Saturday, November 23, 2013

My Struggle With Obesity.

Warning: you just may not like this post!

Gorgeous, no? Barnes Museum, Philadelphia
I must admit, I’ve been conflicted about obesity. “Why conflicted”, you may ask? “What’s to debate? If you’re fat or overweight you should get down to the normal BMI”, right? Not so fast.

The two sides I struggle with

Diabetes and heart disease conferences bombard me with slides linking obesity with an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes. And I’m warned that obesity is the underlying problem responsible for our ills, including hypertension and even some cancers. For the record, I have had high blood pressure since my 20s as did my father—and no amount of weight loss with our in range BMIs would have been appropriate to lower our risk. So I have my biases when it comes to making assumptions about disease and body weight.
The focus on weight loss is unrelenting. Doctors, for instance, will often refer their diabetic patients to me, pounding them with the message that it’s all about their weight. Sure, weight loss may improve their levels. But simply modifying aspects of their intake, and their activity, regardless of weight change, can yield great improvements in blood sugar. Yes, regardless of whether they have had much shift on the scale. And we’ve become so focused on those darn BMI charts, using norms for the population as our targets, that we’ve failed to consider what normal truly is for the individual.

Good outcomes with minimal weight change

A recent diabetes webinar referenced a few large, well done studies about obesity, weight loss and development of type 2 diabetes. On average, a weight loss of only 7% was enough to reduce the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by 50-68 %, in these 3 studies (one referenced above)! That’s right. If you are a 200 lb individual (regardless of your BMI), a 14 pound weight reduction can dramatically lower your chances of getting diabetes.
A 5-6 % to 10% loss in body weight in obese individuals significantly decreased BP in those with hypertension. That said, an even greater improvement was seen in those who also followed a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and low fat dairy products—consistent with the DASH diet for lowering blood pressure.
They’d still be considered obese, mind you. But that amount of weight loss may be just fine!

Why pushing for weight loss may be a bad idea

Recently, I attended a 2 hour presentation at the Renfrew (Eating Disorder) Center by a Dr. Lowe, from Drexel University, a researcher who studies weight suppression. Weight suppression  (WS) is the difference between your highest, non-pregnant, non-ill BMI and your current BMI. It was truly fascinating and in some ways depressing, what his and other studies show.
The degree of WS predicted many undesirable effects. CBT, the treatment strategy that engages your thoughts and feelings to change your actions, was less effective in those with greater WS. In addition, the impact of staying at a lower BMI (lower than your historically normal BMI) doubled the rate of binge eating (although this was not seen in some other studies). Higher weight suppression predicted worsened symptoms, including depression and ED psychopathology in anorexic patients, too. In ‘weight restored’ AN individuals who do not resume menstruation, there was a correlation with higher WS; even though they were at healthy BMIs (based on population norms) at program discharge, their normal-by-the-population-based-BMI-charts were not necessarily healthy and normal for them!
Larger sized, and beautiful. Seemingly content, too.
Residual symptoms in those we view as ‘weight recovered’ may be a red flag indicating that weight may further need to increase. I know, I know, this is not what you hoped hear.
Also of note, (and also depressing), is the data on pre-eating-disorder weights, even in young kids (think elementary school and up). Before their eating disorder, those who went on to develop anorexia or bulimia were at higher weights than their peers. Maybe healthy and appropriate for them—just higher.
In other words, pushing your body to get to or to maintain a less than ideal weight for you based on your history may add to your risk of getting an eating disorder, will increase your odds of being unable to use well-known strategies to change your thinking and actions, and is associated with more subsequent weight regain.
The Fat Nutritionist also gives a great summary of why it’s a constant battle to lose weight in her recent post Why Diets Don't Work.
If you struggle with bulimia, and have not had significant weight suppression, your weight may possibly drop as behaviors improve.
Are you confused now? Do you question whether your actions can really make a difference? Or frustrated that you are hopelessly unhealthy, given your obesity?

So where am I at in this debate?

We come in all varieties--& we are not all at the 50% percentile for weight!
I know all too well that modifying lifestyle factors can both improve your health and support weight loss and well being, in those who are overweight. I have witnessed significant weight loss—up to 150 lbs.—with a high degree of weight suppression—that has been maintained over many years in my patients. Perhaps the weight suppression data isn’t looking at weight loss via mindfulness and healthy lifestyle changes, but rather just focuses on absolute weight shift? That may be true for some studies.
But I have also seen some patients do all the right things while their weight stayed steady. Which leads me to this: if you are doing your part—eating mindfully and listening to your body, staying (or getting active), and you’re not losing weight, then the answer is simple: you shouldn’t torture yourself. You are doing what’s in your hands to do, to keep your risk low and to be fit and healthy—in spite of the population-based links between weight and disease. So don’t let these study summaries bring you down!

Being responsible for change. A case in point

A recent experience when I was traveling leads me to clarify my position on weight change. I was eating dinner in a remote town in Washington state, far from the foodie finds in the not so distant Seattle and Vancouver cities. To set the scene, let me describe: the place was a dive, to the point that my husband selected a deep fried entree figuring that that was the greatest assurance that any contamination would be killed. There was a salad bar—but it looked like week-old decay ready for the compost. If we weren't so hungry, there's no way we would have stayed. But there was truly nothing else around.
A family walked in. Dad, a very large mom, and a very large school-aged girl, dressed in a snug-fitting cheerleading uniform.  And here's what I observed. The girl wanted to order the steak tips and vegetables, but was urged to get the cheeseburger and fries platter—it was cheaper. The dinner came with the salad bar, so she chose from the limited options—a fruit salad and sad looking iceberg, with creamy dressing. And she ordered a large soda—it just might’ve been part of the package deal.
From my limited observation of her and her family, (admittedly being in the booth behind them, I overheard much of their conversation), they have frequent meals out, and rely on hunting season to put food on the table seasonally. Food insecurity might play a role in their decision to pack in the calories when the price is right at the diner. Her parents’ role modeled consumption of large sodas and desserts in addition to calorie rich entrees. And from what I heard, cooking wasn’t something that the missus had any inclination to do. So eating in might have been no healthier than a frozen pizza and a regular soda.
Some things just might need to change.
It was quite enlightening, this uninhibited overeating which was seemingly the norm for this family. Seeing this, I would be foolish to believe that the young girl’s large size was solely due to genetics, uninfluenced by her environment and limited alternatives.
Perhaps when she gets older she may decide to shift her lifestyle—if she has the financial means to do so. But changing behaviors and patterns is quite a process. In the meanwhile, she may suffer the bullying of weight stigma and the weight yo-yoing consequences of fad diets. Perhaps the impact of her weight will make team sports too challenging to partake in—kids can be cruel. So in the end, her activity may decrease as she continues on her path, living in her current environment.
She may embark on many attempts to lose weight when she is a bit older, each attempt leaving her more despairing as the weight regain exceeds weight loss, in spite of her good intentions to restrict her intake and lose weight.
Or she may have success modifying her eating behaviors and physical activity in a sustainable way. She might learn to cook healthier balanced meals, and eat out less frequently. Perhaps she’ll learn to trust that the food will still be there, that she can stop when she’s eaten enough. Addressing eating behaviors—separating eating from distraction and distinguishing physical need for fuel from all the other reasons we eat—may result in significant weight change. I see this in my patients, and I’ve written about a couple of them in past posts. 
But don’t look at her at 25 or 30 years old with scorn and disgust—she is not to blame for her situation and your sneers will do nothing to better her situation.
And let me restate what I wrote in the Cupid post about kids and BMI. If a child is high on the charts, but gaining each year like any other healthy child, they may be just fine—if their behaviors are appropriate. But if they are sedentary, or spending too many screen time hours, or eating in front of the TV, or eating minimal amounts of fruits and vegetables, and low fat dairy, for instance, then yes, I would address those behaviors. And you know what? I’d suggest the very same thing if I saw an average weight child, too.

Final words

Rethink being the 'skinny girl'.
So think again about your idealized goal weight. If you’re a normal weight by the standard BMI, but you deny your hunger and restrain your eating, then weight gain may be the key to release the hold of your disorder. And if you are overweight or obese and have been adhering to healthy eating behaviors and physical activity, staying where you’re at—even though you remain many pounds from your goal weight—may be just what you need.
And if you haven’t changed anything and maintain unhealthy eating habits, some weight loss may result from more healthy behaviors. Modest change may be enough to improve your health measures, even if your weight remains in the obese range.
Pushing yourself by denying your body’s signals and its history will only create harm. You will struggle with your thoughts and your weight will likely climb as a rebound to over restriction.

There’s no simple answer. Significant weight loss has its risks. And staying at a high weight without addressing lifestyle factors also places you at risk. But focusing on healthy behaviors may be the most reasonable solution.
Please feel free to debrief after this lengthy post! As always, I care what you have to say, so do leave a comment!


  1. Thank you for this, and for your blog generally. I am obese, have tried WW, diet drinks, recently a weight loss program that cost 100 bucks a month, and I keep losing the same 10 kilos and then gaining them back (plus some) in the following six months or so. But now, finally I have stopped focussing on dieting, and am starting to think in terms of how I can live well, including better food, more activity and lots more fun. I am getting out there, meeting people and challenging myself, no longer hiding away and "waiting until I'm thinner" to do things I want to do. I have a feeling that joy and aliveness are the secret ingredients I have been missing.

    1. Bravo!! And thanks for sharing these inspiring words.

  2. I totally agree with this post. I know that when I stopped thinking about a number the better I looked and felt. Anon has it right. By enjoying each day now instead of "if and when" we change positively.

  3. I like your emphasis on healthy behaviors rather than weight. I feel our emphasis on weight loss for its own sake is truly a problem for us all; and terribly hazardous for many.

  4. What about the fact that obesity leads to physical impairment? The rates of knee and hip replacements are skyrocketing because our bodies just can't handle all of the excess weight. We were not build to be this big. What about the fact that obese women are more likely to have complications during pregnancy, and that infants born to obese women fair worse than infants born to non-obese women? That there's even increased risk for infant death? What about the other hundred things you didn't mention?

    Yes, we should always love and care for people just as they are, big or small, but we should never lose sight of the fact that obesity is harmful, even if obese people's "levels" of various biomarkers seem normal. If we truly care about someone, we will help them, not enable them.