I was reading back the other day on fat fu and saw the January entry on Weight Watchers “success” rates. As you can imagine, based on what fatfu was able to infer–even from a published study intended to demonstrate that WW is so much more successful than you guys think, we swear–the results were, um, NOT GOOD.

Naturally, however, several commenters felt the need to point out that they just couldn’t believe this was true–they themselves, after all, were weight loss success stories, or they had seen such success stories take place in the lives of others around them. Let’s take a look at these commenters. Before I start I should say that I am not trying to knock or make fun of these particular individuals. Most folks who commented seem to be fairly sympathetic to the point of the post and to be aware of the poor track record of dieting, and even if they weren’t, it really wouldn’t be fair of me to excoriate them on my own blog just for believing something (i.e. “diets work”) that most people believe, even smart, informed people. Instead, I mention them as characteristic of a larger point that hopefully will become clear later. Of course, if you know me, you are probably thinking “yeah, I’ll believe that when I see it.” 🙂

So anyway, here is a rundown of the commenters who specifically refuted the general “diets don’t work” point:

1) Lost 30 pounds and has kept that 30 off for a year with 20 to go. Makes the point that a lot of endeavors look impossible when you consider statistics, and you just have to consider what you want and if you want it badly enough to do what is necessary.

2) Same commenter, in a subsequent comment, states “I’ve known people who have changed their lifestyle and lost weight and kept it off” but provides no evidence of such.

3) Another commenter states she would like to lose 20 pounds, and that exercise, along with being willing to do something for the rest of your life, is the key.

4) Another appears to claim that she has kept off 40 lbs. caused by “a medical problem” for 10 years.

5) Another says it’s the “fad diet” nature of WW that is the problem and that giving up processed foods and all other “unhealthy” foods forever, along with an hour of exercise 7 days a week, will work as long as you are not “unwilling” or “unable” to do these things. So “don’t say it’s impossible for most people to be relatively thin, because the evidence does not support that claim.” Hmm.

6) Another says she lost 150 lbs. and kept it off, but does not say for how long.

Isn’t this pretty much exactly how these discussions always go? One group of people says “you can so lose weight, I’m halfway to my goal and it’s totally working for me!” Another splits the stupid hair between “diet” and “lifestyle change” and tells you to totally give up processed foods, refined carbs, or high-fructose corn syrup forever (like anyone has ever successfully done this)–in other words, it’s the specific diet you were on, not the fact that it was a diet, that is the problem. Another, or the same people, lecture you about how weight loss might be hard but it’s no excuse to give up. Interestingly, these are often people who, despite their “straight talk,” iron will, and determination, have themselves mysteriously not succeeded in sticking to a diet “forever” either; of course, this is their fault, not the diet’s. Maybe one person actually posts that they have kept a substantial amount of weight off for 5 years, and rarely was that person fat since childhood (which I think makes a difference, as I explain below). At this point I could generate a set of fake comments in response to a “diets don’t work” post that I think would fool most people into thinking they were real.

This reflexive need to push away anything “negative” about one’s chances for permanent weight loss exists in more formal contexts also. I learned a lot about strength training from the book Strong Women Stay Slim by Miriam Nelson when I read it several years ago, and I still use her set of dumbbell exercises on a regular basis. On the whole I liked the book because Nelson is a scientist and tended to provide evidence for her recommendations in the book, which only made it more glaring when I reached her statement about long-term success rates of weight loss dieting. Boiling this paragraph down, essentially she said that doom-and-gloomers like to quote a 95% failure rate of diets, but that’s just not true! Well hell, when I first read the book I was looking to lose weight, so I read on eagerly, hoping for some kind of concrete evidence of dieting efficacy that I could use to inspire me going forward.

So why isn’t the 95% number true? Well, Nelson is here to tell you that it’s because… (drum roll)… the National Weight Control Registry contains “hundreds” of weight loss success stories, and furthermore, “you probably know” someone who has lost weight and kept it off, or maybe you have even done so yourself.

Wait, what?

Considering how many Americans are classified as “overweight” and “obese,” and considering how many people are on a diet at any given time whether they are above “normal weight” or not, the existence of only “hundreds” of successful dieters–a tiny percentage by any calculation, and considering how people love to brag about their weight loss, I doubt most would be reticent about reporting it–in the NWCR was not reassuring to me. (Apparently, the number of dieters in the Registry is now 5,000, but this is still a drop in the bucket, especially considering that now they only require you to have “kept off” the weight for one year–I swear it used to at least be 3 years or something.)

Plus, “you probably know” a successful dieter? Are you kidding me–this is the type of evidence that’s supposed to refute a statistic?! And the funniest thing is, if we are talking about a person who has lost weight and kept off all or most of that loss for more than 5 years, then no, I actually don’t know anyone like that!

I would have expected this kind of “pay no attention to bad facts that might depress you” rhetoric in a regular diet book, but in most other respects this book is “different” and more scientifically rigorous, so this glossing over stuck out like a sore thumb. What I suspect happened was, Nelson looked for studies showing sufficiently rosy outcomes from dieting, failed to find them, and decided instead to make generalized statements because she considered it more important that dieters not be “discouraged” than that they know the actual truth, which is that nobody has yet found a way to make fat people permanently thin.

Finally, this is a point touched on by fat fu that I would like to underscore–if the odds of someone keeping off 20 lbs. that they gained somewhere along the line (say, baby weight) are discouraging enough, what are the odds for a person who has always been fat? This situation, where a person has been fat since birth or childhood, or who suddenly started gaining in their 20s or 30s and thought “hey, I remember Dad telling me that’s when he started gaining weight too”–so, what I mean is for situations where your body weight and shape clearly owe at least something to genetics, and that’s most fat people–must be substantially different from the Weight Watcher looking to take off a little weight and return to a thin baseline. Most people don’t like to admit this, but it’s true.

If I was fat at 5 years old–even though god knows my mother restricted junk food, pushed a healthy diet, made us get out and exercise, and even taught me to count calories–why, logically, stripping away all of the usual hysteria about obesity and whether or not being overweight is bad for my health (because that has nothing to do with whether losing weight is realistic for most people–hypothetically, it is a possibility, though a depressing one, that fat is bad for your health, but us fat folks are just SOL since no strategy has been proven to keep weight off people in the real world), and just using Occam’s Razor in conjunction with that one piece of information–WHY would you think it made any sense for a fat kid like me to become a thin adult, unless that pattern had been observed in previous generations of women in my family? “Fat kids naturally tend to become fat adults” makes a hell of a lot more sense than “there is no reason why fat kids can’t will themselves into being adults whose weight fits into a certain narrow portion of the bell curve used to define the BMI scale.” But I guess I’m getting onto a different topic now.

I don’t know. As a first step I would like to entreat commenters in the fatosphere not to post that they have “kept off” weight unless they were fat to start with and have kept the weight off for more than 5 years. But I know nobody would listen to me even if I had any readers, so I guess then my point is simply Lord, Are You People [by which I mean most weight-loss researchers; the mainstream media; short-timing dieters who have totally seen the light and will never be fat again, they swear; and guys who have never been fat but nevertheless know exactly what I’m doing wrong even though they don’t even know what my current habits are, and are only too happy to tell me about it] Annoying.