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Why diet books are not the answer to our weight problem

Americans purchase about 5 million diet books each year.
Americans purchase about 5 million diet books each year.

Trying to lose some weight?

Before you run out and spend $25 on the latest diet book recommended by your sister, your co-worker or, heaven forbid, some TV celebrity, I recommend you read an article that health reporter Julia Belluz wrote recently on the topic for Vox.com

The title of her article reflects something I’ve also observed over the years: “Diet books are full of lies. But they’re even worse when doctors write them.” 

Writes Belluz:

Diet books are a multimillion-dollar industry, and it’s no surprise, since millions of people struggle with their weight and long for answers about what they can do to slim down. Books can provide valuable tips on healthful patterns of eating. Some are more outlandish than others. But the problem with all of them is what they promise when it comes to weight loss.

No doctor has ever uncovered the solution to weight loss. If someone had found the fix for this immensely vexing and complex problem, we wouldn’t be facing an obesity crisis.

But unfortunately, more and more respected doctors, despite their good intentions, are complicit with the publishing industry in confusing science and obscuring hard truths about obesity to sell diet books. It’s one thing when actress Gwyneth Paltrow tells people to avoid “nightshade vegetables” on an elimination diet, and quite another when a highly trained and credentialed physician sells a weight loss lie.

Unscientific, irrational

But the books keep selling. As Belluz reports, Americans purchase about 5 million diet books each year — “around half of the entire total health and fitness category in 2015.”

The diet industry, of which books are just one part, is valued at $60 billion annually, she adds. 

Diet book critic Alan Jay Levinowitz (“The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths about What You Eat”) told Belluz that these books often promote scientific illiteracy by promoting “theories, hypotheses, plans that just haven’t passed scientific muster.” 

Yet, you wouldn’t know that when reading these books, for the authors present their approach to food and dieting as proven fact (or something close to it).

“All these books are always marketed as, ‘Here is the answer. We have now discovered the answer for obesity, and it’s this thing,'” Canadian health policy researcher Tim Caulfield (“The Cure for Everything”), told Belluz. “But that’s problematic given what we know about how complex the obesity problem is. There are so many factors involved, and I don’t think any researcher would deny obesity is a biological and social phenomenon.”

As Matt Fitzgerald (“Diet Cults”) pointed out to Belluz, people have highly irrational attitudes and beliefs about food. They also want an uncomplicated solution to their weight problem.

“What people want is a pill,” Fitzgerald told her. “But if you can’t have that, you want a diet that’s a functional equivalent of a pill: simple, tidy, neat, certain.”

No quick fix

“Consumers need to be aware of this vulnerability,” writes Belluz. She adds:

We need to think a little bit harder about what we’re participating in before buying into the diet book industrial complex. We need to think a little more about what’s really getting between us and a healthy lifestyle in the long term, instead of seeking out quick and unsustainable fixes. There’s probably a lot more going on there than whether we’ve consumed enough coconut water or too much gluten.

Before crashing on an extreme diet, maybe we consider incorporating one or two of the very basics of a healthy lifestyle — more fruits and vegetables, going on walks — which fewer than 3 percent of Americans manage today.

But even that’s too simple: We must think about pushing policymakers to redesign our environments and social programs in ways that fight against rather than promote obesity — something the research evidence increasingly suggests might actually help.

FMI: You can read Belluz’s article on the Vox website.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 04/18/2016 - 09:23 am.

    The best book of all is Traci Mann’s Secrets from the Eating Lab. Nominee for a Minnesota Book Award this past weekend. She says the same thing about dieting and dieting advice, but has some useful suggestions based on behavioral analysis of people during her years of research at the U.

  2. Submitted by Ann McKinnon on 04/18/2016 - 03:34 pm.

    Great new book

    I agree, “Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again” is a great book. It was a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award and, on the 32 Books in 32 Days blog, you can see Traci Mann address the Google campus in an Author Talk – similar to a TED Talk. She is funny, engaging, and wonky without being too geeky. Worth a watch, and the book is accessible and definitely worth a read. http://thefriends.org/blog/2016/04/09/secrets-from-the-eating-lab/

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/19/2016 - 09:01 am.

    What will get

    …less attention than it should is the role policy-makers play in approving neighborhood and city designs that foster the sedentary lifestyle that contributes so much to the increasingly-epidemic problem of overweight. An article in the ‘Strib a day or three back described neighbors in some affluent suburb angrily protesting a decision to install sidewalks next to their neighborhood’s streets – a protest that ought to make some sort of list for “most ironic” from a health standpoint. The idea that someone might actually walk somewhere, rather than drive, was one that they’d rather not think about or be confronted with.

    We’re not designed, biologically, to be sedentary creatures. Walkable neighborhoods can do a lot, all by themselves, to help people get up off the couch and DO something that requires movement.

    The only diet that really works, in my humble opinon, is the one wherein you eat less. Not just different foods, though that can make a difference, too, but less food. My understanding is that, to lose weight, you have to burn more calories than you take in. Eat less. Move more.

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