More Americans Are Giving Up on Losing Weight. Where Do We Go From Here?

New research shows that more Americans are giving up on weight loss. How can we change this trend?


By now, those January resolutions are likely a fleeting memory, dreams of a prior person that would have been nice, if only. The very idea of annual change has become a recurring joke. Unfortunately so has one of most common resolutions: losing weight. 

Only this joke isn’t funny for numerous Americans struggling with their weight. According to new research, more people are abandoning any hope of shedding pounds. Strangely, as obesity is becoming more socially accepted, more people are becoming more comfortable with it. Research authors at Georgia Southern University’s College of Public Health believe this phenomenon is playing a role in reducing motivation by lowering perceived markers of healthiness. 

Weight is a complex topic. Over the last fourteen years I’ve worked with thousands of clients and students dealing with a range of body issues, weight and body image at the top. There is no silver bullet for eliminating obesity as genetics, nutrition, activity levels, stress, mental health, and environmental conditions all play a role. 

Add to this the fact that the body mass index marker commonly used to measure obesity is flawed. Thin does not always equate to healthy, while many people who store a few extra pounds are in exceptional shape. Any time I tackle this subject the nuanced realities of divergent bodies and histories have to come into play. It’s not easy to come to terms with the fact that some people eat terribly and remain thin, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Having grown up overweight, I’m on the side that needs to eat very well and keep moving to maintain my health.

That said, this research is disturbing for a few reasons. While progress is definitely being made when we don’t perceive emaciated cover models and six-pack abs as the only vision of fitness—and when we stop fat shaming without recognizing the complex mechanisms of metabolism—there is no excuse for surrendering the quest for better health because more people believe we’re inherently an overweight animal. 


Prevalence of Self-Reported Obesity Among U.S. Adults by State and Territory, BRFSS, 2015. Source: CDC.gov

A 2010 study in Obesity notes that while health benefits from improved body image are possible, the shift in perception also renders mute the efficacy of public health campaigns targeting weight issues, such as the restriction of sugar-heavy beverages and dangers of fast food. 

This “body weight misperception” might be playing a role in the surrender. Yet as the LA Times reports, there might be an even simpler explanation: 

The authors also acknowledged another possibility: that many people have been overweight or obese for so long — and tried dieting so many times — that they have simply given up.

Dieting is not diet. Restrictive programs that limit previously enjoyed foods are extremely challenging for people to follow. While immediate changes might be evident, long-term metabolic shifts are rare—our body is not designed that way. TheTimes reporter, Melissa Healey, notes that our bodies practically ensure that the weight returns.

Metabolic rate drops, allowing the post-diet body to do more with fewer calories. Myriad hormonal signals shift in ways that boost appetite. Those changes endure for at least a year after weight is lost, the study found. Even after weight is regained, many of those changes persist, leading to further weight gain.

The issue is further confused when celebrity doctors peddle green tea pills and acai elixirs as guaranteed fat burners and yoga and fitness instructors sell you on month-long challenges that operate under the assumption a few dozen crunches and a couple of rounds of high-intensity interval training is going to shed away the belly fat. None of these things are true.

Our bodies are designed to lose a pound or two a week. That’s not going to sell programs or bottles of magical medicines, however. And so after the honeymoon is over and the weight creeps back thanks to thwarted metabolic changes, frustration ensues. More diet books are purchased, more programs sold, until, eventually, surrender. 

The researchers note that 95 percent of dieters regain the weight within five years, with most putting on an extra few pounds to boot. Problems associated with obesity go far beyond self-image. Diabetes, for example, comes with a $245 billion yearly price tag in America. As NPR reports

In the U.S., a women with diabetes incurs, on average, about $283,000 in lifetime health care costs.

With the average American consuming twenty-two teaspoons of sugar every single day, one of the most insidious reasons for weight gain hides in plain sight. The numerous names sugar goes by confuses consumers that might believe ‘real cane sugar’ is healthier than processed syrups. Then there’s the ridiculous notion of juice cleansing, which only keep people’s sugar intake high while stripping valuable fiber from their diet. 

If anything, this new report suggests that a trifecta of perception and lifestyle habits is possible: less fat shaming and a reorientation of body image; implementing a healthier diet with less sugar and carbohydrates; more thoughtful and intense movement. Factoring in individual genetics and the workplace and home environment is also necessary. No cure-all book or program is going to do the trick. 

It’s not an easy path, but given the innumerable health problems associated with our growing waistlines it’s necessary, both as individuals and, during a time with an uncertain health care future, a society. Many elevated medical costs are avoidable when we place greater emphasis on obesity. There might be no one answer to this harrowing problem, but one thing is certain: giving up is a step in the wrong direction. 

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Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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