Long-term weight loss ‘nearly impossible’? Pfui!

I was discouraged by a Cory Doctorow blog a few days ago pointing to a CBC article that concludes weight loss is “almost impossible.”

But I finally read the article and came away with a different conclusion.

The article describes research showing only 5% of people who try to lose weight succeed. The article suggests — but does not actually say — that the researchers define success as keeping the weight off after 5-10 years.

Every fat and formerly fat person reading this is now shrugging and saying, “Yeah. Tell me something I don’t know.” Everybody already knows losing weight is hard.

The article (and possibly the researchers) make the mistake of conflating statistics with destiny. And it’s true that some statistical outcomes depend on luck. You can’t do anything about those. But other outcomes depend on individual choice.

The lotery is an example of an outcome dependent entirely on luck: Only a tiny sliver of the population ever wins the lottery. And there’s nothing you can do to improve your odds. The books and people who try to tell you which numbers to pick based on psychic powers are peddling lies. You can’t buy enough tickets to influence the outcome because the number of tickets sold is so vast. Buy one ticket, buy a thousand tickets, your chances of winning are pretty much the same. Indeed, statisticians say your chances of winning the lottery if you buy a ticket are about the same as your chances if you don’t buy a ticket.

On the other hand, the chances of a middle class or poor kid getting in to Harvard are also pretty slim. But it’s possible if the kid works hard and gets scholarships. So it’s worth a try.

Successful weight loss is more like getting into Harvard than winning the lottery.

The headline on that CBC story stinks. Because losing weight isn’t nearly impossible, Five percent success doesn’t say “nearly impossible.” It just says “very difficult.”

The article and the research do touch on a couple of interesting questions: Why do so many people fail at losing weight? It’s not will power. Fat people hold down jobs, raise families, and do all the things requiring will power that thin people do. Fat people have just as much will power as thin people have.

I think part of it is environmental, which explains the global obesity epidemic. My current pet theory: Farmers feeding antibiotics to livestock.

Another cause of obesity is how our brains are wired for food. When I hear recovering alcoholics talk about their relationship to alcohol, it’s like how I feel about food, particularly high-fat, high-salt, high-carb, high-sugar foods. Most people can have a handful of M&Ms and say, well, that was lovely, and move on. Not me. I can eat a one-pound bag of M&Ms and then start looking around for a one-pound bag of mini-Snickers to chase it down.

The other interesting question raised by the article is whether healthcare providers should be presenting alternatives to weight loss. Given that 95% of fat people are going to stay fat, should healthcare providers concentrate on getting them to eat well and be active, making them healthier fat people?

I wrote about this earlier: Research finds long-term weight loss is nearly impossible.

None of this should be taken as a criticism of Cory, the researchers, or the guy who wrote the CBC article, all of whom are doing great work — Cory, in particular, is someone I admire a great deal. Also, Cory lost about 70 pounds and has kept it off far longer than I’ve kept off my weight, so he certainly has every right to weigh in on this subject. So to speak.

Image: Annals Of Weight-Loss Gimmicks: From Bile Beans To Obesity Soap

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