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Why Diets Make You Fatter -- And What to Do About It

The $60-billion-per-year diet industry keeps offering new programs and plans, but it doesn't work 95% of the time because the problem is more than calories.

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As an acknowledgement of the failure of weight-loss programs, some experts recommend that a smaller reduction in weight, of about 5 to 10 percent of body mass, can improve a variety of health conditions. Remember that the failure rate of dieting is 95 percent, and that dieting frequently launches people into a yo-yo cycle that isn't innocuous. In his book Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Health and Weight, Glenn Gaesser, exercise physiologist and professor at Arizona State University, presents the outcomes of research regarding the health and mortality of 17,000 Harvard alumni who were asked how frequently they dieted and how many pounds they lost with each attempt. Compared to men who maintained fairly stable (even if higher) weights, those men in a yo-yo cycle, repeatedly losing and gaining weight, had an 80 percent higher rate of heart disease, and a 123 percent higher rate of Type 2 diabetes, compared to their nondieting classmates. Glaesser warns, "What we have here is a paradox, with potentially calamitous consequences. Losing weight seems to increase the chances of dying from a disease for which weight loss is frequently prescribed to help cure! This brings to mind the most fundamental canon of all helping professions: 'Above else, do no harm.'"

Does that mean that someone who's large must passively accept that there's nothing effective to improve health? The answer is a resounding no! People of all sizes can participate in behaviors that improve health and longevity. Steven Blair, former director of research at the Cooper Institute for Aerobic Research in Dallas, followed 26,000 men and 8,000 women between the ages of 20 and 90 for 10 years. He discovered that both obese fit men and lean fit men had low death rates, and that the obese fit men had death rates half that of lean unfit men. Lean unfit men who fell into the ideal weight category had twice the risk of mortality from all causes, compared to the fit men who fell into the overweight and obese categories. Blair declares, "By tracking the health status of thousands of women and men who have had fitness tests and medical exams at the Institute over the past 30 years or so, it has become abundantly clear to me that in terms of health and longevity, your fitness level is far more important than your weight. If the height-weight charts say you are 5 pounds too heavy, or even 50 or more pounds too heavy, it is of little consequence healthwise -- as long as you are physically fit. On the other hand, if you are a couch potato, being thin provides absolutely no assurance of good health and does nothing to increase your chances of living a long life."

If there's so much evidence challenging conventional wisdom that fat is bad for us, then why don't we hear about it? Probably because we tend to view information through a thinness-bias lens, seizing upon results that favor thinness and ignoring content that doesn't support thinness as the optimal health and beauty standard. This bias was made crystal clear when a doctor was interviewed on CNN to discuss the results of two major studies in 2008, one from Canada and one from Japan, which concluded that people who fell in the "overweight" category live longer than those in the "ideal weight" category. At the end of the interview, the doctor threw in the caveat that, "It's probably still a good idea to lose some weight."

Economic issues play a role in perpetuating the hysteria around weight. Not only do people pursuing weight loss spend billions of dollars each year, but obesity researchers often have their work funded by the diet industry. A clear example of this conflict was the National Task Force on the Prevention and Treatment of Obesity, created and funded by the federal government to set national health policy. In 1996, JAMA disclosed that eight out of nine board members were university-affiliated professors and researchers with financial ties to a minimum of two, and up to eight, commercial weight-loss and pharmaceutical companies apiece. Laura Fraser, author of Losing It: America's Obsession with Weight and the Industry That Feeds on It, explains, "Diet and pharmaceutical companies influence every step along the way of the scientific process. . . . What it comes down to is that most obesity researchers would stand to lose a lot of money if they stopped telling Americans they had to lose a lot of weight."

 
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