If you want to lose weight to improve your health and feel better, the current climate out there is very discouraging. We are bombarded with studies and statistics telling us that if we lose weight, we will gain it back unless we adhere to an obsessive, joyless regimen for the rest of our lives.
So maybe you are wondering if you should even try to lose weight because you have done a lot of reading about how “impossible” it is. You may be thinking “Why bother?”
Some studies do show that people who lose weight will gain it back again (see this important article about the difficulty and complexity of losing weight, and this excellent analysis). Some even gain back more than they originally lost. Yet there are plenty of people who have lost weight and kept it off for significant periods of time. It can be done. The numbers as they are currently measured might not be optimistic, but the numbers are merely reporting what is happening in the current milieu–given our current food supply, weight loss interventions, and available support. These studies are not predicting an absolute truth about the future.
Often, research participants lose weight on a “starvation diet” that likely damaged their metabolism and caused mental distress. And what constitutes “follow-up” is hardly what could be considered enough support to help people permanently implement change. People need mindfulness to propel lifestyle change, stress reduction, education about how their bodies respond to weight gain/loss, evidence-based psychological tools, and group support. Lacking these conditions, it is no surprise that people re-gain weight. I am saddened when I see the media latching onto such discouraging data.
Obesity rates have increased significantly in the past 30 years. It is not impossible to reverse this trend, which is only a few decades in the making—a split second from the perspective of evolution. The answer lies in figuring out what caused this relatively sudden spike and then addressing it properly. That is where mindful living comes in.
My systems theory background tells me that there is no one cause. Rather, a perfect storm of stress, metabolic changes, sedentary living, screen time, addictive processed food (particularly sugar), and lack of community (loneliness and alienation) have created conditions where we gain weight.
We need to address this issue at its root cause(s). And its root cause(s) are complex, nuanced, and different for each of us. This is why so many weight loss interventions fail to work. Each person’s causes and conditions are slightly different. Sure, processed food plays a big part. But when you combine addictive processed food with high stress levels and isolation, you have out-of-control emotional eating. Sure, sedentary lives are a factor. But combine a recession, long term unemployment, and loss of hope, and you suddenly have a much more complex picture than “just get off the couch.” It is such individual combinations–which I am vastly over-simplifying— that make this area so challenging. Most interventions address one cause without the other(s). And most “follow-up” plans are not nearly as intensive and in-depth as to allow for truly lasting lifestyle change.
We also need to question the biases of some of the information that is circulating in the popular media. Like everything, the area of weight loss is subject to fads, cultural tides, and the vested interests of various industries such as Big Food and Big Pharma. It is also subject to the biases of our culture that has promoted unrealistically thin female body types, and a large scale unhealthy relationship to food and our bodies.
Given this morass, how should a person address these two basic questions:
1) Do you actually need to lose weight (and how much)? (because thinner is not necessarily healthier) and
2) Can you feel confident and hopeful about your ability to lose weight, should you chose to do so?
The answers to the above two questions will come from each one of us, mindfully and compassionately tuning into our bodies and minds. The next article in this series will explore how to answer these questions.