Fat is vilified in our culture. That, unfortunately, is a fact. We think that weight loss will lead to many a splendid thing, including health and success. We think diet and lots of exercise will help us lose weight and maintain it. We’re always on the lookout for the next secret to weight loss, some pill, supplement, new workout craze, anything that’ll bring us closer to reaching our goal.
But there’s a reality that we rarely hear about that seems overshadowed by shows like The Biggest Loser, which illustrate big losses, and media attention, fear and unhelpful regulations about the obesity epidemic. Schools ban cupcakes while grocery stores reward thinner employees. Our assumption of larger bodies being unhealthy is deeply ingrained.
That’s why I’m so thrilled to present part one of my interview with Linda Bacon, Ph.D, author of Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, a book that reveals the reality behind weight loss and dieting. Linda is a nutrition professor and researcher in the Biology Department at City College of San Francisco. She’s also part of a movement called Health At Every Size, which emphasizes health, not weight. It doesn’t demonize fat and it doesn’t encourage weight loss. Instead, it encourages honoring and listening to our bodies, moving our bodies and eating in a flexible way.
Below is part one of my eye-opening interview with Linda, where she presents solid research about the many, many weight-loss misconceptions that we accept every day as facts.
1. Q: Can you talk about some of the biggest misconceptions about weight loss and the so-called obesity epidemic?
A: There’s this basic idea that many people believe in called the calorie balance equation: As long as you take in fewer calories than you spend, you’re supposed to lose weight. Unfortunately, we don’t control that equation to the degree we think we can.
With taking in fewer calories, if your body doesn’t like what’s happening, it can do things to compensate. If you try to diet to lose weight, you’ll see yourself losing weight initially because your body doesn’t react immediately; however, there’s a point when your body says, “This isn’t healthy for me.” So it may pump up your appetite to get you to eat more calories. But we all know that dieters can sometimes have strong willpower and resist the urge to eat. Then your body can get more aggressive, influencing processes beyond your personal control. It can compensate, for example, by slowing down your metabolism, the amount of energy your body spends.
You have this very minor slow down, which might not be perceptible to you, or you might find yourself with less get up and go. Your body is essentially trying to offset that you’ve eaten less. So your body just spends less in response and suddenly you aren’t losing anymore or you might be losing less weight. The idea that we can control our weight is a myth. Your body does a lot to undermine weight loss.
The body can do the exact same thing as you exercise a lot. You may burn a lot of calories and your weight remains the same.
What this means is that your body is very effective at controlling your weight, much more effective than you are. That’s why I always encourage people to trust your body. It can regulate your weight much more effectively than you can. One way your body tries to control your weight is to regulate your appetite and it also gives you feelings of fullness to let you know that it’s gotten its caloric intake met. You need to learn to be sensitive to your body’s cues. The idea isn’t to trick your body, but to honor it, along with honoring your feelings of fullness. You body will support getting to the weight that’s healthy for you.
Another myth regarding the obesity epidemic is that it’s killing us. It’s true that people are heavier than before, but, interestingly, people who are in the category labeled “overweight” have longer life spans, on average, then people in the category we call “normal.” I am not suggesting we all try to get “overweight,” but this does bring up the point that weight has been very much exaggerated in its role in health. In fact, it plays a remarkably small role. For example, exercising regularly will have a much more dramatic improvement on the health of a fat person than if he or she were to lose weight. Thin people don’t have longer life spans solely based on their weight. Fitness levels play a much larger role in health than weight. Put a focus on activities that you enjoy and just be open-minded around weight. The exercise itself has a dramatic effect on your health.
2. Q: There’s a pervasive misconception that if we just try hard enough we can all be thin, something I think shows like the Biggest Loser perpetuate. In your book, you note that even though we may succeed at restricting our food intake and lose weight in the short term, in the long run, our own weight regulation mechanisms win out. Can you talk about how this regulation mechanism controls weight and why we can’t all be thin?
A: We all come into this world genetically programmed. Similar to our eye color, we also come genetically programmed to be a certain weight. The things that affect your weight are things that change daily. Unlike your eye color, your body needs to be able to adjust energy regularly. All the genes that are responsible for issues around weight depend upon what kind of information you give them.
Let’s say you had identical twins with identical genes; that means they’re both predetermined to deal with energy a certain way and to be at a certain body shape and size. But on the other hand, their bodies are reactive to what they’re doing in their lives. One twin gets exercise, and the other doesn’t – you might see a minor difference. (Research shows that on average people who exercise are 5 lbs. lighter than people who don’t exercise.) We find that twins who are raised separately end up being more alike than not in their physical appearance; in other words, genes play a much larger role than lifestyle.
Genes set us up and what we do in our lives actually plays a small role, despite popular belief. We’re all programmed to be at a certain weight. Very few of us are programmed to be at that extreme level of thinness that gets promoted all the time. We have limited ability in changing our weight. We can diet for a while and we can beat our body but over time, our bodies always compensate. They turn on mechanisms to fight back, which is why people can’t diet their entire lives and inevitably lose their resolve. It isn’t just psychological mechanisms, like deprivation and disappointment. We see a lot of biologic processes like hormonal patterns. For instance, your body produces less of a hormone called leptin. With less leptin, your appetite gets turned on. There are also a lot of mechanisms that you don’t have control over.
You can override your appetite, but that is when your body gets much more aggressive on things you can’t control. Like your metabolism, certain processes slow down. Maybe it takes you longer between breaths. Maybe you’re naturally walking a bit slower, subtle mechanisms which you may or may not feel kick in. Some days you don’t have as much energy, and it may be harder to get out of bed. This might be a sign that your body has slowed down your metabolism. These weight regulation mechanisms work on a slow and subtle basis. The weight increase happens gradually.
The bottom line is that we have this set point, this weight range, maybe a 5 or 20 lb. range. So when you start getting out of this range, your body exerts all its influences. The question that naturally comes up, “Is there anything I can do to change my set point?” Here’s what we find from research: From an evolutionary perspective it’s valuable to store fat, particularly during famine so the body can live off the stored fat. Throughout our history, we didn’t need to activate our ability to store fat, because we had sufficient amount of food. We didn’t trigger those genes. But now people are dieting and depriving their bodies of energyThe body doesn’t know the difference between diet and famine and so it triggers the response to store fat more readily. So dieting is actually a great mechanism if you want to gain weight.
We really don’t know any healthy ways to lower your set point long-term. We know some little things. For example, it may be that exercising regularly lowers your set point by 5 lbs., but it also may be that exercise doesn’t have an effect, and this is confusing to scientists. Essentially, our bodies never developed the mechanisms to support weight loss. My guess is that exercise is much more effective to prevent weight gain than lowering your set point to lose weight.
3. Q: Obesity and morbid obesity are often referred to as a disease. What do you think about the use of the word “disease” to describe fatness?
A: Don’t like it! Fatness is a physical attribute – I’d rather we just acknowledge it as another descriptive factor, stripped of pejorative connotations. Fatness does not equate with disease. There are plenty of fat people living long, healthy lives.
Thank you so much, Linda, for taking the time to set the record straight!
Stay tuned for part two of Linda’s interview on Monday, where she talks about why she wrote the book, why many professionals still push weight loss, the specifics of Health At Every Size and more!