Let’s Talk About the 5 Percent

5%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?

Podcast!

Check out the latest Dietitians Unplugged podcast in which we discuss the misconception that intuitive eating is for weight loss.

14 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About the 5 Percent

  1. Joanne Soolman January 25, 2016 / 12:01 pm

    Bravo! Excellent piece. My sister is a WW leader and it has completely consumed her life. I am waiting for the day that she will finally see the light, but I’m not holding my breath! Thank you for writing this!

    Liked by 2 people

    • GlenysO January 25, 2016 / 1:13 pm

      Ah, my sympathies. I was a WW member and employee back in the day and it is definitely a cult. I’m glad I never became a leader, as was my intention, right before I was introduced to HAES. She may see the light if she eventually gains all her weight back, as many of the WW employees do.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. jjjorgi January 25, 2016 / 2:46 pm

    Just in time, thank you for reminding me that diets don’t work as I was just scoping out another low carb plan. But only because my 15 day juice diet made me feel like hurling .. sure I lost weight very fast but it’s unsustainable. Oh yes, and the high fat low carb diet straight after the juice only diet!!

    I mean what the hell … really!? It’s so obvious to me that “diets don’t work” and I’ve known this since reading Bob Shwartz books “Diets Don’t Work” and “Diets Still Don’t Work” written in the 1970’s. I still have the books.

    Atkins was huge then and it was my first experience with dieting after WW refused to let me join as I wasn’t overweight and I was only 14. Atkins was easy and I became severely underweight .. as always I became sick of Atkins and gained the weight back plus a heap more, now I was overweight where as I was the perfect weight before.

    I tried vegan diets and Susan Summers etc etc and just got heavier, I believe the cortisol theory re stress and releasing fat absorbing hormones, or however it goes.

    Then one day in the Health” section of the local book store, I saw in big letter Shwartz book Diets Don’t Work, eat like a thin perso, eat whatever you want.. and I thought ‘what the hell is this dude on about??’ I bought the book as I hated dieting with a passion and I loved food so why not.

    Within a hours of reading his theories about The Last Supper, deprivation and his experiments and observations with “naturally thin” people I felt s HUGE release from stress, food obsession dismay and all the food crap luggage I’d been brainwashed with. I’m not exaggerating one bit.

    I decided to eat like a thin person. I started walking to this cafe to meet a friend for coffee, I would order whatever I wanted. Fries with gravy, very Canadian at the time. I ate maybe a third of the plate and then left the rest. It’s wasted if I ate it or threw it away.

    I could go on and on about this but have to meet a friend for coffee in a few minutes .. keep on keeping on with your message I love reading your work X

    Ps I lost 7 pounds the first week

    Liked by 1 person

    • GlenysO January 25, 2016 / 7:00 pm

      I can definitely get behind the “eat whatever you want” theory! I am just wondering – is the “eat like a thin person” philosophy being sold as another weight loss solution? For instance, would the author be encouraging of someone “eating like a thin person” but remaining fat? Because certainly, I eat like many of my thin friends do and do not lose weight, and I think this is probably true for many fat people. And of course, it’s not my intention to lose weight, only to be happy with my diet and relaxed around food (which I am). If you hadn’t lost 7 pounds, or even gained weight, would you continue on with this way of eating?

      Liked by 2 people

      • jjjorgi January 26, 2016 / 2:30 am

        Good questions,.. I believe Schwartz was selling a new way to lose weight as well as sharing his unorthodox findings and the shock factor of claiming that diets don’t work. Even though he wasn’t the first to discover intuitive eating, he was one of the pioneers.

        Would I have stayed on his plan had I not lost weight on it? Absolutely not. I felt release becaus I believed I was about to have it all, the weight loss and the freedom from obsessing about food.

        Today I listened to the pod casts from the two dietitians and again I can relate to their theories. But if I’m being honest I do not find beauty in obese bodies, especially my own. I have a lot to learn about loving my body unconditionally, s lot! But I refuse to keep pounding my head against a wall trying to stick to a ridiculous diet, of course they fail. X

        Liked by 2 people

  3. K.L. Allendoerfer January 25, 2016 / 3:27 pm

    I sort of intentionally lost weight, but I did it by quitting a stressful job and integrating more physical activity into my day. With less stress came less stress-eating and -drinking, and I lost about 18 lbs over 3 years. Six pounds a year is really slow, but it hasn’t come back and I don’t feel deprived. I wouldn’t say I feel “confident” around food, but I just don’t think about food much at all except when I’m hungry. I find the topics of food and weight loss to be pretty boring. I think you can lose weight and keep it off if you keep moving towards a healthier, more active, less stressful lifestyle, lose the weight gradually, and don’t expect big quick results.

    Like

    • GlenysO January 25, 2016 / 7:04 pm

      I agree diet and weight loss talk is very boring!

      When you say you think that people can lose weight and keep it off if they keep moving towards a healthier, more active, less stressful lifestyle, what is your evidence of that (aside from yourself)? So far I have found that there is simply no evidence to show that this is true for the majority of people. There are many fat people out there with low-stress, healthy lifestyles who remain fat – does that just mean they are “doing it wrong?” I definitely support reducing stress, healthy eating and exercise habits, etc. I am just dubious that they lead to significant, long-lasting weight loss for the *majority* of people because there is no reliable, consistent evidence to show this is true.

      Liked by 1 person

      • K.L. Allendoerfer January 25, 2016 / 9:18 pm

        I am only thinking about anecdotal evidence: myself and a few friends. I think it’s very hard, and not very useful, to make broad generalizations, so I shouldn’t have done so. I basically agree with you that dieting is not helpful and that weight loss shouldn’t be the main goal of lifestyle changes.

        I think that what happened to me is that I moved from the upper end of the range that is “normal” for me (based on stress-eating and a sedentary lifestyle) to the lower end of the range that is “normal” for me (based on, e.g. not polishing off entire bags of trail mix in an afternoon, and getting some exercise most days). The real goal was to feel better and have more energy and less anxiety; a limited amount of weight loss (about 18 pounds) was a side effect of that. I never said I became skinny, however. I think it’s definitely possible to be healthy and fit, and still be fat by society’s standards.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. jjjorgi January 26, 2016 / 1:01 am

    Just in time, thank you for reminding me that diets don’t work as I was just scoping out another low carb plan. But only because my 15 day juice diet made me feel like hurling .. sure I lost weight very fast but it’s unsustainable. Oh yes, and the high fat low carb diet straight after the juice only diet!!

    I mean what the hell … really!? It’s so obvious to me that “diets don’t work” and I’ve known this since reading Bob Shwartz books “Diets Don’t Work” and “Diets Still Don’t Work” written in the 1970’s. I still have the books.

    Atkins was huge then and it was my first experience with dieting after WW refused to let me join as I wasn’t overweight and I was only 14. Atkins was easy and I became severely underweight .. as always I became sick of Atkins and gained the weight back plus a heap more, now I was overweight where as I was the perfect weight before.

    I tried vegan diets and Susan Summers etc etc and just got heavier, I believe the cortisol theory re stress and releasing fat absorbing hormones, or however it goes.

    Then one day in the Health” section of the local book store, I saw in big letter Shwartz book Diets Don’t Work, eat like a thin perso, eat whatever you want.. and I thought ‘what the hell is this dude on about??’ I bought the book as I hated dieting with a passion and I loved food so why not.

    Within a hours of reading his theories about The Last Supper, deprivation and his experiments and observations with “naturally thin” people I felt s HUGE release from stress, food obsession dismay and all the food crap luggage I’d been brainwashed with. I’m not exaggerating one bit.

    I decided to eat like a thin person. I started walking to this cafe to meet a friend for coffee, I would order whatever I wanted. Fries with gravy, very Canadian at the time. I ate maybe a third of the plate and then left the rest. It’s wasted if I ate it or threw it away.

    I could go on and on about this but have to meet a friend for coffee in a few minutes .. keep on keeping on with your message I love reading your work X

    Ps I lost 7 pounds the first week

    Like

  5. ebay313 January 26, 2016 / 3:52 pm

    My experience with dieting, not that my dieting ever got me thin, was the same in terms of being all consuming. I spent all my time thinking about and worrying about food and calories, what I would eat when. One of the reasons I’ve given up dieting. It gets exhausting thinking about calorie restrictions constantly.

    Like

    • GlenysO January 27, 2016 / 9:44 am

      Right! Most people on diets live this way but only a very tiny 5% is actually “rewarded” for it – if reward means a totally shit quality of life when it comes to food.

      Like

  6. watchheremerge January 26, 2016 / 7:26 pm

    Great perspective as always. I’ve always suspected that the 5% population of “Success Stories” is really just an artifact of the GOOD NEWS that only about 5% of the population is willing to throw away quality of life concerns in favor of a lower weight for the long term. Means 95% have their priorities straight at the end of the day? Anyway loving the podcasts, keep em comin!

    Like

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