I want to stage a coup. I want to take back the term “lifestyle changes” from the diet industry.
In my last post, I talked about the crazy things people will do in the name of losing weight. Pro-weight-loss people, allow me to speak for you because I know exactly what you’re going to say: “Obviously diets don’t work; everyone knows losing weight is really about making permanent lifestyle changes.” I have heard this refrain myself from well-meaning-but-not-yet-in-the-know colleagues many times.
The reality is something quite different. When we (non-diet advocates and just, you know, all the research) say that nothing has been shown to produce long-term (greater than 5 years) weight loss for most people, we are talking about everything: calorie restriction, exercise, and yes, even so-called lifestyle changes. (And if you can find proof otherwise, please send it my way)
I am not against lifestyle changes, not in the least. There are many things we can do to improve our health: we can eat more fruits and vegetables; we can move our bodies more; we can try to lessen our stress; we can quit smoking or just never start; and we can avoid excessive alcohol consumption. Doing all of those things will most likely help to make you a healthier person. I’m all about getting as healthy as we can.
But when the term “lifestyle changes” is meant to inspire weight loss…sorry, but that’s when it becomes just another diet. Most easy-to-make lifestyle changes don’t result in significant, long-term weight loss. They just don’t. That’s why most people who want to lose weight turn to more extreme, unsustainable measures – calorie restriction (aka dieting) or food-group elimination (think Atkins or Paleo). While these methods of eating do tend to produce immediate weight loss, the results are short-lived and nearly everyone gains the weight back and sometimes even more within 3 to 5 years.
I’m not saying lifestyle changes won’t produce weight loss – maybe sometimes they will. But when weight loss becomes the focus of the behavior change, and then the weight is regained (as tends to happen through natural, biological processes geared to maintain weight homeostasis), how likely are people to keep up those changes that they made? Maybe if outcomes goals of lifestyle changes were things like feeling better or improved metabolic measures, instead of unrealistic expectations of permanent weight loss, then people would be more willing to try them, or keep them up once started. As long as they masquerade as a diet, I predict resistance and disappointment for all.
Maybe it’s too late for “lifestyle changes,” but at least we still have Health at Every Size® – a term registered by ASDAH to protect it from this same hijacking. So suck it, weight loss industry: your profiteering stops here.
One of the most comprehensive, fact-laden books I’ve read on the subject of the failure of weight loss lately is Secrets of the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again by Traci Mann, PhD. Mann runs the Health and Eating Lab at the University of Minnesota and is no stranger to the science of weight loss. The first section of the book is chock-full of references to the literature on the failure of intentional weight loss efforts (aka dieting). She writes engagingly on why diets don’t work and how the failure to maintain weight loss has nothing to do with willpower. I can’t recommend this book enough if you are still skeptical about the need to abandon dieting as a health intervention. The second part of the book delves into why diets are not only useless, but bad for you. This, of course, is my favorite part! Again, every statement is backed up by sound research.
The third section of the book is titled “How to Reach Your Leanest Livable Weight (No Willpower Required)” and is essentially a list of small changes you can make to help you eat healthfully and live at the lowest end of your weight range (although no advice on how to know what that personal range is). I tried to read this part with as little bias as I could muster, but as a recovered dieter, I will never be completely bias-free when it comes to talk about eating and I had mixed feelings about this section. However, as much as I love and promote intuitive eating, I also realize that there is no one definite way to eat for everyone. Tips include making healthier foods more readily accessible and creating obstacles to temptations (like taking the route to work that doesn’t pass your favorite bakery). Some of these tips I love, like not eating healthy food because it’s healthy but because you have other compelling reasons that are important to you (might I suggest taste?), and changing how you think about tempting foods. Others, I was not so keen on, like pre-committing to a penalty for indulging (because I don’t believe punishment and eating are good bedfellows).
Some of these tips felt a little prescriptive to me but may be useful for those who have never dieted and want more regimented ways to eat better. As long as the “tips” don’t become strict rules and aren’t tied to weight loss results, I think they could amount to good advice for some. Dieters in recovery may find some of the tips too rigid or similar to the diet rules they used to follow, as I did with some of them. And what works in the eating lab to get people to eat better (when they do not even realize their eating is being studied) may work differently when we are applying them more consciously to ourselves. However, I appreciated the final tip the most, “Savor (nearly) everything,” because I think it underscores the basic message of the book – don’t eat for weight loss, eat well, and enjoy life. As long as the little “lifestyle changes” recommended here don’t become “diet rules,” the book remains an important part of the non-diet canon. So yes, I’m recommending the book for its ardent, fact-based support of abandoning intentional weight loss. Happy reading!