Secrets from the Eating Lab, a book by Traci Mann, somehow manages to be both reassuring and discouraging. Nevertheless, I love this book. The author won me over before she even gets to page one, because in the preface she notes that willpower is not what influences weight loss.
Despite what most people assume, a lack of self-control is not why people become fat and “harnessing” willpower is not the way to become thin.—Traci Mann
A professor of social and health psychology at the University of Minnesota, Mann studies how people eat. And her findings are troubling.
For one thing, dieting—severely restricting your food variety or caloric intake—is stressful. And stress makes you gain weight. Furthermore, weight cycling—losing weight on a diet and then gaining it back when you eat normally—also causes stress and is ultimately worse for your health than maintaining a weight you feel is too high.
She says dieting is like holding your breath. At some point, you have to breathe. Dieting is akin to starvation, and when the body is starving, it holds on to every calorie. What shocked me the most is that under stress, your body will convert calories and store them as fat…even if the food you consume is nonfat food.
If, like me, you’ve ever dieted, lost weight, and gained it right back again, be reassured—this is normal. Your body has a set range where it believes it belongs, and when you eat healthfully, it will find that range and settle into it. One study even showed that when people were encouraged to each way more calories than normal, they only gained a little weight, and when they returned to their normal eating pattern, it came off again. That explains why even though I gain five pounds at a writers conference, it comes off once I get home and am no longer eating dessert at every meal.
One of the main points Mann emphasizes is that much of the media scare tactics around obesity are overblown. Obesity in itself is not unhealthy, but it gets blamed for health problems that are actually caused by inactivity and poor nutrition.
Our modern lifestyle—especially for those of us who write—keeps us sitting at desks all day instead of working. A hundred years ago, doing the laundry was a workout. Now it’s not. So we have to intentionally schedule more time for exercise.
Active obese individuals have lower rates of sickness and mortality than non-obese sedentary people—Traci Mann
This is probably the hardest part for me. Mann cites a government study that found to maintain good health, we need 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. That’s twenty-five minutes a day for six days. To lose weight, you have to double that, but without then increasing your caloric intake to the point that it replaces all the calories burned by the exercise. I don’t know about you, but after fifty minutes at the gym, I’m ready to eat all the foods. Plus, I can think of a whole lot of things I’d rather do, including finishing my next book, than spend an hour a day at thy gym.
Your health is determined by what you eat and how much you exercise. If you have a healthy diet and exercise plan, you will be healthy even if you are what some people call “obese.”
Mann’s call to action is this:
- Eat nutritiously
- Avoid weight cycling
- Get good quality medical care
If you’re doing those things, you’ll be healthy, regardless of the number on the scale.