CAN YOU ACTUALLY CONTROL YOUR WEIGHT? WHAT THE SCIENCE SAYS
From what we've gathered so far, the answer to this is no. While there may be certain habits and behaviours that keep us at the lower end of our setpoint, the setpoint itself is largely outside of our control and extremely difficult to manipulate without your body seriously rebelling in response.
For one thing, weight is regulated by the following main control centres, including things like the hypothalamus, an almond-sized bit of your brain. It's divided into the lateral hypothalamus or LH, considered the "hunger centre" and the ventromedial hypothalamus or VMH, considered the "fullness centre."
- How Sweet It [Was]:Pre-Diet Culture
- The Myth of Diets and Weight Loss
- 3 Reasons Why Diets Make Us Feel Crazy Around Food
- Can You Actually Control Your Weight? What the Science Says
- Solutions for a Post-Diet Culture: The Importance of Self-Care
HOW SWEET IT [WAS]: PRE-DIET CULTURE
Dieting — whether we call it by name or one of its other names, such as “being good” or “watching our weight” — has been rendered so normalized that it’s nearly impossible for most of us to think of food without it. What would life look lies if we were all normal eaters who moved because we enjoyed it, never said “I shouldn’t” in response to a slice of chocolate cake, and associated food with joy?
The truth is, we did live without diets. And we remained relatively healthy. We ate steak piled high with mushrooms and onions, served beside a baked potato and sour cream. Apple pie with cheese. Eggs and bacon, cooked in animal fats; pancakes soaked in sweet maple syrup. And we mostly maintained our weight without obsessing over any of it.
In fact, a 1970s research study shows that the average weight of a sixty-year-old man was only four to five pounds higher than the average thirty-year-old man (1). So not only were we not dieting, but we were typically maintaining our size throughout life — all the while enjoying a variety of foods and beverages.
Oh, and all without access to the gyms and fitness studios we’re now privy to.
So what gives?
THE MYTH OF DIETS AND WEIGHT LOSS
Many of us have been marketed to all of our lives. We’re taught a) our weight is our responsibility b) our weight can be controlled c) everyone is capable of being thin or at a “healthy weight” d) if we’re not thin, it’s because we have weak willpower or lack self-discipline.
In my experience, we’re also unsure of how to be healthy —and to make healthy choices — without a diet, eating style, or the diet hangover haunting us. If left to our own devices, wouldn’t we just subsist on ice cream, pizza, and hamburgers?Don’t we need rules to reign us in?
Yes. And no.
While restrained eaters — people who restrict in some way — feel they need rules, unrestrained or intuitive eaters do not. When you don’t deprive yourself of any food and allow yourself complete and unconditional permission to eat, you don’t need rules because this very act neutralizes our emotional attachment to shiny objects like cookies and potato chips.
If we want something, we just have to work at it, right? If we just wanted to be thin enough, we would be. If we just tried. Maybe you worked your way up through the ranks to become partner at your law firm, or completed additional training to teach ESL.
Maybe you ran the Boston marathon or climbed Mount Everest or opened a yoga studio on your own or studied your way to Harvard or painted your way to a star-studded exhibit or take gorgeous photos for the hell of it.
Maybe you moved cross-country with your significant other and had three beautiful children who brought more joy to your life than you could have ever imagined. Or you built an empire, never married, and lived happily ever after.
If we want something enough, we can have it. Except dieting doesn’t really work like that.
In the end, your need to feed yourself — to not go hungry — will always override your desire to be thin. Survival has an energy requirement, not a size preference.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether the aesthetic ideal is Rubenesque or curvy or some weird thigh gap, bootylicious, ripped abs mashup. Because the body you end up with, while modified in part by factors such as food and exercise and environment, is largely determined by your genetics and likely a whole slew of things we’re still discovering.
Not to mention the fact that weight has very little to do with health. While critics of the Health at Every Size® movement are quick to question whether an individual really can be healthy at any size — what about those who are bedridden due to weight? —these black-and-white questions too easily dismiss the movement’s core purpose.
I don’t believe size is irrelevant; clearly it’s an emotionally-fraught issue. But knowing what we know about diets, diet culture, and the pursuit of weight loss (see below), the most effective and compassionate way to help people to experience authentic health hinges on self-care rather than self-control.
Basically: instead of prescribing weight loss as the antidote to all things, maybe we could spend a few minutes chatting about sleep, relationship to food, hobbies and interests, enjoyable activity, and so on.
Ultimately, you didn’t fail the diet; the diet failed you.
SOME BIG PROBLEMS WITH DIETS
1. Diets usually ask us to go hungry (restrict calories) or restrict foods or food groups, which lead us to behave anxiously around food. The former are typically what we consider “real diets” or what I term “Wave I diets” such as mono food diets (i.e. grapefruit diet, cabbage soup diet, Master Cleanse) or diets such as Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, If It Fits Your Macros/IIFYM, and so on.
The latter are non-diet diets such as Atkins, South Beach, The Zone, Paleo, veganism or vegetarianism (when approached for weight loss), clean eating, and so on. I refer to these as “Wave II”.
Food restriction, from my professional experience and research, rarely if ever leads to positive outcomes over the short- and long-term when pursued for weight loss. “If you are a restrained eater,” Linda Bacon writes, “you try to control your body weight and don’t trust your body to do it for you” (40).
When food is advertised or presented, restrained eaters (people who restrict) are more apt to eat it or overeat it, while unrestrained eaters (intuitive eaters) statistically do not. Over 75 studies actually yield pretty consistent results: “restrained eaters react to emotions and external cues in a nearly totally opposite manner of unrestrained eaters” (Bacon, 41.)
Just by saying this one line — “you can have this again whenever you want” — I’ve found so much peace around food.
2. Diets have never been proven to work, but our failure in achieving or maintaining their broken promises is often used as a weapon against us.
Not a single study has even shown that diets work in the long-term save for a teeny tiny number of people. As Bacon details in Health at Every Size, the Women’s Health Initiative — the longest, largest, and arguably most expensive randomized, controlled dietary intervention clinical trial (considered the gold standard in research) — tested whether the calories in, calories out approach actually works.
20, 000 women were placed on a low-fat diet with calories reduced, on average, by about 360 per day. After 8 years on the diet, there was no change reported in weight from starting point, and average waist circumference had actually increased (3).
Research conducted on thousands of other diets is consistent with these findings. People may lose weight initially — but nearly always gain it back. Oh, and did I mention these camps were also exercising? They were. (4) In fact, while exercise is great for many things, like improving cardiovascular and bone health, it's not a terrific tool for weight loss. Just ask Julia Belluz, who did the work here and here.
And about willpower and self-discipline? As Linda Bacon states, "if you're losing weight and you are below your setpoint, your hypothalamus might direct other body systems to regulate your eating and activity levels as well as your metabolic efficiency, the rate at which you burn calories, to get you to regain the weight" (Bacon, 15.)
FYI: Setpoint theory suggests we each have a ‘natural weight’ our bodies run best at and that our bodies fight tooth and nail to maintain. It’s the weight we’re at when we honour our hunger and fullness cues, aren’t obsessing over weight or food habits, and the one we find ourselves at between diets. Contrary to what some believe, your “setpoint” is not a specific weight, but represents a ten-to-twenty-pound-range, so losing or gaining small amounts of weight may, in the words of Linda Bacon, “won’t be met by compensatory actions.” But there’s no scientific way to determine setpoint; the only way to know is to listen to your body, eat normally, and practice self-care to see where you end up.
3. Diets rob us of the energy we need to “take up space” in the world and build empires.
While many of us are concerned with eating less -- or at least not eating too much -- two important aspects of food are so often forgotten in the process. One, that food is pleasure. And two, that we need food -- energy -- to do all of the important work we're here to do.
While dieting makes us mood, lethargic, tired, hungry, and generally unhappy to be around, the opposite of dieting -- intuitive eating -- allows us to get our fill so we're satisfied and able to care for others in addition to ourselves.
There's also insulin, which regulates blood sugar and is more or less the hypothalamus messenger, delivering energy requests as needed, and gherkin, discovered only in 1999, which operates as an appetite trigger. On top of that, more than 20 chemical messengers have been found to stimulate eating and a similar number suppress appetite (Bacon, 23), which basically means you are up against an army of very hard-working and precise appetite soldiers.
This system is influenced by many factors, including your emotions and sleep patterns.
When leptin is working naturally, appetite reduces (we feel our fullness), we feel like moving (hello energy!), and our metabolisms rev up. It appears the role of leptin, at least originally, was to protect fat stores during times of food scarcity. When we stop eating normally, leptin production shrinks along with our fat cells. As a result, appetite increases (alert, alert!), metabolism decreases (quick, we’re losing fat!), and the weight gain comes back.
And then we blame ourselves, when the whole thing was a complex emergency effort coordinated by our bodies and actually had nothing to do with lack of willpower or self-discipline. The opposite is not true, probably because weight gain makes good sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Leptin goes offline and isn’t as easily heard. Why would you want to get rid of the very energy you might need to keep yourself alive? It would be like throwing the money in your savings account down the drain because you don’t need it at this very minute.
Keep in mind that those who are constantly weight cycling (yo-yo dieting) produce less leptin than they did before they started dieting. The reason it gets harder and harder to lose weight with each attempt may be due to age (our metabolisms lower, our muscle mass decreases) but I’d put my money on diets. The more we diet, the harder it is to lose weight. We certainly don’t diet to gain weight, but that’s exactly what happens — because historically that’s what has always happened. And why it’s impossible for diets to deliver on their promises, no matter how many generations perpetuate a myth their ancestors would have ridiculed.
All of this is to say the human body is not hardwired for weight loss.
SOLUTIONS FOR A POST-DIET CULTURE: THE IMPORTANCE OF SELF-CARE
Alright then, Sarah, if weight loss and dieting don't work, then how do we improve health? So glad you asked.
#1. Eat for pleasure and satisfaction. Let these two lead the way for you.
#2. Chew and eat slowly. Savour your food. Pay attention to the textures, aromas, flavours.
#3. Eat a variety of foods and try new-to-you foods. One of the things most experts can agree on is the importance of variety to our diets. Like broccoli? Try cauliflower next week. Have never tried rapini? Great time to try it! Make chana masala for the first time, or seek out a recipe for delicious roasted chicken.
#4. Eat with total and unconditional permission. You are allowed to eat when you are hungry.
#5. Eat without guilt, shame, or remorse. We're not burning down a schoolhouse or committing murder, we're just eating. It's okay to enjoy ice cream. It's okay to enjoy potato chips. It's okay to enjoy green juice or kale salad. It's okay to enjoy whatever it is you enjoy.
#6. Honour your hunger and fullness. Intuitive eating isn't a diet, so there aren't any rules. You're allowed taste hunger. You can eat something just because you feel like it and it tastes good. But it may not feel good if you do this all the time.
#7. Show yourself compassion. We say, do, think, and act in ways we don't always like. It's part of the learning experience, and I'd say part of being human and making mistakes. It's okay. Be kind. Be gentle.
“Decades of research — and probably your own personal experience — show that the pursuit of weight loss rarely produces the thin, happy life you dream of. Dropping the pursuit of weight loss isn’t about giving up, it’s about moving on. When you make choices because they help you feel better, not because of their presumed effect on your weight, you maintain them over the long run. You do it because you want to, not because you believe you should.” -Linda Bacon (5).
Our bodies crave homeostasis. Nutrition — eating — included.
Not sure how to ditch the diet and make peace with food? I created a Habits & Behaviour Audit to help you to do exactly that.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ten-State Nutrition Survey 1968-1970. U.S. DHEW Publication No. (HSM) 72-8131.
- Leibel, Rudolph L., Michael Rosenbaum, and Jules Hirsch. “Changes in Energy Expenditure Resulting from Altered Body Weight,” New England Journal of Medicine 332 (1995): 621-28.
- Howard, Barbara V., et al., “Low-Fat Dietary Pattern and Weight Change over 7 Years: The Women’s Health Initiative Dietary Modification Trial,” Journal of the American Medical Association 295, no. 1 (2006): 39-49.
- Gardner, Christopher D., et al., “Comparison of the Atkins, Zone, Ornish, and Learn Diets for Change in Weight and Related Risk Factors among Overweight Premenopausal Women: The A to Z Weight Loss Study: A Randomized Trial,” Journal of the American Medical Association 297, no. 9 (2007): 969-77.
- Bacon, Linda. Health at Every Size.