How I Learned to Accept My Weight and Stop Hating My Body
A few weeks ago, my usual first-day-of-the-month-diet-vow ritual was tinged with an unfamiliar feeling. I tried to name it. Dread maybe? Exasperation? Boredom? All of the above, yes. But there was something else, something new: hopelessness.
I am a self-taught expert on weight loss. There is probably no significant fact about the topic with which I am unfamiliar. And yet, being 35 pounds heavier than I'd like to be, I have remained oddly impervious to the lessons of all the nutritional science I've absorbed. I've trend-dieted. I've slow-and-steadied it. I've done portion control and calorie-counting. I've meditated. I've been hypnotized. I've allowed people I don't know to pinch my hips with calipers. I've weighed myself without my glasses for a more precise count. The one thing I've never done is lose weight for any meaningful period of time.
This month, as usual, I went to Amazon and typed in "diet books." And as I waited for titles to load, the hopelessness descended. Again? I thought. Still? I've tried this. I've done that. I'm exhausted.
But not just exhausted -- demoralized. I'm not opposed to hard work. Yet nothing I've done this painstakingly in my whole life has yielded so little payoff.
I have always wanted to be thin. And I've lost weight often enough to glimpse what life is like for a thin person: to shop and find clothes you like rather than what fits; to buy the lighter color; to feel unembarrassed at the gym; to wear shorts with no apology. I know firsthand that the thin life is the good life. So why is it so hard to achieve? I ask sincerely, on behalf of myself and the millions of other overweight women out there who've been dieting forever. Why do we keep at it if decades of research prove that long-term success is unattainable?
I may be addicted to dieting, but I'm also addicted to hard data. I love the stuff. And I'm sorry to report that all of it clearly shows dieting is a waste of time and energy. And I'm not talking just about fad diets; it's pretty much the same deal with "sensible" lifestyle-oriented programs like Weight Watchers. A company spokesperson, after first telling me that it doesn't track clients' weight-loss retention, went on to cite a study showing that, after five years, 50 percent of clients had kept off 5 percent of the weight they'd lost. Let's parse those numbers: Assume (generously) that a dieter's average weight loss is 10 pounds. Now take 5 percent of that. That's right. We're talking about a measly half pound. Basically, everyone who diets on Weight Watchers ends up just as fat as she was when she enrolled.
There's more. A 2007 UCLA study on whether Medicare should fund dieting determined that it should not. Diets don't work; money is better spent elsewhere. A 2011 Temple University survey found that many diets can work, but only if subjects stick to them. The average weight loss in the analyses I read was a mere 8 to 13 pounds. And that was in obese people. So when you see the asterisked disclaimer "results not typical" at the bottom of those photographs of a very fat person next to a thinner version of the same person, that's because the results are...not typical.
I've saved the worst for last. If you do lose weight, if you beat the odds and manage to reach the pinnacle that I've never ascended, it won't be just regular hard to stay there -- it'll be crazy hard. A 2011 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that after someone loses weight, a hormone that regulates body size seems to diminish significantly. In its absence, your body naturally wants to drift back to where it was. Other research suggests that once your metabolism adjusts to a lighter weight, you'll have to continue to diet -- not to lose more weight, but just to remain at the same weight!
Then, to complicate matters, new research suggests that being overweight isn't even that bad for you. In a survey of nearly 100 studies, with evaluations totaling about 3 million people, the Journal of the American Medical Association found that overweight people have a smaller total risk of premature death than (predictably) obese people but (more surprisingly) also people who are normal weight. (For the record, my BMI puts me squarely in the "very overweight" but not "obese" category.)
So I've reached some uncomfortable conclusions: There is no future in which I lose weight and it stays lost. As that realization sinks in, I put my head on my desk. It stays there for an hour.
But why am I so despondent? Over the time wasted? The money thrown away? Yes, and more. I'm crying for the shame I've felt, the sins I've committed when I imagined my life to be a blinking light, on hold indefinitely until I looked the way I wanted to.