Really? Obesity myths need busting

obesecustomersAn interesting opinion piece caught my attention this week.  A group of obesity researchers argue that we all need to give up 9 popular obesity myths, because our continued belief in these myths distorts our ability to successfully manage the obesity epidemic.

Here are the myths.

1. Losing weight quickly leads to greater weight regain after the diet is over, and greater frustration and failure.

2. Setting realistic goals is very important, otherwise again, there’s frustration with failure when those goals aren’t met.  Actually this seems like common sense in any endeavor.  That there is no research supporting or refuting it isn’t surprising.  Who would do that research?  It would actually be impossible to structure a study that proved this one way or another.

3. ‘Readiness to change’ assessment is useful.  This theory of readiness to change is popular with therapists and is applied to lots of behaviors, not just weight control.  Again, it sounds like common sense, at least to the therapists.  Why try changing your behavior if you aren’t ready to give it up?  Again, how would anyone do a controlled study to prove or disprove it?

4. Phys ed classes can help kids lose weight.  Frankly I’m on board with dismissing this belief.  Phys ed classes never add much in the way of calorie burning activity to a child’s day.  Mostly it’s standing around, taking turns at some activity.  Better kids just had meaningful recess time and a space to run around and play.  Given that school is only in session half the year, it’s obvious that physical education will never have much of an impact.

5. Breastfeeding protects against obesity.  Again, I’m on board here too.  Studies that link breastfeeding to less obesity fail to account for the fact that parents who manage their family life so mom can breastfeed for a prolonged period of time are families that are likely to be highly invested in other healthy behaviors, which together prevent childhood obesity.  Association does not equal causation.

6. Daily weighing interferes with weight loss.  I’ve never heard this; quite the opposite.  Daily weighing is frequently recommended.  In fact, it’s a very individual choice.  I’d never enforce daily weighing on anyone who was happier with weekly or even monthly weighing.  And daily (or hourly) weighing can be a clear sign of someone with an eating disorder.

7. Genes have no role to play.  Again I wasn’t aware this was a myth.  If anything, I think people are now too quick to blame genes, and then just give up on weight control.  “Why bother, I’m programmed to be fat.”  (NOTE: we are ALL programmed to gain weight if we overeat and don’t burn calories off).  Certainly there are genetic connections to metabolism.  Many.  They aren’t well understood right now, but in the future weight management may have a more effective genetic component.

8. Freshman year at college causes weight gain.  I wasn’t aware this belief somehow interfered with weight control.  Yes it’s a popular belief and yes some kids gain weight, probably for a lot of reasons related to their new environment.  Since not everyone goes to college, the impact of this is minimal in the Big Picture.

9. Food deserts cause obesity.  This is absolutely a myth, based again — like the breastfeeding myth — on association equals causation.  So-called food deserts don’t force people to eat too much and sit around.  What can contribute to that is modeling unhealthy high calorie food choices and sedentary lives.  Certainly there are neighborhoods and entire towns or cities where that is the norm.  In fact, it’s the norm in many neighborhoods that aren’t food deserts.

The article goes on to discuss 10 more popular obesity beliefs that aren’t supported by evidence, but could be studied.

Several of them are meal-focused: regular meals and family meals protect against weight gain; snacking and bedtime eating cause weight gain.  Well, if snacking leads to excess calories, then yes it could cause weight gain.  The family meal myth works a lot like the breastfeeding myth.  Families that value healthy behaviors are more likely to value family meal times.  Imposing family meal time on chaotic dysfunctional families isn’t likely to be helpful.

The researchers cite the belief that eating more fruit and vegetables leads to weight loss or prevents gain.  In fact there is evidence that increasing intake of plant foods helps with weight control, whether as a Mediterranean diet or a vegan diet.  They key point is that the fruits and vegetables replace high calorie less nutritious foods.  Simply adding them to a junky diet isn’t likely to be helpful.

Another belief that warrants more evidence is that the built environment — built for cars, not for walking — impacts obesity.  In fact, we’re all living in a giant experiment on how that works.  As people spend more and more time sitting in cars, commuting long distances and sitting in front of screens, obesity has done nothing but increase.  What more evidence do we need?

Here’s another myth they missed: the myth that our weight control efforts are pointless.  That myth was being promoted last week by another set of so-called experts.  Their conclusion: since few people are able to keep weight off, why bother trying.  They blame biology.  We’re helpless victims of genes that force us to overeat and sit all day.  Now there’s a myth worth busting.


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