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What most thin people don’t understand: dieting is an ‘unfair fight’

When you go on a diet, you’re in an “unfair fight” — a fight your body is biologically set up to win.

When New Year’s resolution time rolls around each January, millions of Americans go on a weight-loss diet. By mid-February, however, long before they’re even close to reaching their “ideal” weight goal, most will have given up on the idea and returned to their old ways of eating.

Some dieters will struggle on, and a few will even eventually reach their goal. People who successfully shed pounds while dieting, however, almost inevitably regain those pounds — and often quite a few more.

That failure can lead to a lot of self-criticism and guilt, primarily because, as a society, we tend to blame individuals for their weight “problem.” We think that anyone who is overweight or obese — and certainly anyone who is unable to stick with a weight-loss diet — is simply undisciplined and lacks self-control.

That attitude is particularly prevalent among people who are naturally thin or who have never dieted. They don’t have any difficulty maintaining a healthy weight, so why do others?

Because it’s much, much more complicated than that, says Traci Mann, a food psychologist who founded the Health and Eating Lab at the University of Minnesota. Mann, nationally renowned for her research on the relationship between diet and health (and for her book “Secrets from the Eating Lab”), points out that self-control is not the issue. Biology is.

When you go on a diet, you’re in an “unfair fight,” she says.

MinnPost recently spoke with Mann about why dieting is so difficult — and why all of us need to be more compassionate and less judgmental about people who are overweight or obese. An edited version of that conversation follows.

MinnPost: You say that dieting sets up an unfair fight.  Let’s start with genetics. What about a person’s genetics makes the fight unfair?

Traci Mann: Genetic differences exist before you even start dieting. Some people have a more efficient metabolism than other people. Some people have more responsive hormones, which makes them feel more full when they eat.

MP: So that puts some people when they start dieting on a — I don't want to call it a doomed track — but on a more difficult track, right?  

TM: Absolutely. And it also means that some people will probably never become obese and will never need to go on a diet, just from the get-go.

MP: There are also neurological differences that make dieting unfair.

TM:  Yes. When you go on a diet your body detects that you’re calorie deprived, so it makes a bunch of changes to adapt. Some of those changes are neurological ones. So, suddenly, after being calorie deprived for some amount of time, you become much more attuned to food in your environment. You're much more likely to notice food if it’s around. And once you notice food, it’s harder to remove your attention from it. And on top of that you get a bigger sort of reinforcing reward for eating food. It actually makes you feel better. 

MP:  That's the dopamine rush. 

TM: Yes. All of these things are in response to your body detecting that not enough calories are coming in. The problem with the neurological changes is that they make it really hard to continue sticking to your diet. I mean it's hard to diet to begin with. But think how much harder it would be if you noticed every bit of food near you and if you couldn't stop thinking about food. Imagine also if food made you feel even better when you ate it than it used to. That would make dieting so much harder. It's not that you can't keep dieting, it's that the job of dieting is a harder job than it was before. 

MP: And that's something naturally thin people don't realize, right?

TM: Right. 

MP: They don't have to have the same level of self-control.

Traci Mann
University of Minnesota
Traci Mann

TM: It’s not even just naturally thin people. It’s also people who — for whatever reason — have never dieted. They don’t understand that dieting itself sets into play all these changes that make it much, much harder to resist the food that's around you. A dieter trying to resist food is in a very different situation than someone not dieting who’s trying to resist food. So when people who have never dieted look at dieters struggling, they don't get it. They don't understand what the struggle is about. It's not that hard for the person who’s never dieted to resist eating food. So they assume it’s also not hard for the dieter. Then, when the dieter fails at their diet and regains some weight, it’s really hard for people who have never dieted to understand why that happened.

MP: Because it hasn’t happened to them.

TM: Someone who’s never dieted, especially someone who’s naturally thin, they often think that the reason they’re thin is because of their eating habits. The problem with that is, it probably isn’t. Their metabolism is probably ideal. They can even eat a lot fairly often and not gain weight. So when they see a dieter gain weight, or just see an obese person in general, they can’t understand why that happened — unless the person just went out and ate everything in sight.  

MP: There does seem to be this need to blame the overweight or obese person for not losing weight, for not being thin.

TM: Yes. It’s terrible.

MP: What are your recommendations for people who are trying to shed unwanted pounds? What do you tell them? 

TM: In the long run, it’s counterproductive to strictly reduce your calories. That’s what sets off these biological adaptations. Your body’s trying to keep you from losing weight and wasting away. So, I don't generally recommend that people go on a diet like that, where they're restricting their calories a lot.

MP: What can they do?

TM: I recommend a couple things. One is to improve your health. You’re much better off exercising than dieting. A lot of people start exercising, but get frustrated because they don’t find themselves losing weight, at which point they conclude it’s also not making them healthier, so why do it? They don't realize that exercise will make them healthier whether or not they lose weight from the exercise.

The other thing I recommend instead of going on a calorie-restricting diet is to just find some places in your daily routine where you can shave off some calories. This won't be enough to make you thin, but it should get you near the lowest weight your body is comfortable being at — the point before it's going to rebel with all those adaptations I talked about. We’ve been experimenting in my lab with getting people to remove sugar from their coffee. It’s unbelievable how much sugar some people consume just from their coffee alone. If they just stopped using sugar in their coffee, some of them could shave off a few hundred calories a day without really noticing it.

MP: Wow. That’s a lot.

TM: There are other things people can do, too. Things like eating veggies first, so you’re getting more healthy food into you and will then maybe eat less of something else — maybe. Either way, you're better off if you're eating those vegetables versus not eating them.

MP: So, it’s about being healthy, not about reaching a particular weight.

TM: Yes. We really need to shift our thinking so that we focus on what makes us healthier. If we’re doing healthy things and they make us healthier, whatever we weigh once we’re doing those healthy things — that's a perfectly good weight to be at. We need to shift so that we appreciate that weight instead of dislike it. 

MP: And what do you say to people who are not struggling with their weight or with how much they eat? Perhaps they could have some empathy for people who are struggling?

TM: Yes. They just need to understand that for a dieter — or a lifelong obese person — dealing with food is a really different situation than it is for them. It's much more complicated and much more difficult. Everything is more tempting. And they have to eat more to feel full. Surviving by eating less than what makes you feel full is really hard.

MP: And that’s what a lot of dieters are doing.  

TM: Yes. Because a lot of dieters, especially people who've been obese their whole life, they spend so much of their life trying to lose weight, and to do that they are never, ever, ever feeling full or satisfied. They're always hungry, and that's really unpleasant. And I don’t just mean a little hungry. I mean really hungry. 

So, it’s not that obese people or people who have struggled with dieting have less will power. It’s that they're in a much more difficult situation. They’re noticing more food. They can’t get their thoughts off food. You need more will power to deal with that situation.

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Comments (7)

Excuses? Causes?

While eating/living healthily is exactly the right approach to what ails so many in so many ways, this article ignores a key fact:

Obesity, including morbid obesity, has only reached epidemic levels in the U.S. in the last few decades. The causes are economic, social and political - not personal.

As long as sweet drinks and fast foods are allowed in the schools (conditioning kids towards sugar/salt addiction); as long as fast food is subsidized (through agribusiness tax subsidies); as long as advertising of addictive products like fast food is permitted; as long as sedentary lifestyles are encouraged/committed by too much television, overuse of computers and social media, etc., etc., etc. the obesity epidemic will only grow.

Capitalism/consumer culture plants the diseases of its own demise; but it's a long, hard trip on the way down.

Missing the Point

You miss the point of the article. Thin-type people can eat all that sugar, be sedentary, and still never gain an ounce. You are blaming people, just as they say not to, because you have been paying too much attention to media b.s., and the campaign by the AMA to blame the obese in order to stop people from paying attention to how much money doctors are making.

There are two people in my

There are two people in my household.

One eats to a timetable and is frequently snacking on sugary foods in between, and the other rarely eats sugar in anything (reads the labels) and consumes food when their body feels hungry not when the clock dictates.

One is overweight, and the other is thin.

All this talk about it being not so simple, and metabolism, and diets, and fat shaming. But it's really not rocket science.

The foods that are readily

The foods that are readily available, that are PUSHED at the average person, tend to be the starchy and sugary ones.

I've seen restaurants, especially suburban chains, offer "All the pancakes you can eat," "All the spaghetti you can eat," "All the Coke you can drink," and even if the offer "All the fish you can eat," it's always breaded, never steamed. I must say that I have never seen a restaurant anywhere offer "all the steamed vegetables you can eat."

Another trend that promotes obesity is driving everywhere. I started gaining weight when I moved back to Minneapolis after ten years of living in Portland without a car. I didn't change my diet, but the fact that I could no longer walk to most destinations in a reasonable amount of time or even reach them conveniently by transit reduced the amount of exercise I got in the course of a day, even though I take a minimum of three exercise classes a week, just as I did in Portland.

By the way, Tom Johnson and Fullah Itawall have just proved the point of the article.

As an overweight/obese person most of my life...

I can almost always tell when a critic of overweight people has had the luxury of never having felt the need to diet.

They'll say something like, "It's simple math - calories in vs. calories out."

It's not really their fault. They simply have no practical experience, and thus no true knowledge of what it takes to lose weight.

It's the reason I roll my eyes at the weight-loss instructors I see on television teaching their overweight clients how to cook a healthful meal or how to exercise. They've never had to approach losing weight or eating healthfully from the perspective of being overweight or obese. And no, having to lose 5 or 10 pounds is not even in the same universe.

Exactly

Being physically active will, of course, help burn calories. And a sudden stop of activity, which is little known, will cause an immediate gain of a significant amount of weight. This happened to me, and I didn't know I was gaining 30 or more pounds because I was unable to exercise. And then Medicine decided I should be on anti-depressants, which caused me to gain 60 more pounds over some years. Then I hurt my spine and couldn't move for close to a year. Now that last weight I could take off, and did, largely by getting moving again. From a high of 325, I got down to between 280 and 290. Not good enough for my doctor, though. He is pushing me to have bariatric surgery, swearing it will work. No way.
What works is knowing just how much you need to eat to maintain your weight, on average, and staying just about there, regardless of what you eat. You can develop a sense of it. Then you are in balance, and as a tipping point, you can engage in reasonable portion limiting, food substitutions and such things along with tolerable activity. The other problem with activity is, it makes you hungrier, and for carbs and such things, in greater quantity than what you are burning.
I would like to see a follow-up article addressing these points. What else can be adjusted, such as when you eat, when to snack, etc. Dictating what to eat is counter-productive.
A diet would work if it were tolerable, and imposed in such a way that it would last for years, such as being fed by others, until such point that you are completely used to it and want nothing else, if such a thing even exists. But who can afford to live in a fat farm/sanatorium?
The other thing that sadly still needs to be investigates is fat removal. Apparently freezing off fat is safe, yet it is only available to the vain rich, who use it to trim parts of their body, rather than using it to help diabetics and others, whose lower-belly fat is supposedly driving their diabetes, for medical benefits, which insurance should be covering. Why has this not been adopted? Surely, if 20-40 pounds of fat could be removed, one's metabolism and appetite could be improved? Please figure that out.
I am so pleased to see you publishing a helpful, positive report.

quality not quantity

This is just anecdotal but at the grocery store I have noticed that there is a substantial difference in the contents of the shopping carts of thin versus obese people. There are obviously exceptions but overall, thin people seem to buy more produce, meat and dairy and less cookies and chips. It seems that the heavier a person, the more simple carbs are in their cart. That should be a clue as to where to start if you are trying to lose weight.
The obesity epidemic is a fairly recent phenomenon. It seemed to really take off when processed foods became increasingly popular. The big villains were Ancel Keys at the University of Minnesota and the nutrition researchers at Harvard University who were nothing more than shills for the sugar industry. And let us not forget the American Heart Association whose vilification of animal fats and encouragement of hydrogenated vegetable oil caused people to gain weight and clogged their arteries. And of course there is the fast food industry pushing cheap carb laden offerings. The government is also to blame. Look at what it chooses to subsidize, the very things that provide simple carbohydrates: corn, wheat, and sugar. The USDA food pyramid is an abomination. The broad base of fruits and vegetables is fine but look at the next layer. It is made up of simple carbs!
The USDA is not interested in the health of Americans, the reason they exist is to promote agriculture and it is Big Ag that has the clout to push this garbage down our throats.
Sure, a few people have metabolic problems but that isn't a major driver of obesity. Likewise, exercise will not make you thin. Think of how long it takes you to scarf down a Big Mac and fries and then consider the amount of exercise needed to burn it off. Unless you are a dedicated athlete, it ain't gonna happen. Building muscle has a modest effect on metabolism but it isn't going to make you thin. Which is not to say you should give up on exercise. It has plenty of benefits other than weight loss.
Basically, I am saying that types of food available today are different than what was previously available. Good food is still available, we just need to choose it and reject the junk that is making Big Food big money.