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Weight Loss Fallacies and Fraudulent Science

Weight Loss Fallacies and Fraudulent Science

Weight Loss May Still Be Needed

weight loss may still be a priority for this obese topless man on a motorcycle. Original...

An obese topless man on a motorcycle. Original caption: “The plague of anorexia must be overcome” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’ve been struggling with weight loss, you may have been reassured by the recent news of a study suggesting that being overweight isn’t really such a big deal after all.

Several weeks into the new year, maybe you’ve already slipped in that New Year’s weight loss resolution and this news comes as a welcome relief.

Maybe now you can have that extra dessert without feeling guilty – maybe even toss on an extra scoop of ice cream. Yeah, that’s the ticket!

Now you already know where I’m going with this, don’t you? Yup, if it sounds too good to be true…

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Regardless of whether you need to lose weight or not, better nutrition and diet are a health priority for most Americans and those in other developed countries where processed and packaged “foods” dominate the food supply (see “Nutrition and Diet Are Your Best Medicine“).

But a majority of Americans are overweight or obese, so this latest study has attracted much attention by supposedly deflating the message that these folks need to lose weight to avoid a premature death.

Has that message – one we’ve been hearing for so many years now – been much ado about nothing? Do we not have to push away from the table after all?

Without spending a lot of time on a study that Harvard public health expert Dr. Walter Willet called utter “garbage”, it’s important to understand why you shouldn’t take undue comfort from such flawed science – especially if your need for weight loss has been an ongoing concern.

Here’s the bottom line: the widely-reported study compared overweight and obese participants to so-called “normal” participants with body mass indexes (BMIs) of 25 and under. But just as there are differences in the risk for disease between those with a BMI over 30 and those over 40, so too are there differences in those with BMIs under 25. The latter includes those with very low BMIs under 20 who are often underweight due to a disease or condition that leaves them at high risk of mortality.

Flawed Control Group

A better comparison than lumping everyone together with BMIs under 25 would have been to break that “normal” weight group into truly normal (maybe 20-25 BMIs) and “underweight” (BMIs under 20).

This would have removed those underweight individuals with increased mortality risk and made the comparison with truly “normal” weight individuals more meaningful.

In other words, the baseline control group that overweight and obese people were compared to was flawed by including severely underweight people. This inflated the death rate in the so-called “normal” baseline comparison group, making the death rate among overweight people look relatively better than it should. This encourages many in need of healthy weight loss to continue to procrastinate based on flawed science and the medical reporting that heralds it.

It probably is true that those with a BMI of 25-27 or even up to 30 probably don’t need to worry much about weight loss, but it really depends more on the distribution of their weight and their body fat content. Body builders with BMIs way over 30 also needn’t worry about weight loss because their weight is mostly muscle that’s protective.

Meanwhile, those with BMIs under 25 have plenty to worry about if they’re sporting a pot belly (see “Skinny-Fat” discussion in Part 2 of this series of posts).

Waist-to-hip ratio is a much better indicator of disease risk and one’s need for weight loss, but it’s not commonly measured in doctor’s offices because it takes more time to do so. It’s not unlike blood pressure, which should be taken in both arms and only after the patient has rested for 5-10 minutes. It should then be repeated before any blood pressure pressure medications are prescribed. This also seldom occurs in actual medical practice.

We settle for these shoddy shortcuts in medical practice – amply detailed in Our Healthcare Sucks – and wonder why our results are so poor.

Medicalizing Overweight

There’s certainly legitimate concern about the vested interests of the huge weight loss and pharmaceutical industries in perpetuating our cultural obsession with body weight, as noted in this Psychology Today article.

What’s actually occurring in our population, however, is a divergence to the extremes of underweight and morbid obesity, as reported in this Medical News Today story. The former is more a consequence of wasting diseases that have already set in, while the latter raises the risk of premature death by 29%, according to even the lax standards of this latest research (it’d be higher if the baseline were adjusted as suggested above).

BMI is at best another crude measure like solo blood pressure readings. They can both prove meaningless without follow-up measurements to confirm or refute whether there’s cause for concern – and whether weight loss is a viable prevention priority for both.

But neither is this bogus analysis that compares overweight individuals with normal and underweight individuals any real comfort for the overweight. Many of those who are overweight have excess visceral belly fat, or pot bellies.

It used to be thought that excess body fat was just passively stored in the body. More recent research has proven, however, that visceral belly fat functions like an active organ – emitting dangerous disease-promoting cytokine proteins that promote inflammation and damage nearby vital organs, including the heart.

If that’s you, forget all these pseudo-scientific studies that offer false comfort and start losing what I call the “plot belly”. Just don’t fall for the “lose belly fat fast” promotions we’re constantly barraged with  (see “Weight Loss: Too Much, Too Fast Increases Disease Risk“).

It’s not that hard. Thankfully, it’s usually the first to go when you lose even a little excess weight.

Why not get started this weekend, so when you return for Part 2 of this series of posts on Monday (you will return, won’t you?), you’ll feel really good about yourself?

Walk a little further, climb a few extra stairs, eat a little less – it ain’t rocket science…

Be sure to return for Part 2 – “Belly Fat – The Enemy Within
– or sign up below to be notified when it’s published

[kc_background type=”1″]And don’t forget to comment below[/kc_background]

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20 Awesome Comments So Far

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  1. Jenny
    May 7, 2014 at 8:50 am #

    BMI is such a ridiculous gauge of someone’s health. So many more factors to consider!

  2. Joseph Miles
    January 15, 2014 at 10:25 am #

    That’s true, it must be balance and healthy. watch what we eat and exercise.

  3. Bill
    August 24, 2013 at 10:34 pm #

    I have to agree that garbage in and garbage out. The old saying of you are what you eat is true. I am an ex athlete who used to eat whatever i wanted. Those days are over. If you change your mindset to think eating “healthy” versus “diet” then you can succeed at making changes. My wife and I now eat organic and walk 3-4 times per week and what a difference in not only how we feel, but our health as well. thanks for the great article.

  4. karen
    August 23, 2013 at 8:21 pm #

    Thank you for taking the time to share these valuable ideas about weight loss. I completely agree that there are a lot of false claims about the “miraculous pill” and a lot more scams out there. This blog is one of the best I’ve seen about health because it tells you the truth. Thank you.

  5. Atul
    July 29, 2013 at 1:49 am #

    Natural fruits are good for weight loss. I have tried pineapple good for weight loss. Thanks for sharing, Nice post

  6. Richard
    July 25, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

    Great post. Obesity is a serious problem in America. It makes me sick when I am at the grocery store and I see these people filling their cart full of processed garbage. Death in a package is what I call it. They are over weight and don’t have any want to change. If they did then they would buy fruits and veggies. It is so sad because they are missing out on so much because of the choices they make. Thanks for sharing this. We are what we eat. What you put in is what you get out.

    • John Lynch
      August 1, 2013 at 10:12 am #

      Thanks, Richard. In my forthcoming diet book – really, it IS forthcoming (but I also want to get it right – lots of conflicting evidence)- I employ the info-tech term “garbage in, garbage out” to make your point.

      I also explore the addictive properties of these carefully calibrated packaged foods and how, among other things, they’ve been shown to weaken one’s motivation to change. So don’t be too hard on those overweight folks you see at the grocery store. They’re also victims of this food profiteering – not unlike those mislead into tobacco addiction with benign advertising that once employed doctors to promote smoking.

      We may look back on this with equal disdain in years to come.

  7. Marc
    July 9, 2013 at 5:38 am #

    I like your direct and informative tone. Those who want lose weight look for hundreds of articles about that, searching miracle ingredient. As you said, eat less, start jogging, climb extra stairs…from NOW on.

  8. Bishal Adhikary
    July 4, 2013 at 2:08 am #

    I was recently reading about the popular 3 day diet and 17 day diet methods. some say they work but the eating practices wouldn’t be feasible in the long run. Therefore as you say, more focus should be put on long term weight loss efforts.

  9. Fitmole
    June 27, 2013 at 12:32 am #

    I’ve tried to lose weight and believe be it is no easy task. It’s a lifestyle can’t just do it for 3 months and then just revert back to your old lifestyle.

    If you are really serious about weight loss, be prepared for some serious life changes.

  10. Nancy
    June 26, 2013 at 6:15 am #

    Implementing any kind of exercise in our lives would increase both the ability to lose weight and live a longer, healthier life. What I don’t understand is why most people rather chose to sit in their couch and pretend they want to lose weight.
    Starting a new lifestyle is always hard, but once we get used to it, its a great benefit to our health. And when you get used to it, it never stops. People are creatures of habits.

  11. John
    June 22, 2013 at 1:04 pm #

    It is a shame that many of us lack the ability to stick with something that brings us long-term results, just because the short-term rewards are few. I often wonder how much more we as a species would achieve if we all had the motivation needed to be resilient enough to see things until the end.

  12. Rainer Diehl
    June 19, 2013 at 2:54 am #

    Hello John,

    I have the same opinion that eating less food is not the sole solution to the problem. There are tons of people who are distressed due to obesity or overweight problems. Due to this they lose their confidence and finally end up on crash diets and starvation diets to lose weight. Furthermore, your post makes people aware and guides them in the right direction in order to lose weight.

  13. Lydia Robles
    May 21, 2013 at 3:04 am #

    I believe that losing weight means HARD WORK. There is no easy way to reduce weight, no magic. If you want to reduce weight you need to be determined, motivated, and patient because the process is long and grueling.

  14. Ann
    April 22, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

    It’s a harsh truth. We have a serious problem with obesity. Sometimes the best way to deal with a problem is head on. Call it like it is. Sure, it may be a little painful when forced to face realities, but being uncomfortable is a sure sign what you’ve read hit a nerve. People are funny. We often need “a reason” to be motivated, and often it’s not because it’s healthy…blah, blah, blah.

    If your motivation is fitting into that swim suit in a few months. Great! If you are motivated by adding years to your life. Sweet! If you just want someone else to think you’re attractive. Fine. Just don’t assume what motivates one will work for another.

  15. Paul Boyd
    April 16, 2013 at 2:00 am #

    The weight loss side of healthcare is going to continue to be an area of concern for everyone, as it is a large sector of the healthcare market. It drives costs up for everyone. Think about that the next time you want one of the new twinkies out there. I couldn’t believe it when I saw two twinkie knock-offs in the store yesterday.

  16. Morten Olesen
    April 15, 2013 at 8:22 am #

    Very nice article telling the truth about weight loss. I like your direct honest style because weight loss isn’t really that complex or difficult when you have the motion and knowledge how to.

  17. Lee
    February 27, 2013 at 11:16 am #

    I agree just because your bmi says one thing doesn’t mean you are over weight and in grave danger of different diseases. I think there has to be something set up to help people eat healthier so that they can see how much better they feel both physically and mentally.
    Also I think exercise has to be incorporated more into our daily lives as a positive part of our daily routine and not the adverts saying start exercising or you will have a heart attack or stroke. Surely they learnt long ago scare tactics don’t work.
    The processed food point is so true. Maybe a good thing has happened over here in the UK – there is a big scandal about horse meat in all the processed beef products. The plus being more people are eating less processed foods.

    Great read. Thanks. Lee

  18. Edward Carney
    February 24, 2013 at 7:39 pm #

    “Walk a little further, climb a few extra stairs, eat a little less – it ain’t rocket science…”

    Indeed it ain’t, and I think it’s important to note that these positive behaviors are beneficial in and of themselves. Excess emphasis on weight-reduction threatens to push people to adopt these tactics only to the extent that they work towards that very specific goal. If a they don’t work in the short term, people will be more likely to turn to “lose inches in days” shortcut solutions.

    I very much appreciate that this post has pointed out the flaws in research regarding mortality and weight. However, I think the takeaway from that faulty research could be socially beneficial. No one should be misinformed about the dangers associated with being overweight, but we need to do a better job of promoting healthy lifestyles as being good in their own right, not merely as means to an aesthetic end.

    • John Lynch
      February 25, 2013 at 8:51 am #

      Well said, Edward. I address your closing comment about it being about more than aethetics in the follow-up posts on obesity.

      Unfortunately, the evidence suggests many of us DO need some kind of reward to motivate behavioral change. It’s clear that “being good in their own right” hasn’t been good enough to date – and I suspect it will continue to fall on deaf ears unless it’s tied to some tangible benefits.

      This may be splitting hairs, however, as the tangible benefits I discuss are all about living a longer and healthier life – and that’s probably the essence of being good in their own right anyway.

      Thanks for taking the time to make such a thoughtful comment.

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