A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

Blowing Up Weight-Loss Myths, Part 2

How much conventional wisdom on weight is wrong?

Buried inside the New York Times last week was an article that ought to have been splashed on its front page: “Myths of Weight Loss Are Plentiful, Researcher Says.” The Times’ health reporter, Gina Kolata, reports on an article in the New England Journal of Medicine that attempts to course-correct a field riddled with misinformation, from the merely spurious to the truly harmful. The piece's author, David B. Allison of the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, set out to assess which pieces of conventional wisdom on weight loss are true, which are as yet unproven, and which are myths, despite being widely accepted as true.

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What knocked me out is that for the first time in memory, a major media outlet is admitting that too many of what are presented as “scientifically proven facts” on weight loss—and concurrently, the effect of exercise, diets, and so forth—are unsubstantiated by any scientific standard. The importance of breakfast, the value of moderate goals, the impact of small amounts of regular exercise: nothing of what you’ve been told about these has actually ever been tested and proven true. And yet I can immediately think of several items of seemingly common-sense weight loss advice that I've accepted as truth for years now. Eating at night is worse for you. Exercise makes you lose weight. Eating fat makes you fat. No--eating carbs makes you fat. Eating lots of fruit and vegetables will make you lose weight. Which of these are proven truths and which are simply myths? The Times article quotes Dr. Jeffrey M. Friedman, a Rockefeller University obesity researcher: “In my view,” he says, “there is more misinformation pretending to be fact in this field than in any other I can think of.”

One of the proven facts Allison does list is about as profound a piece of myth-busting as you could imagine: “Trying to go on a diet or recommending that someone go on a diet does not generally work well in the long term.” Diets do not work for most people, most of the time. You can imagine how many interests have a stake in disagreeing with that explosive notion. 

I am not a nutritionist. I am not a doctor. I have no professional stake in this field. What I am is a woman, a mother of two daughters, dismayed and outraged on a daily basis by the insane way our society deals with food, weight and body image. Women have long been on the leading edge of this trend, but plenty of men are falling into the trap as well. We buy into diets, exercise regimens and even surgical remedies; we suffer from paradoxically skyrocketing rates of obesity and eating disorders; we fight every day with our children (or ourselves) about what to eat, when to eat it, and sometimes even why to eat it. But despite all this effort and all this pain, too many of us hate the way we eat, the way we look, and the way we feel. And we allow ourselves to be fooled, over and over again, into believing that the next fad is the one that will rescue us, scientifically proven or not.

I love good food, but I don’t always love myself. I’ve been weight and body-conscious too—how could I not? It’s the Western woman’s birthright. There have been many times in my life when I was unhappy with the way I looked and felt, and I’m sure there will be more to come. But now my fourth-grader is having discussions with her friends about who “feels fat,” and I hear all the time from parents worried about their kids’ eating habits or body shape; this worries me most of all. Can't we arrest this cycle of unhappiness for the next generation of children? DO we have to put them on te same pointless treadmill of self-doubt and insecurity? Exposing what is and (mostly) isn’t true about weight loss is a small but effective step in the right direction, and trying to absorb this information and let it influence how we speak about food and weight with our children is another. I doubt this will cure the Times and other media outlets from their addiction to all the latest seductive junk science on weight loss, but can’t we, as consumers, as parents, stop being the suckers who buy it all?

What I cooked this week:

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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