Is there a diet or weight-loss program out there that doesn’t work for those who stick with it during its first 12 weeks?
Truly, the world’s most backwards, upside-down, anti-science, nonsensical diets work over the short haul, fueled by the fact that short-term suffering for weight loss is a skillset that humanity has assiduously cultivated for at least the past 100 years. We’re really good at it!
It’s the keeping the weight off, though, that’s the hitch. Which leads me to the question, why are medical journals, even preeminent nonpredatory ones, publishing 12-week weight-loss program studies as if they have value? And does anyone truly imagine that after over 100 years of trying, there’ll be a short-term diet or program that’ll have the durable, reproducible results that no other short-term diet or program ever has? Why are we still pretending that there’s a magic bullet out there?
Take this study published by Obesity just last month, “Pragmatic implementation of a fully automated online obesity treatment in primary care.” It details a 12-week online, automated, weight-loss program that led completers to lose the roughly 5% of weight that many diets and programs see lost over their first 12 weeks. By its description, aside from its automated provision, the program sounds like pretty much the same boilerplate weight management advice and recommendations that haven’t been shown to lead large numbers of people to sustain long-term weight loss.
Participants were provided with weekly lessons which no doubt in some manner told them that high-calorie foods had high numbers of calories and should be minimized, along with other weight-loss secrets. Users were to upload weekly self-monitored weight, energy intake, and exercise minutes and were told to use a food diary. Their goal was losing 10% of their body weight by consuming 1200-1500 calories if they weighed less than 250 lb (113 kg) and 1500-1800 calories if they weighed more than 250 lb, while also telling them to aim for 200 minutes per week of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity.
What was found was wholly unsurprising. Perhaps speaking to the tremendous and wide-ranging degrees of privilege that are required to prioritize intentional behavior change in the name of health, 79% of those who were given a prescription for the program either didn’t start it or stopped it before the end of the first week.
Of those who actually started the program and completed more than 1 week, despite having been selected as appropriate and interested participants by their physicians, only 20% watched all of the automated programs’ video lessons while only 32% actually bothered to submit all 12 weeks of weight data. Of course, the authors found that those who watched the greatest number of videos and submitted the most self-reported weights lost more weight and ascribed that loss to the program. What the authors did not entertain was the possibility that those who weren’t losing weight, or who were gaining, might simply be less inclined to continue with a program that wasn’t leading them to their desired outcomes or to want to submit their lack of loss or gains.
Short-term weight-loss studies help no one and when, as in this case, the outcomes aren’t even mediocre, and the completion and engagement rates are terrible, the study is still presented as significant and important. This bolsters the harmful stereotype that weight management is achievable by way of simple messages and generic goals. It suggests that it’s individuals who fail programs by not trying hard enough and that those who do, or who want it the most, will succeed. It may also lead patients and clinicians to second-guess the use of antiobesity medications, the current generation of which lead to far greater weight loss and reproducibility than any behavioral program or diet ever has.
The good news here at least is that the small percentage of participants who made it through this program’s 12 weeks are being randomly assigned to differing 9-month maintenance programs which at least will then lead to a 1-year analysis on the completers.
Why this study was published now, rather than pushed until the 1-year data were available, speaks to the pervasiveness of the toxic weight-biased notion that simple education will overcome the physiology forged over millions of years of extreme dietary insecurity.
Our food environment, which is a veritable floodplain of hyperpalatable foods, and the social determinants of health that make intentional behavior change in the name of health an unattainable luxury for a huge swath of the population.
Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute, a nonsurgical weight management center. He is one of Canada’s most outspoken obesity experts and the author of The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work.
Follow Yoni Freedhoff on Twitter: @YoniFreedhoff