Giving up the resolution to diet

If you, like me, thought about making 2018 the year when you really would lose 10 or 15 pounds, New Year’s articles about the folly of dieting were either depressing or liberating.

In a January 1 article in the Tribune, psychology professors Traci Mann and A. Janet Tomiyama explained why they concluded from their research that diets don’t work: Your genes allow you to run on fewer calories than thin people’s, so you store fat when eating the same amount as they. Then when you diet, your metabolism slows down; neurological changes make you more likely to notice food, think about it, enjoy it, and get a rush of dopamine from it; and your levels of the “satiety hormone” go down, so you feel hungrier than before.

Contrary to popular belief that thin people have more self-control, it’s just not such a battle for them, the authors say. Thin people aren’t as hungry, don’t notice food as much, and don’t get the rush of a reward from eating it.

Well. Even my doctor (who’s tall and willowy) must not have been aware of the research when she told me it would be “easy” to lose 15 pounds. “All you need to do is cut out 500 calories a day,” she said.

Mann and Tomiyama would not agree. “If you are a dieter, remind yourself that you aren’t weak but that you were in an unfair fight that very few win,“ they wrote. Thoroughly discouraging message? I thought so until I got to their conclusion: “Change your focus to improving your health with exercise (which doesn’t require weight loss).”

Also thought-provoking was a New Year’s Eve sermon in church about resolutions like losing weight. I don’t want to sound too pious here, so I’ll try to put what the priest said in secular terms: Instead of thinking that this or that about yourself needs fixing, remember that you have value. Put the focus on your goodness, not your perceived flaws.

Another story, this one from the New York Times, likewise took a positive approach. David DeSteno, a psychology professor, wrote that using the emotions “that support the positive aspects of social life” is a better route to self-control than willpower. Gratitude, compassion, and authentic pride make us value the future over immediate gratification, easing the way to patience and perseverance, DeSteno said. These social emotions have been tied to a greater willingness to exercise and eat healthily.

Back in my newspaper feature writing days, I interviewed a psychologist who contended that your body will maintain the right weight, you’ll eat the right amount, if you stop thinking about it. I imagine she cited experts — I don’t remember anymore — but I found the opinion risky, even though I was still slim then. I thought that following the advice would lead to piling on so many pounds that I’d have to resign myself to being overweight.

Then I did gain weight, not because I stopped paying attention to the scale but because I stopped jogging and got older and other typical reasons. And what I expected would happen if I “let myself” gain weight happened: I haven’t lost it. (Not that I’ve tried that hard.)

Perhaps I should listen to the message that it might not be important to lose it. A variation of the Body Mass Index called the Smart Body Mass Index adjusts desirable weight for age and sex. These comments accompanied my result: “Your weight is at a level that, in our view, should be good for your health. . . . A stable weight at this level is fine, especially if you keep fit.”

Obviously it would be easier to use the SBMI as the standard rather than the BMI that tells me I’ve overweight.

I’m not suggesting that it’s okay to be obese. I’m talking to 60something people like me who are in the BMI’s overweight category. If we’re healthy, maybe we should shift our goals away from losing 15 or however many pounds. Forget the number on the scale, expert advice is saying; eating healthy foods and exercising are what’s important. And stop thinking you need to be fixed. When you feel good about yourself, you want to do good things for yourself.

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