Do the Right Thing

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Socially Engineer Weight Loss: Our Only Hope?

Social engineering is key but if that fails, try reasonable expectations.

Obesity and overweight rates in America continue to climb dramatically and yet there always seems to be a new and exciting weight loss diet and strategy on the market and in the news. So many people want to be thin yet find themselves overweight even when they maintain the best intentions and effort. After working for 30 years with clinical patients who are trying to lose weight I have concluded that there are two critical words that can help people lose weight and keep it off. They are social engineering!

We live in a culture where there is readily available high calorie, large portioned, delicious, and high variety foods. We also live in a culture where most people don’t need to move around very much to go about their daily routines. We have so many conveniences which are great but have unintended consequences when it comes to weight gain. Additionally, somehow we live in a culture where fast foods, high calorie sodas, and packaged snack foods are typically the norm rather than the exception in our food selections. No wonder the obesity rates have increased so dramatically in the United States. You couldn’t draw up a more perfect plan to increase the weight of average Americans.

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So, how have average citizens tried to fight this trend? Mostly by willpower and individual dieting efforts that may or may not use commercial products and services. Additionally, fad diets that, when you think about it, are typically pretty weird if not just plain bizarre also seem to rule the day too. Look in any bookstore and you’ll see numerous selections on dieting and weight loss. It seems like all celebrities write a diet book at one time or another too. Do all (or even any) of these products and programs work? In a word, no! Is there any hope? Perhaps.

There are obviously no simple answers to turning the obesity and overweight tide towards in a better direction. With 1/3 of all Americans obese (defined as BMIs above 30) and 2/3 of all Americans overweight (defined as BMIs above 25) there is little hope that this pattern will change anytime soon without significant and perhaps very painful for many social engineering interventions.

And what do we mean by social engineering? Basically, you have to create an environment where weight gain is really hard to do. Strategies like banning high fat, high calorie foods, supersized portions, all you can eat places, and greatly taxing problematic foods would be a start. This will unlikely happen anytime soon in America (we do value our freedoms too much) but you can work to socially engineer your own environment. Getting problem foods out of the house, avoiding fast food places, walking or biking to work, and so forth are great ideas yet still very hard to accomplish for most people. We all know what to do to lose weight and keep it off but our behavior just doesn't comply with our knowledge. But if you are really serious about losing weight and keeping it off you do have to get aggressive in doing so…very aggressive. Research informs us that about 97% of all those who lose weight regain it all within 5 years. To be one of those 3% you really need to have your game on! Relying on will power, diets, and such is just not reliable or sustainable. The environment you live and work in really has to change dramatically in my view. 

The other important two words you need to remember for weight loss are reasonable expectations. Not everyone can be thin or even of normal weight. Research tells us that being a little overweight doesn’t impact health nearly as much as being severely overweight. In fact, often we just try to help patients maintain a 20% weight reduction rather than attempt to achieve a goal weight that is much lower. So, being overweight isn't the end of the world by any means.

In a nutshell, diets don’t work. Been there, done that and clearly all the wonderful diets in the world have not worked for most people.  Social engineering may be our only hope. If our culture can’t socially engineer a lifestyle that supports normal weight can you design one for yourself?

So, what do you think?

 

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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