I am today at 66.
With this experience, I’m inclined to believe that obesity is a psychological problem, not a hormonal and genetic one. I fit the profile of registry members who exercise about an hour or more a day – the equivalent of a four-mile walk — get on a scale daily, eat breakfast regularly, eat the same foods and in the same patterns consistently each day, and probably watch less television than the overall population. I followed this regimen when I was a full-time worker and continue it in retirement. I don’t consider myself a fanatic.
Throughout the Times article, the writer, who admits to being easily 60 pounds overweight, depicts successful weight losers as extremists. Right after giving Wing’s views, Parker-Pope brings in Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale. In Brownell’s view, “you find these people are incredibly vigilant about maintaining their weight. Years later, they are paying attention to every calorie, spending an hour a day on exercise. They never don’t think about their weight.”
Since when is getting on a scale daily a sign of obsession? Why is watching your food intake daily compulsive but neglecting it for months appropriate? What’s extreme about exercising an hour a day? How long do Parker-Pope and Brownell spend putting on their makeup each day?
Furthermore, the studies highlight hormonal changes that undermine the efforts of dieters to keep weight off. But these changes have come from intense, short-term dieting by people who have spent years getting fat. It seems logical that the body is going to need a long time to readjust to new conditions.
It’s interesting that proponents of biological determinism seem oblivious to their own development as human beings. Our ancient ancestors were a hardy bunch. The majority of human beings through the 19th century were engaged in hard physical labor. Outside of Western nations, many folks toil daily. Kids fifty years ago used to hang out in parks and schoolyards for hours a day, making up all kinds of energetic games. Today, you see many kids getting minimal playing time in organized sports from the age of 5 on through high school.
We live in an era of bizarre expectations. People overeat for 30 years, crash-diet for 30 days and are shocked that the body’s hormones seem in revolt. They watch TV for four hours a day and search for 15-minute workouts. They take pills at bedtime and expect to lose weight while they sleep.
There isn’t a quick fix. Keeping weight off requires vigilance and self-discipline. It means eating less and exercising more. It means calling an hour of exercise a “modest” workout, not a “superhuman” one. It means rejecting biological victimhood and embracing your free will.
All of this is a small price to pay to maximize your prospects for a healthy life.