I spend a lot of time focusing on the 95% failure rate of dieting just so people can be aware of what they are getting themselves into when they decide they want to lose weight. And inevitably, every few months someone on Twitter will say, “Of course long term weight loss is possible. People do it all the time.” Yes, many things are possible, even long-term weight loss. So I’m going to talk about them today, because I have some first-hand insight into the subject: I was one of those 5% that kept weight off longer than 5 years (16 years total).
But first, to recap: all of the available scientific literature on intentional weight loss efforts (and I’m going to avoid using the word “dieting” here just to save someone from piping up with, “Of course diets don’t work weight loss is about lifestyle changes…”) shows that somewhere in the very near vicinity of 95% of people who engage in them end up gaining most, all, or more of their weight back by five years. The best compilation of this science that I’ve read is Secrets from the Eating Lab by Dr. Traci Mann, so go ahead and check that out from your local library if you’re interested. There are many other books that reference the science of this failure listed here.
By contrast, there is compelling science in favor of the Health at Every Size® philosophy and weight neutral eating models such as Intuitive Eating, the Satter Eating Competence Model (check out the books Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon, Intuitive Eating by Tribole and Resch and any book by Ellyn Satter for the many studies regarding the efficacy of weight-neutral health interventions. You will be astounded).
But for now, let’s say you’re still not convinced, and you want to lose weight, and while you know that you have about a 95% chance of regaining all the weight you lose and maybe more, you still want to give it a chance and see if you can become one of these “lucky” few. Anything’s possible, right?! So let’s explore that slim possibility to see what your life will be like if you do grab manage to grab that brass ring.
When I originally started on my weight loss journey, my goal was not to live a miserable life of deprivation; in fact, I decided that if I couldn’t go and enjoy a McDonald’s meal at least once a week, I wasn’t going to continue on with it. And at that time in my young, never-dieted, frequently overeating body, I did lose weight quickly and easily without extreme deprivation. There are probably a lot of people out there with a similar, seductive experience.
But as time passed, the body remembered and frequently the number on the scale would start to creep upward. Food and calorie restriction had to happen more and more often in order to keep my weight in check. Eventually the maintenance tactics with how I ate when I first dieted (with my young, never-dieted, frequently overeating body) were no longer sufficient to maintain my older, thinner, always-dieting body. My solution to fix my upward-bobbing weight was to lose more weight, of course. I beat the odds, though, and was one of those magical 5% that had lost and maintained a significant amount of weight for more than 5 years. I WAS A UNICORN! Just kidding, unicorns don’t exist and I did. But seriously, I didn’t even know at the time how rare I was.
How did my reality match up to my original desire to be a thinner, normal eater who was relaxed around food? It never did. There was never a moment, even in the early “easy” days, that I did not worry about what or how much I was eating, even if I wasn’t having to eat restrictively at that moment. While my naturally thinner friends seemed to instinctively know when they had eaten enough and could stop when they were full and didn’t obsess over food all day long, I lived with the feeling that I would never be able to stop eating given half the chance and a full bag of Oreos. Instead of forever-after appreciating my thinner body, my dissatisfaction with it grew and grew until I was ready and willing to starve myself in the vain hope of perfection (which I could never reach because IT DOESN’T EXIST). During my most extreme restriction, I constantly denied my hunger, and then when the floodgates would inevitably burst, I blew well past full usually to the point of sickness. But I was not fat! So somehow that made me a winner.
Maybe I’m just a weirdo who couldn’t hold my 5 percenter* shit together. What of the rest of this segment of the population? Maybe they’re having a grand ol’ time. We could ask the National Weight Control Registry which is “the largest [10,000 members, so actually 0.003% of the US population] prospective investigation of long-term successful weight loss maintenance.” They study people who have managed to maintain their weight loss for at least one year. Let’s look past the fact that they define “long-term weight loss” as 1 year, and have a look at what they’ve found.
While the NWCR tell us that these people “maintain a low calorie, low fat diet” (around 1700 kcal for men and 1300 kcal for women), while doing “high levels of activity” (at least an hour a day, and we’re probably not talking brisk strolls in the park) and weigh themselves every day, they unfortunately don’t mention how people particularly enjoy their lifestyle, how relaxed and confident they feel around food, or if they spend the majority of their time thinking about their diets and weight. I know they don’t report on this information, because for a while, I was a participant in the NWCR, and in their surveys about what I ate and did to maintain my weight loss, they never once asked me about how happy I was about the whole damn thing (they may have asked me if I was happy being a not-fat person, but that’s not the same thing, is it?). Maybe they didn’t care; maybe they thought the means justified the skinny end and I shouldn’t have been so selfishly concerned with my happiness.
When the mental and physical toll of maintaining my weight loss eventually became too much to bear, and the unhappiness with myself no longer made any sense, I quit dieting cold turkey, regained every ounce of my lost weight and eventually quit the registry (and got happy with food, exercise, my body). As far as I can tell, they aren’t accounting for people like me – the dropouts, the weight-gainers – anywhere in their research. They didn’t bother to tell the rest of my story, where I decided that life sucked as a not-naturally-thin person, decided to start eating in a nourishing way, and gained weight.
If there are any 5 percenters out there living a free and easy life around food, I haven’t met or heard of them yet. I think most of them end up like Jillian Michaels, having to make a job – sometimes unpaid – out of maintaining their weight loss.
So if you are thinking about becoming one of the magical 5 percenters, know that your interests are pretty much only going to be food and exercise from here on out, and that there’s no guarantee you’re going to stay thin anyway. Want to be a foodie? Forget about it. Want to be like your naturally thin friends who seem to eat and not think all that much about it? Nuh-uh. Your new job will be that of a full-time former fatty, maintaining that weight loss with every ounce of mental and physical energy that you have. But you were looking for another full-time job anyway, right?
On the flip side, you can decide to make peace with food and your body, and develop some hobbies, which of course can be food and exercise, but can also include other things too. The choice is yours; just don’t say you haven’t been warned.
*Can we have a call for #OCCUPYDIETSTREET or something? Wouldn’t that be totally fun?
Check out the latest Dietitians Unplugged podcast in which we discuss the misconception that intuitive eating is for weight loss.