By now most of you have probably either read or heard about Tara Parker-Pope’s cover story in Sunday’s New York Times magazine, “The Fat Trap,” which reviews the most recent obesity science to explain why maintaining weight loss can be close to impossible for the vast majority of dieters. In a nutshell:
For years, the advice to the overweight and obese has been that we simply need to eat less and exercise more. While there is truth to this guidance, it fails to take into account that the human body continues to fight against weight loss long after dieting has stopped. This translates into a sobering reality: once we become fat, most of us, despite our best efforts, will probably stay fat.
. . . . “After you’ve lost weight, your brain has a greater emotional response to food,” Rosenbaum [Michael Rosenbaum of Columbia University] says. “You want it more, but the areas of the brain involved in restraint are less active.” Combine that with a body that is now burning fewer calories than expected, he says, “and you’ve created the perfect storm for weight regain.” How long this state lasts isn’t known, but preliminary research at Columbia suggests that for as many as six years after weight loss, the body continues to defend the old, higher weight by burning off far fewer calories than would be expected. The problem could persist indefinitely. . . . This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to lose weight and keep it off; it just means it’s really, really difficult.
I’ve seen various responses to this article on Facebook and elsewhere. For those who’ve struggled with their weight all their lives, reading about this research is more than a little vindicating. But for anyone who needs to lose weight, the findings are also quite daunting: those profiled in the piece who have maintained significant weight loss are living lives of constant vigilance, weighing themselves daily, writing down every scrap of food they eat, exercising long and hard, and even travelling with their own scales. So it’s hardly surprising that these successful maintainers are in the tiny minority of the millions of people who lose weight every year, only to regain it again and again.
But from my perspective, the single most important two sentences in the article were these:
Given how hard it is to lose weight, it’s clear, from a public-health standpoint, that resources would best be focused on preventing weight gain. The research underscores the urgency of national efforts to get children to exercise and eat healthful foods.
As these scientific findings gain more widespread attention and acceptance, let’s hope we see a collective renewal and bolstering of our efforts to prevent childhood obesity before it even begins. What would that entail?
- Putting real money behind school food reform (not a paltry six cents per meal).
- Telling Big Food lobbyists that for once we’re going to put the needs of children ahead of their demands. That means no more watering down of improved school food standards to preserve industry profits (remember pizza = vegetable?) and putting real muscle behind legislative efforts to rein in the marketing of junk food to children (instead of floating weak, voluntary guidelines, and watching as even those standards are thwarted by industry).
- Conducting public health campaigns to counteract, as much as possible, the billions of dollars spent by Big Food on advertising. (You might recall my suggestion, in my winning essay from the Slate magazine anti-obesity contest, that we “inoculate” kids against Big Food’s messages as we have with tobacco marketing.)
- Remembering that “No Child Left Behind” doesn’t mean leaving physical activity behind in the bargain.
- Loudly protesting any political efforts to turn childhood obesity into a “Red state/Blue state” issue, perhaps by reminding those in Red states that it’s their own children who tend to be at higher risk.
- And, most importantly by far, educating children about their food: where it comes from, how to grow it, how to cook it, and why the food choices they make are so important.
I believe this vision, as unrealistic as it currently seems, will one day be a reality. Why? Because two of our most important national concerns – the economy and national security — are already severely impacted by obesity, as reflected in sky-rocketing health care costs, loss of economic productivity and lack of military readiness.
The status quo is simply not sustainable. But how long will it take before the tide truly shifts?
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