Dieting Myths: New Year’s Resolution Edition

January 5, 2018


It’s a new year, and each January brings certain predictable things: cold weather, more flu going around, and an increase in the number of TV, radio, and internet advertisements for weight loss programs and diet books.

It’s part of the seasonal ritual of New Year’s resolutions, when we look back on the previous year (and down at our ever-expanding waistlines) and resolve to make changes for the better, hopefully resulting in a happier and healthier us.

I have written about diets and dieting myths for many years, often in association with my research into myths and misinformation about eating disorders including anorexia nervosa-see my article in the current issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine (“Medical Misinformation in the Media: Is Anorexia on the Rise?” January/February 2018). If you’re not a subscriber, it’s not too late! You can order HERE. 

For the new year I thought I’d address a few popular misconceptions about dieting in America-who’s doing it and why.

Myth #1: Most Americans are obsessed with weight loss.

The idea that Americans are obsessed with weight loss is a myth. Journalists cite misleading statistics such as that Americans spend $33 billion each year on weight loss-everything from fad diets to books to exercise equipment. As impressive as the number sounds, it is not a true measure of commitment to losing weight. Books, diet plans, and Crossfit classes don’t make people lose weight. People make people lose weight. Spending money is easy; the problem is the follow-through.

The surprising reality is that most Americans are not dieting, and are not really trying to lose weight. If Americans were truly committed to getting fit and losing weight, they would eat less and exercise more. Yet most people steadfastly refuse to do it. A 1993 Yankelovich survey found that over half of Americans said they weren’t at all concerned with watching their weight, and studies show that fewer than one-quarter of Americans are dieting. In 2004, the Centers for Disease Control reported that Americans are eating more than ever, and women in particular are eating over 300 more calories a day than they did in 1971. Two-thirds of American adults are overweight–more of them women than men–yet fewer than one-quarter are dieting and fewer than one-third get regular exercise.

Myth #2: Most Americans are unhappy with their weight.

A 2014 Gallup poll found that the majority say that they’re not trying to lose weight–for the simple reason that they don’t think they’re overweight. For a country that is supposedly obsessed with dieting, weight loss and thinness, 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women surveyed report that they are neither overweight nor trying to lose weight. Among those who acknowledge being overweight, “equal percentages say they are overweight and trying to lose weight (18 percent) or are overweight and not trying to lose weight (18 percent)” according to the report.

In other words, only half of those who report carrying extra pounds are trying to shed them. Overall fewer than 1 in 5 people acknowledge being overweight and actively trying to lose that weight.

The poll results are even more surprising when examining younger Americans, those who are most exposed to the thin, ideal image presented in popular media such as magazines and television shows. Contrary to the common stereotype of diet-obsessed teens and young adults, only 1 in 5 people age 18 to 34 are trying to lose weight; 80% are not. Fewer than 1 in 4 young adults report being overweight, and of those only half are trying to lose that extra weight. Among girls and women, fewer than 1 in 3 (31 percent) are trying to lose weight, and only 1 in 5 report being overweight and trying to lose it.

Myth #3: Most Americans are aware of how heavy they are.

It’s no secret that the pounds creep up on you–it’s not one or two huge meals that put on the pounds but instead the incremental, everyday diet and lifestyle choices.
On the other hand, most people also believe that with Americans so fixated on their weight, people (especially women) are painfully aware of every calorie they consume and each new ounce they gain–much like the Bridget Jones film and book character.

About 67 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, yet only 36 percent of them report being overweight. That means that about a third of us are overweight and don’t know it. For many people this finding is counter-intuitive: They assume that obesity is–often painfully–obvious to everyone and especially the overweight person himself or herself. The idea that a person could be overweight or obese and not know it seems about as absurd as a person growing a second head and not noticing. However this phenomenon is not news to health professionals, who routinely treat patients who don’t recognize how overweight they are or who minimize their extra weight as just “a few extra pounds.”

In fact a recent Gallup poll has found that as our waistlines increase, so does our perceptions of our ideal weight. Men’s average ideal weight is up 14 pounds since Gallup first measured it in 1990, and their average actual weight is up 16 pounds. Women’s average ideal weight is up 11 pounds since 1990, and their average actual weight is up 14 pounds. Basically, over the past two decades people have consistently said they wanted to lose about 10 to 15 pounds off their current weight to achieve their ideal weight.

The poll found that about one-third of men say they are at or below their ideal weight, and about one-quarter of women say they are at or below their ideal weight. Only one-quarter of respondents say they are seriously trying to lose weight, which as Gallup notes “is much lower than the percentage who are above their ideal weight or say they would like to lose weight.”

Why aren’t more people trying to lose weight? The answer is simple: “The majority of Americans say their weight is ‘about right,’ as they have typically responded over the past 20 years. But the 60% who describe themselves as about right is the highest Gallup has ever found.” The Gallup report referred to this paradox as “weight denial.” Most of us know we should lose some weight (and we would be happy to do it if it’s quick and easy), but at the end of the day we figure we’re fine as we are.

A 2010 study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology found that nearly 40 percent of overweight women and 10.5 percent of obese women believed themselves to be underweight or of normal weight. Only 16 percent of normal-weight women in the study perceived themselves as overweight. And it’s not just the fat on their own bodies that most people are oblivious to: Nearly two-thirds of parents underestimate their children’s weight, and half of parents do not recognize that their children are overweight or obese, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics.

In a study published in the March 2012 issue of the Journal of Women’s Health, University of Texas Medical Branch researchers found that a significant number of women evaluated at six-month intervals did not recognize recent gains in weight. Researchers tracked 466 women of various ethnicities over 36 months and found that nearly one-third of women did not notice a weight gain of approximately 4.5 pounds over a six-month time, and one-quarter of women did not notice a weight gain of nearly 9 pounds over the same period.

What about diets? The fact is that people can lose weight on virtually any diet. In fact merely paying more attention to what you eat–without even attempting to decrease caloric intake–can cause you to lose weight, since often we snack without really paying attention. For example we buy popcorn in a theater as a matter of course or social ritual, not necessarily because we are hungry.

It is true that most people don’t stay on diets over the long term, but the oft-heard myth that most diets fail has it exactly backward: instead, most people fail diets. Just about any sensible diet will help a person lose weight. Blaming the diet because the dieter quit is like blaming the unused treadmill for not doing its job.

The real solution isn’t in fad diets or workout DVDs; the solution is in the mirror.