The ‘hopeless optimism’ that commercial weight loss companies sell
“There had been a lot of research to say people may initially lose weight but that they typically regain that weight often quite quickly and sometimes more, so dieting is a very vicious cycle,” explains lead researcher, Samantha McEvedy from La Trobe University.
“That was quite well-established, but I wanted to look at whether they work in the short-term. Do they even work to begin with?”
To find out, McEvedy and her team conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of more than one and a half million participants across 25 weight-loss studies.
Looking at 35 different diets, McEvedy found that 57 per cent of individuals who started a commercial weight program lost less than 5 per cent of their initial body weight.
Additionally, McEvedy found that drop-out rates varied “but sometimes it was as high as 90 per cent”.
“This research shows that for the majority of people who embark on a commercial weight-loss program, you could say that they don’t work,” McEvedy said. “Lots of people know that diets often don’t work in the long-term, I’m saying that they often don’t work in the short-term either.”
So why do we keep doing it?
As part of a separate arm of research, McEvedy conducted in-depth interviews with 14 participants.
She wanted to understand what their expectations were.
“People do expect these programs will lead to them losing weight and they typically expect to lose between 500g and one kilo a week,” she explained.
“They expect to feel better about themselves and more in control. They expect to get some kind of education and learning – to learn strategies and tips for losing weight and maintaining weight-loss…
“They expect to stick to a program where they’re eating normal food for longer than if they’re taking shakes or replacing meals and probably longer than when they’re eating pre-packaged meals because it doesn’t fit with their lifestyle, particularly if you’ve got a family and it’s very expensive and there’s a lot of packaging and a lot of waste and you get sick of it quite quickly.”
Part of this expectation might have to do with the sorts of testimonials placed on the websites of various weight-loss companies.
“There’s always the fine-print that says that results vary, but the role models that they try to illustrate are people who have often lost extreme amounts of weight,” McEvedy said.
“One of the best quotes that someone said to me was that there is a ‘hopeless optimism’.”
She explained that often those who are trying to lose weight (more than two-thirds of Australian adults are overweight or obese and at any one time a huge proportion are trying to lose weight), are desperate for answers.
“It makes them quite vulnerable – dieters are vulnerable consumers and they are often desperately seeking solutions,” McEvedy said.
She added that, compared to doing nothing or to receiving general advice about healthy eating, people are more likely to lose weight on a commercial program.
“It’s important that we don’t go on a witch hunt around these programs. They do have a role to play particularly if they emphasise health outcomes and if it’s about lifestyle advice and learning about how to eat healthy and healthy strategies combined with regular physical activity,” McEvedy said.
The problem is that, when we diet, there are neurobiological changes (we become “overly responsive” to tasty looking food), hormonal changes (satiety hormones drop while hunger hormones increase) and biological changes (our metabolism slows) that make it hard for us to stick to the diet and even harder to maintain weight-loss.
Surely there is a better way?
Last year, Clare Collins, a professor in nutrition and dietetics at the University of Newcastle, tackled the complicated subject.
Instead of looking to short-term solutions, she suggested that people need to make bigger shifts in their attitude and approach to food. These include upping diet quality in general by looking at what you include rather than what you cut out.
This means eating more fruit and vegetables, lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, legumes, dried beans, wholegrains and dairy (“mostly reduced fat”). This means limiting portion sizes, replacing sugary drinks with water, avoiding food courts and fast food outlets, planning and following RROAR (remind, resist, organised alternative, remember and/or reward).
McEvedy’s suggestion is similar. Put simply, she said: “The best words of advice that I’ve come across is not to think about dieting in terms of going through periods of under-eating or restricting calories but to think about maintaining a healthy body weight as the consistent absence of overeating.”
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