Diets, I’ve known a few. Quite a few, actually. And I’ve got the bum to prove it: significant, substantial … lardy. Diets, I have found, do not work, not for long anyway. They’ve been a great way to get even fatter.
I’m not unique there. Far from it. Research has shown that while most people will lose weight on most diets, keeping it off is “virtually impossible” for “95 to 98 per cent of people”, says Louise Adams, a Sydney-based clinical psychologist with a special interest in weight management, disordered eating and body image.
Exposed to prolonged kilojoule restriction – regardless of the particulars of the restriction, be it a low-carb regimen, low-fat, Dukan, Weight Watchers or other – the body will, at some point, launch a cunning all-systems regain campaign. This will include increased appetite, preoccupation with food (not carrots or celery, mind you) and slowed metabolism. Adams likens fighting it to holding your breath. It is not an issue of willpower.
“Our bodies don’t know that dieting is ‘good’,” says Adams. “They think we’re starving and there are about 30 hormones that kick in to encourage the brain to start seeking food. The body will fight to get back within [a weight range] where it feels safe.
“If people diet many times over their lifetime, which is what most of us do, that [safe weight range] gradually shifts up.” It’s like the body putting a bit extra away for a rainy day … aka your next diet.
Living in a culture in which a taut, lean body is akin to godliness makes “diets don’t work” a particularly tough message to sell and, if you’re on the puddin’ side, an uncomfortable one to absorb.
Plus, there’s the noise of the weight-loss industry, shouting out messages with little basis in fact: you can do it if you try hard enough, with the right diet, with our diet.
The industry is also a remarkably resilient beast and continues to thrive despite the US National Institutes of Health’s damning 2002 finding that, after any weight-loss diet, “one-third to two-thirds of the weight is regained within one year and almost all is regained within five years”. Not to mention the comprehensive 2007 University of California analysis of long-term dieting studies, which found not only that most diets failed in the long term but that they left most people fatter than when they started.
Amazon, for example, is expecting more than 60 new diet publications in the first quarter of next year alone. Some of the titles include Paleoista: Gain Energy, Get Lean and Feel Fabulous with the Diet You Were Born to Eat; Full-Filled: The 6-Week Weight-Loss Plan for Changing Your Relationship with Food – and Your Life – from the Inside Out; and The Plan: Eliminate the Surprising “Healthy” Foods that Are Making You Fat – and Lose Weight Fast .
In Australia, the weight-loss industry – which includes pills, books, counselling services, surgeries, cookbooks, pre-packaged food and beverages – was worth about $790 million in 2010-11 and is growing nicely, according to market research firm IBISWorld.
“Revenue expands as Australians search for new ways to reduce their waistlines,” proclaims the headline on IBISWorld’s Weight Loss Services in Australia: Market Research Report . In the US, the weight-loss industry is worth about $60 billion annually.
“The marketers of weight-loss dieting have done an amazing job of making people feel like they’ve failed when they are unable to keep off any weight they might have lost,” says Dr Rick Kausman, a director of Australia’s Butterfly Foundation for eating disorders and author of If Not Dieting, Then What? “The truth is that weight-loss dieting is failing the people … There is no grey here. The evidence is clear that weight-loss dieting not only doesn’t work for almost everyone, it causes weight gain for many, and creates significant collateral damage [such as eating disorders].”
Diets, however, are extremely seductive. Kausman says they’re “sold like magic: they’re easy, they’re quick and your whole life will change for the better”. Not only are they cunningly marketed, diets now even hijack anti-diet rhetoric such as Kausman’s to sell themselves.
“If you think you’ve failed on a diet before, think again: the diet failed,” says the spiel on the back of Venice A. Fulton’s new release Six Weeks to OMG: Get Skinnier Than All Your Friends (which advocates strategies including taking cold baths, eschewing broccoli and blowing up balloons). It goes on: “Now it’s time to forget all those diet clichés and listen to the truth.”
Apparently all those other diets are bad, but Fulton’s is different. Just like all the rest.
So, diets don’t work. Sure, you might be one of the lucky two to five per cent who can and do diet, lose weight and keep it off in the long term, but how many diets do you suffer through before you know if you are or aren’t one of them?
Surgery is an option, but it’s reserved for those at the extreme upper end of the weight spectrum and it raises another set of issues not up for discussion here.
Must we therefore conclude that those of us on the lardy side have to, in fact, stay that way? Yes, we might. But that’s not necessarily disastrous news.
There is one approach to weight management, for want of a better term, that is not associated with rebound weight gain. But it isn’t necessarily associated with weight loss, either.
It’s called Health At Every Size (HAES), an approach developed by Linda Bacon (yes, her real surname), a professor of nutrition at City College of San Francisco and an associate nutritionist at the University of California. HAES incorporates three main principles: “Accepting and respecting the natural diversity of body sizes and shapes; eating in a flexible manner that values pleasure and honours internal cues of hunger, satiety and appetite; and finding the joy in moving one’s body and becoming more physically vital.”
For some, weight loss may result. For others, it may not. That’s not the point. Clinical trials have shown that the HAES approach is associated with improvements in health measures such as blood pressure and lipids.
Whether you lose weight or not, the theory goes, you should be healthier, happier and liberated from the diet roller-coaster.
The HAES message sounds like a sane approach to weight management. Unsurprisingly, however, it has had a tough time being heard over the din of diet talk.
Says Adams, who uses it in her private clinical practice, “If you forget diets and really take good care of yourself, well, there’s not an impressive before and after picture that goes with that. Metabolic health is not nearly as impressive as, ‘I was huge and now I’m tiny.’
“We need to focus on being as healthy as we can and forget all about weight. I know that seems insane and nobody wants to do it, but it’s actually very empowering. Embrace the body you have, treat it well and that’s the best you can do.”
FAD WAYS TO FIGHT THE FAT
1. Fat whispering
Hollywood’s Mary Ascension Saulnier says she can talk fat cells out of the body: “I listen to what emotion is in the cell membrane, then … tell the cell which way to move out of the body.”
2. Far infrared trousers
Heated plastic pants; the makers claim they work by “enhancing redox of body and keeping fat under posited”.
3. Baby food diet
Eat 14 baby-size serves of purée during the day, followed by an evening meal of fish and vegetables.
4. Xenical (orlistat)
Users of the drug are advised to follow a low-fat diet to prevent side effects that include oily stools, excessive flatulence and faecal incontinence.
5. Hollywood Cookie Diet
Eat three to four of the brand’s biscuits a day and nothing else. Nothing.
Swallow egg. Parasite hatches, gets comfy in your stomach and saves you kilojoules by sharing all your meals. Popular in the early 1900s.
Horace Fletcher (1849-1919) – aka “the great masticator” – advocated chewing everything 32 times.
8. Aoqili Slimming Soap
A soap with “fat-emulsifying properties” that “tightens” skin.
9. Virtual gastric banding
Hypnotic suggestion that your tummy has shrunk to the size of a golf ball.
10. Get Slim Slippers
Allegedly put pressure on digestion-related trigger points in feet.
11. Elfin Fat-Reducing Gum
Slogan: “Chew and grow thin.” Popular in the 1920s.
12. Jesus is the answer
Pray Your Weight Away by Reverend Charlie Shedd; More of Jesus, Less of Me by Joan Cavanaugh; Born Again Bodies by R. Marie Griffith.