We’re all aware of the obesity epidemic, not only in this country, but worldwide. But despite an ever-increasing selection of diets, exercise strategies, and technology, obesity rates continue to increase. That’s a very telling correlation. Why is this happening? Maybe we’re targeting the wrong problem.
What’s the Best Way to Reverse Obesity?
Obesity is a complex multifactorial problem; how can those of us who are overweight or obese figure out the best way to address it when traditional methods like dieting aren’t reliable? One way is to target a key challenge around which our own weight AND the entire obesity epidemic pivots.
Here are some candidates. Entirely change the food environment. The physical environment. The workplace. The obesogenic (obesity-causing) market economy through taxation. If any of these ecological problems were fixed, they would dramatically change the complexion of obesity in this country.
But these challenges would have little impact on those of us who are overweight or obese now. IF they were fixed, the timetable for change would likely be decades. What’s more, the progress made so far is at best slowing the continued increase in U.S. obesity rates, never mind reversing it. Clearly, we can’t depend on solutions to these problems to change our lives.
Weight Cycling Is More Important Than You Think
There is at least one pivotal challenge that, if solved, could impact people in the near term – Weight Cycling. Weight cycling is the regaining of weight after losing it. In other words, it is the inability to sustain weight loss. Some call it yo-yo dieting. It occurs in such large numbers that it qualifies as its own spin-off epidemic.
Anyone who’s tried to lose weight is aware of weight cycling. You might think of it as a frustrating outcome for all your weight loss efforts. Researchers and health care professionals feel the same way. But I don’t think it’s been given the attention it deserves. My goal is to elevate the status of “sustained weight loss” to the primary target for people trying to lose weight, not just an afterthought. I’ll show you why solving weight cycling would profoundly change individual lives as well as the entire course of the obesity epidemic. And why ignoring it will leave us chasing our tails as obesity rages on.
Focus on Sustained Weight Loss, Not Just Weight Loss
Do you have a history of weight cycling? Let me explain why achieving sustained weight loss should be your singular goal.
Let’s take a step back to see what the real need is. If we look at the weight loss landscape, from scientific research to the consumer marketplace, it’s clear we’re trying to figure out how to lose weight better. Everyday there’s a new science-based diet, an even better workout, a more precise and motivating fitness tracker. But achieving better weight loss is not the biggest problem. Many people lose weight everyday – we already do this on a massive scale.
Weight loss itself is only half the problem – a problem for which we have sufficient solutions. But our continued focus on only this half has created a catastrophe for people, health care, and our society in general. Why? Because we haven’t figured out how to make it easy to sustain the weight loss. The bar for making progress against obesity has moved – most people just haven’t realized it yet.
The problem we should be trying to solve is how to lose weight in a way that enables you to keep it off.
As individuals, it’s important to focus on sustained weight loss and not just weight loss for several reasons.
First, focusing on just weight loss is part of the very mechanism by which many people end up relapsing and regaining weight. It’s part of the problem. If you don’t change your mindset, you may doom yourself to weight cycle for years. I’ll write about this in more detail on my blog.
Second, the costs of weight cycling are very high, and they exacerbate the toll obesity already takes. We’ll explore this more below.
Third, achieving sustained weight loss requires an entirely different approach than just trying to lose weight. I’ll discuss in detail how you can sustain weight loss with lessons from the science of sustained weight loss and real-life success stories here.
For society, this focus is equally important. Imagine people filling a room at the rate of new cases of obesity. Some people are temporarily able to get out by losing weight, only to be pulled back in by weight cycling. Another new diet just leads to another temporary escape. The room just keeps filling.
Instead, if those of us who are overweight put our effort into sustained weight loss, we have the potential to open the spigot of the obesity epidemic at a population level and begin to empty the room.
What are the consequences of not focusing on sustained weight loss? The Weight Cycling Epidemic. In the rest of this post, I’ll start to dissect this epidemic by describing its enormous scale.
Obesity Is the Obvious Epidemic
About 37% of adults in the U.S. are obese and another 33% are overweight, affecting a total of about 70% of U.S. adults, or approximately 175 million people. That means 2 out of every 3 adults in the U.S. are either overweight or obese. The lowest obesity rate of any state is about 22%. If you’ve ever been overweight, you probably already know firsthand about some of the health, psychological, social, and economic consequences of obesity. So rather than give a comprehensive review, I’ll stay at a high level and emphasize a few things.
Sustained weight loss may be the linchpin for your health. Obesity is the number 1 cause of preventable life-years lost in the U.S. Think about that – it robs more people of more years of life than any other modifiable behavioral risk factor. Because of its profound, widespread effects on your entire body, it contributes to disease in all major organ systems. Obesity also deeply effects how you experience nearly every aspect and stage of your life, anywhere from your social well-being to how much you earn.
If you are overweight or obese, this may be the biggest obstacle standing in your way to having a healthy and high-quality life, the social relationships you want, and the career you’ve earned. In short, it stands in your way of experiencing the life that you want.
But for those who try to lose weight, obesity is not the only problem.
Weight Cycling Is a Hidden Epidemic
Odds are you’ve tried to lose weight at least once, even if you didn’t know any of the statistics above. Unfortunately, trying to lose weight creates its own challenges. The weight cycling epidemic is a byproduct of the obesity epidemic.
Here are some back of the napkin calculations of the weight cycling epidemic using various sources of information (1, 2). Remember that 70% of U.S. adults who are overweight or obese? They are not just sitting around unconcerned. At any given time about 50% of them are trying to lose weight, which translates to about 88 million people. However, only 1 out of 5 will succeed in keeping the weight off for at least a year, about 18 million people. The other 80% will regain their weight, about 70 million. So, around 70 million adults in the U.S. who are trying to lose weight right now will end up regaining that weight (30% of the entire adult population). These numbers do not even include those of us who may have tried in the past.
Now We Know What We Need to Fix
Identifying the best target is the first step in solving any challenge. For the current obesity epidemic and those in it, weight cycling is the biggest solvable problem. That makes it the pivotal challenge of the obesity epidemic.
You Are Not Alone
It’s clear the weight cycling epidemic is enormous. The numbers above simply describe the scope of the weight cycling epidemic. But these numbers also mean you are not alone in your struggles. Millions of people are going through it with you.
Where to Start?
How can you begin to change your mindset? First understand which pattern you fit:
When you’ve tried to lose weight, have you only focused on losing weight, and not keeping it off? When a diet doesn’t work, do you just try another one the next time?
Or, have you thought about weight cycling as being as much of a problem as being overweight? Have you purposefully approached your weight loss differently to prevent weight cycling?
Viewing sustained weight loss as your goal is a critical distinction you need for success.
In future posts, I’ll continue to give form to the sorely underdiscussed issue of weight cycling – its personal toll and why it happens. I’ll describe what people who achieve sustained weight loss have in common. And I’ll share how you can achieve sustain weight loss yourself.
Until then, I’d love to hear your comments.
Chris Tsai, MD
Be notified about updates.
And get “email only” material.