The weight loss industry captures customers with a marketing strategy that cynically plays on self-worth and family values. Advertising loaded with smiling, skinny people implies that if you are fat you are a loser because you have no self-control. If you are fat you are a bad parent because you can’t keep up with your kids. Not to mention that if you are fat you are, by default, ugly and unacceptable. ‘Appalling’ is an inadequate description of the intent of this type of marketing, but it is real and has permeated every corner of our contemporary western lives.
However there is also an effect of this for people for whom weight loss is not a concern. Typically it leads to poor choices based on the assumption that “I don’t put on weight so therefore I can eat what I like”. If the purpose of nutritional advice and exercise is weight loss, then people who are slim believe that they are somehow immune to the consequences of poor dietary choices and inactivity. However slim people also get sick, and for the same reasons as people who are overweight – inactivity and poor diet. The fact is that some people put on weight and some people don’t, and this is simply genetics.
The weight loss industry remains focused on diet and weight loss for entirely commercial reasons. However this requires that they simultaneously deny the fact that being skinny is not a default state of health. The reason they can successfully push their agenda is because there is a general belief that you have to lose weight in order to get healthy. This idea is as pervasive as it is wrong.
In reality completely the opposite applies – you have to get healthy in order to lose weight. It may seem like a play in words, but actually it is a completely different paradigm – with completely different processes and outcomes.
If you think that you have to lose weight in order to get healthy your strategy will naturally default to dieting, counting and restricting calories, and exercise will default to calorie burning activities. This is a recipe for failure, and for multiple reasons: counting calories is difficult, tedious and boring, restricting calories creates an endless state of hunger, calorie burning exercise is too often an uninspiring chore, and all this predetermines that discipline and willpower are key to success.
This plays straight into the hands of the weightloss industry because it (apparently) provides the means to success when all else has failed – pre-packaged food delivered to your door, calories already counted for you. For anyone who has engaged in this type of program they discover sooner or later that it is expensive and they are frustrated with being hungry too much of the time. This makes this ‘support’ unsustainable. And when they stop paying they regain the lost weight – and with a vengeance.
Factor into the mix products that artificially create fullness or suppress appetite (many of these are untested and some have proven dangerous) and you have a clear picture of how desperate people are to lose weight by focusing on calories, and how inevitable it is for dieting to fail. And all in the misguided belief that weight loss is paramount.
To add further burden to this, when the consumer fails the blame is placed on them – ‘you are weak, uncommitted and didn’t follow the rules’. This makes the weight loss industry bullet proof.
So let’s look at this another way. There is substantial research that supports the argument that the choices people make are far superior predictors of future health and wellbeing than body fat percentages. This means that choices are the criteria for good health not calorie counting or restriction. Given that the accumulation of body fat is the product of poor choices and the compromised health that ensues, then it follows that weight loss will also be achieved by making healthy choices.
On one level this seems so blindingly obvious, however the basis of current nutritional advice – the National Dietary Guidelines – almost completely omits any discussion about the effects of processing food and the inherent loss of nutritional content. This leaves consumers referring to the back of plastic packets of imitation foods for a calorie count. How does it help when they are counting the calories of food products that are nutritionally useless? Again, this only serves the weight loss industry.
By focusing on health with weightloss as a fringe benefit an entirely different strategy emerges. This is a strategy focused on choice rather than the calorie count. By choosing foods based on the nutritional content of the food rather than the number of calories, appetite is satiated while enriching the body with micronutrients and ‘healthful calories’. Quality calories don’t need counting. Processed calories do.
This shift in mindset ushers in a whole new world of possibilities that makes results both achievable and sustainable. I find that with my clients there is an overwhelming sense of relaxation that imbues their new approach to health and wellbeing, as opposed to the tension and angst that comes with dieting. They know that food is something you grow, not manufacture. They are literate in the subject of micronutrients, and so they focus on them and not the calorie count. Their focus is on foods that will make them healthy, not on whether it will make them fat or skinny. This approach is not concerned with current body fat percentages – fat or skinny, it is the quality of their choices that matter.
This same approach also applies to their exercise choices. The ‘weight loss choice’ is to run or jump through hoops trying to burn calories, while the ‘health choice’ is to focus on the health benefits of exercise: proprioception, core activation, improving function, stability and balance, increasing mitochondria function and …. well, you get the idea. The exercise choices premised on health bring a whole new world of wellbeing based on an entirely different set of metrics – vitality, energy, mood, quality of sleep, productivity and other personal measures. Compare this to exercise premised on weight loss on how many calories were burned and what the scales say.
To highlight how pointless it is to focus on trying to burn calories through exercise – thirty minutes on a treadmill will burn about 300 calories of which about 140 calories will be fat. There are 7,700 calories in one kilogram of body fat. I rest my case.
There is a fundamental shift in thinking required if we are to see a change in the status of public health. It is clear from both the decline in public health and corresponding rise in obesity and chronic disease that the current prescription to lose weight for health is failing badly.
Losing weight as a goal is a clear misdirection away from goals and strategies that lead to health and wellbeing. If I had been saying this ten years ago I may have been laughed out of the room, however a simple observation of the current statistics clearly shows that the dietary and exercise prescription up until now has not worked, and for the sake of our society we have to rethink the relationship between weight loss and health and the tremendous effect it is having on people whether they are overweight or not.
Simply, the weight loss industry (and its ally the fitness industry) needs to stop exploiting people and actually make a contribution. There is also profit in that! Health professionals need to support this change in thinking because, even if inadvertently, we are tacitly implicated in the agenda of the weight loss industry and its mindless drive for profits every time the recommendation is made to lose weight.
The bottom line is that we need to recommend a goal for health and not for weight loss, and change the measures for success from body fat percentages to measures of wellbeing. Weight loss will follow by default.
AND, I am very pleased to announce the release of my new book:
Eat, Move and Thrive: the five secrets of very healthy people. It has taken nearly 2 years from start to finish, and I have had some great reviews. It represents a whole new way of thinking about health, and I know it works as it is the accumulation of years of experience. You can get it from Amazon or Booktopia or an online store of your choice.