This is the first in a multi-part series looking critically at weight loss, dieting, and the cultural, social, political, and economic landscapes that have shaped our ideas about weight and bodies.
I write this from my perspective as a multi racial women, who experiences chronic health issues, and who has benefitted from the privileges of a thin body, and a white passing body, among others. I am indebted to the many pioneers of the fat acceptance and body neutrality movements, with particular gratitude for the Black and Trans women, and others holding marginalized identities who have incubated, enlivened, and sustained this work, often at great personal and professional risk. Thank you.
The Big Fat Lie
Would you sign up for swimming lessons if 90% of the class failed to learn to swim? You’d probably, and correctly, conclude that there is something wrong with the method of teaching.
Let’s say you did sign up for the lessons, because all your friends were signing up, and when you got to the pool, there wasn’t any water in it. You practiced holding your breath, and moving your arms, and sitting on the edge of the empty pool kicking your legs, but at the end of 10 weeks, like most of the other students, you hadn’t learned to swim. Would you blame yourself?
I hope the answer is an obvious “no”. How can you reasonably be expected to swim without water? What I’m describing with the swimming analogy is the trick the weight loss industry uses to convince people to buy into an idea or product that mostly fails, and to blame themselves when that inevitable failure occurs. And it’s incredibly effective. According to Business Wire, the global weight management market was worth $470 billion in 2021.
They use a lot of that money to convince people that losing weight and keeping it off is not only attainable, but will make them happier, healthier, and more successful. The research simply does not support this. Studies have shown for decades that the failure rate of intentional weight loss attempts is high, with some estimates as high as 95%. Here is a link with more information, and cited sources for the studies that have documented this astounding failure rate.
When you start looking closely at the research conducted on weight loss, you’ll see the same basic failure to meet even the baseline requirements for sound methodology, and the same conflicts of interest over and over again.
The most common pattern in intentional weight loss is that people lose weight initially, (the greatest amount of weight losses are typically around the 6 month mark), and gain it back within 2- 5 years. Yet many studies claiming to show “long term weight loss” end before the two year mark.
There is also the issue of research findings that completely ignore the number of study participants who drop out of weight loss trials, which is high. These tend to be people who aren’t “successful” at losing weight, and therefore, if included in the study results would decrease the success rate of the treatment.
Most weight-loss studies don’t include control groups of non-dieters for comparison, and these studies are generally based on self-reports of weight, which tend to overestimate weight lost.
A remarkable number of this misleading research is tied to the pharmaceutical industry and companies that have a vested interest in selling weight loss programs and products. This is just a brief dip into this topic.
If dieting and other weight loss interventions worked, the industry wouldn’t be growing at the rate it is. Rather, the diet industry would be obsolete because everyone would be thin, especially Oprah! Reagan Chastain, a researcher, writer, and multi- certified health & fitness pro, puts it this way-
“The industry is based on a repeat business model, in which they take credit for the first part of the biological response to attempted weight loss (where people lose a little weight short-term) and then they get us to blame ourselves (and get everyone else to blame us) for the second part of the biological response (where we gain the weight back, often plus more.)”
So is there any good news to be gleaned from the abysmal failure of dieting and weight loss? Yes! All of this is helpful information to have if we hope to create a world where all bodies are valued, cared for, and treated with respect. In the following parts of this series we’ll explore why weight is not a good barometer of health, and why higher weight bodies are neither dangerous, in need of “fixing”, or a “drain on the system”. We’ll also look at the deeply racist history of dieting and the Western thin ideal. Stay tuned!
Further reading & resources:
Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings
Belly Of The Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness, by Da’shaun Harrison
Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison (this author has a great newsletter and podcast as well)