Archive for January, 2008
What if Willpower Matters Little in the Long-Term for Weight? provoked quite a discussion in the comments and led me to consider my own beliefs about the role of willpower in both weight loss and weight maintenance for the long-term after losing weight.
What got me thinking about the role of willpower is our collective belief that one must exert their will over their desire for food in order to overcome the strong desire to eat, often what amounts to too much food.
We’re repeatedly told that we suffer mindless eating habits, a toxic food environment, and a host of other influences which lead us to overeat; all of which can be overcome if we simply set our minds to choosing foods wisely, strictly rationing our intake with portion control methods, and sticking to recommended intakes of each food group to target particular ratios of calories from carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
When doing these things fails to produce long-term weight management, the individual is often the target of blame – they failed by failing to follow the recommendations. They failed to have adequate willpower to continue as directed. They failed to restrict calories sufficiently enough for the long-term to maintain weight effectively.
Rather than challenge the concept – consciously restricting food intake – we instead accept that such is normal and focus on the failure as an execution problem by the individual, often stated many different ways, but always boiling down to calories in exceeding calories out if the individual could only get it right then all would be well.
This makes weight loss and management a math problem.
In order to lose and maintain weight one must then be good at math in order to be able to constantly be vigilant in counting their calories in each day to keep consumption within target outputs.
So, maybe it isn’t willpower, but poor math skills leading to long-term failure to maintain weight loss?
No, I don’t really believe that…but, it does open the door to consider the idea that weight isn’t simply a math problem that is easily solved by changing inputs and outputs of numbers; that in the long-term exerting will to restrict calories over desire to eat is not really all there is to successful weight management.
If weight is not a math problem, then what is the problem?
If we look at the issue differently – set aside the idea that in the long-term one must exert willpower to maintain a calorie balance and seek to understand what truly drives our appetite, we find that weight is not a math problem, but a chemistry problem!
Weight is chemistry.
Chemistry thus influences obligate requirements for nutrients and energy, as well as our ability to exert our will over our desire.
Willpower then depends upon chemistry.
What does the data say about that concept? We’ll take a look in upcoming posts – in the meantime, your comments and thoughts are welcome!
So, you know how it goes – you think your schedule is such that you’ll have plenty of time to get everything done. Except it doesn’t always go that way. This week is no exception – we’re leaving on vacation tomorrow, so I’ll be traveling and unable to post.
UPDATE 01/27/08: I’ll return to posting on January 31, 2008…thank you for your patience!
So now the government thinks shaming people is going to make them lose weight?
Dr. John Briffa penned a good article about the recent findings published by the British Heart Foundation.
I think they’d be few people who will not have noticed that children’s diets have deteriorated significantly over the last few decades. More and more, it seems, children are eating less real food, and way more rubbish stuff such as processed foods high in refined sugar, processed fats and other unwanted additives including salt, colourings, flavourings and artificial sweeteners. I read this week that the British Heart Foundation in the UK has recently conducted a poll in which children were quizzed on their attitude to food. Apparently, more than four out of five of them did not regard crisps as anything special, and more than have did not consider sweets to be a ‘treat’. The idea here is that our children’s diets have become so pervaded with rubbish food that this food is not considered the norm.
As a result, the a spokesperson for the British Heart Foundation has claimed that marketing of junk food to children is at the root of the problems, and there has been renewed calls for the laws to be tightened in this area. Much that I’d like to blame the aggressive marketing and promotion of nutritionally suspect foods for the problems children are having with their diets, it seems to me that only part of the problem lies with the food manufacturers.
My belief is that one of the reasons children do not see foods like crisps and confectionery as a treat is not only because these foods have become commonplace in the diet, but also because children are given consistent and honest messages about the essentially unhealthy nature of these foods.
When talking to parents about how to handle the feeding of their children, I’m often asked something like: “Is it OK for my child to eat junk from time to time?” Generally speaking, I believe the answer to this question is “yes’. However, I usually add a caveat to this piece of advice which goes along the lines of: “If you feed your child junk food just make sure you tell them that’s what it is – junk food.”
The rationale behind this advice is that eating junk food is one thing, not even knowing that it’s junk food is another. I actually see the latter as a far more corrosive factor in the long term. The fact of the matter is many children have little or no idea just how unhealthy some foods are because they are not given consistent messages about these foods. Children have the potential to be overwhelmed by marketing and advertising that positions food in a way that makes them attractive. You wouldn’t expect such messages to tell children the truth about these foods would you?
The people that have the most potential to act as a counterbalance to the marketing and misinformation that pervades nutrition are generally the parents. And I recommend that parents grasp the nettle here and give it straight to their kids. So, if you’re a parent, imagine you’re about to take your child (as a treat) to a fast food joint. Some parents will feel a bit uneasy about this on some level, but will rationalise that occasional indiscretions of this nature are unlikely to harm their child. This is almost certainly correct. But instead of quashing any feeling of uneasiness, I recommend expressing your feelings of unease. So, before even getting into the fast food joint you might contemplate saying something to your child like: “We’re off to xxxxxxxxxxx for a treat. The reason why this is a treat and we don’t go to this place often is because the food they serve there is rubbishy and unhealthy. It’s OK to eat it once in a while, but a lot of this food is the sort of thing that can make us sick, so we don’t want to eat too much of it.”
What’s happened here is that while the fast food has not been vetoed (an outright ban can just make kids want something all the more), your child has been told in no uncertain terms your opinion of the food, which has added to their nutritional knowledge and education. I encourage a similar approach when giving a child anything that would generally be regarded as unhealthy, whether that be a crisps, confectionery, fast food, soft drinks or microwaveable lasagne. Use this approach consistently, and your child can never really be in any doubt about the appropriateness of junk food in their diet.
To balance this, you might also want to give your child clear and consistent messages about what is healthy too. This doesn’t have to be a mini-nutrition lecture every time you sit down to a meal, but there’s certainly no harm in mentioning from time to time why, say, you think it’s a good idea for us all to eat some fruit and vegetables.
The end result of all of this is that children can grow up with enormous food and nutrition awareness. This can be a powerful force in combating the rubbish our kids are fed both literally and metaphorically.
In my last post I noted that the idea of counting calories to maintain a balance between calories in and calories out is an unnatural state of being. Yet is it exactly what is promoted, has been promoted for decades, and increasingly is being promoted in what could be considered a ‘cradle to grave’ approach, where even children are being subjected to messages designed to make them ever aware of calories in, calories out – if they gain weight, it’s obviously their fault that they didn’t get it right.
As I said in my previous post, “For some reason we are stuck in this thinking that the problem isn’t the concept, but the execution.”
Some lively discussion in the comments followed, as well as a good number of emails – with most boiling down to four main themes – any type of restriction is difficult, counting carbohydrates is as unnatural as counting calories, most people won’t eat just whole, natural foods and most people won’t do what it takes anyway.
But I definitely understand the points made, and think at least opening a discussion on the issue has value for the future.
Afterall, we can safely say, based on the evidence available, almost every weight loss diet dreamed up in the last century works – data clearly shows that calorie restriction, dietary fat reduction, carbohydrate restriction, increasing protein, manipulating glycemic index or glycemic load, using shakes and meal replacements, fasting approaches, and even weight loss surgery all enable an individual to lose weight.
The diet or medical intervention one utilizes does not matter all that much – they all work for weight loss – so to say one approach is better than the other for weight loss truly has little value for long-term success to maintain weight loss.
Weight loss isn’t the problem – keeping the weight off afterward is the really critical issue that we continue to fail to address in a meaningful way to actually see long-term results.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, the diet industry, along with the medical and research communities talk a good story, point to data from those few who manage to maintain their weight loss in a national registry, and repeat again and again that failure comes down to lack of willpower in the individual. If only a person would continue, for the long-term, the dietary principles they utilized to lose the weight, they would not gain back the weight lost.
As Sandy Szwarc said in a Junkfood Science post early last year, “Only long-term results, after weights have stabilized, are relevant when evaluating any diet and, more importantly, any actual impact on health outcomes.”
While I don’t always agree with Sandy’s take on things, or her conclusions, she is well known for taking an evidence-based approach in her writing and on this issue I agree 100% – not because everything she wrote in the above linked article was spot-on, but because she stated something so obviously ignored in the current urgency to do something about the “obesity epidemic” that seems to have no workable long-term solution.
The rising incidence of obesity in the United States is not new – for decades now we’ve watched as each year more and more of our population is classified as overweight or obese; and it does not appear to be reversing, despite the continuous messages to eat less and move more, be aware of calories in and calories out, just do it and stick to it.
Oddly it seems, the louder the messages get, the fatter the population grows.
Yet, while it’s acknowledged that in the long-term dieting doesn’t seem to result in long-term weight stabilization and maintenance, few are asking why.
Instead we’re left with the idea that all these tens of millions of people who lose weight on a diet lack the willpower and resolve to maintain a healthy-balanced diet in the long-term.
It’s the failure of the individual not the dietary principles they’re told work – as I said before, the failure is not the concept, but the execution.
Every single year, tens of millions of people set out to lose weight and the vast majority do lose weight – they celebrate, buy new clothes, enjoy high self-esteem, are empowered by their success and feel great…..and then are just too damn weak, so they eat themselves back to where they started?
Is this not where the idea that it’s a lack of willpower takes us?
If it’s not willpower, then what does enable successful weight loss followed my maintenance and improved health outcomes in the long-term?
Before embarking on an exploration of this issue next week, I’d like to hear from readers about their experiences – success and failure – and what ultimately you’ve learned over the years? If you had to give advice on how to maintain weight loss for the long-term, what would you suggest based on your experiences?
The results of a survey conducted by the International Food Information Council were presented at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual conference. The highlights and findings were discussed in an article in the Voice of Agriculture, in which we learn “42 percent of survey respondents feel that the food and health information they receive from various sources is contradictory. Slightly more than 30 percent said it was inconsistent.”
Rachel Cheatham, Director of Science and Health Communications for the IFIC says “This really is the issue, [t]here is an overload of information. How do we package this information so that people understand it and know what to do with it?”
The survey results found that “very few people understand or apply the concept of energy balance, in which calories consumed and calories used are treated as an equation that results in weight maintenance, or depending on the individual’s goals, weight loss or gain. Almost half of the survey respondents said they don’t balance the calories they take in with the calories they use, while 16 percent said they do increase their exercise to compensate for eating more than usual.”
I have to say I’m not surprised – it’s simply not natural for us to be so calorie obessed, to the point where we are ever aware of the calories were eating each day – so it’s no wonder that most people don’t make it a point to “balance” calories in and calories out each day!
The article however makes this an issue of selling the concept to consumers rather than questioning its validity; “calorie counting is a hard sell.”
For some reason we are stuck in this thinking that the problem isn’t the concept, but the execution. If it were only that easy. If it were only a matter that people don’t get it and more education would lead to better compliance. If it were only a matter of calories in and calories out, and just following a recipe to eat x-servings of this and y-servings of that each day to remain within prescribed calorie intake.
I’ve said it many times before – the flaw is in the recommendations, not in those trying to follow them! It’s more than just calories, and rather than try to sell consumers on an unnatural way of eating each day, perhaps time is better spent understanding how modification of the macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein and fat) can lead to spontaneous reduction of calorie intake without counting calories.
Until the powers that be begin to address the role of nutrients and micronutrients on hunger and satiety, on nutritional status, and on health and well-being, little is going to change.
Afterall, the thinking goes that it remains the fault of the individual to not follow the recommendations rather than the recommendations failing to live up to expectations and provide the necessary nutrients and satiety to be followed long-term successfully.
I’ve said before, “The failure of the dietary recommendations are no small matter, various agencies go to great pains to explain away the long-term failure and wind up making the issue one of personal failure rather than admit the flaw is in the recommendations.”
If you’d like to read more on the issue of our flawed recommendations, two previous articles provide greater depth on the subject:
In our strange world, we have researchers now promoting the idea that a pharmaceutical version of the gut hormone PYY may offer a solution to help individuals lose weight.
In the MSN article, Natural Gut Hormones May Provide a Treatment for Obesity, we learn that researchers are seeking to develop a pill to provide the satiety hormone PYY.
“The advantage of developing weight loss medications based on gut-derived satiety hormones is that they enhance a process that occurs naturally. It is expected, therefore, that side effects will be minimal,” says Dr Sainsbury-Salis.
Folks, we’re not PYY deficient; in fact, I’d argue we’re not eating the foods that stimulate PYY to effectively sate appetite naturally.
As I noted in a previous blog post about research investigating PYY, “A high protein diet led to spontaneous calorie reduction as PYY increased. The phenomenon was consistent with both the animal model using mice and in human studies used to validate the mice model. Over a longer term, the higher protein diet stimulated weight loss and enhanced PYY synthesis and secretion in mice.”
As I noted in that post, the study I wrote about included quite specific detail about how diet influences the release of PYY in humans – “The ready availability of carbohydrate-rich grains and cereals has been a recent development in human nutrition with the onset of organized agriculture. Many of the physiological systems that regulate food intake were probably established and may function better under lower-carbohydrate and higher-protein dietary conditions.”
Those were not my words, but the words of the researchers!
And now we have researchers looking to design a pill to provide what we already have naturally – if we eat adequate protein and fat. But, let’s not go there and discuss diet, let’s just pop a pill and continue along with the supposed “healthy diet” that obviously is not sating out appetite!