Despite More Dieting, Americans Still Aren’t Losing Weight
A large study suggests that obesity is becoming a bigger problem in the United States despite a rise in the number of people who say they’re trying to lose weight.
If you dread the prospect of making yet another unsuccessful New Year’s resolution to lose weight, you’re not alone: A new study suggests that a growing number of Americans are overweight and have obesity despite an increase in the number of people who are trying to shed those excess pounds.
The analysis, published in November 2019 in JAMA Network Open, followed 48,026 people who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 1999 and 2016. Participants reported their current and prior weight, whether they thought they were at a healthy weight, any attempts to lose weight in the previous year, and any methods they used to try to slim down.
From 1999 to 2016, the proportion of people who reported they’d tried to lose weight in the previous year climbed from 34.3 percent to 42.2 percent. During this period, a growing number of people adopted several common strategies for weight loss — eating less, exercising, and drinking more water.
But participants’ average weight and body mass index (BMI) climbed during the study period — regardless of whether they tried to lose weight. And the number of people who were overweight or had obesity but considered themselves at a healthy weight increased.
“As society becomes more obese, being overweight gets to seem normal,” says Susan Roberts, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston and the founder of the iDiet weight loss program.
Most Americans Are Close to or Within the Obesity Category
BMI is one way to calculate whether people are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered a healthy weight, while 25 to 29.9 is overweight, 30 or above is obese and 40 or higher is what’s known as morbidly obese.
Overall, participants’ average BMI climbed from 27.96 to 29.39 during the study period, putting most Americans close to or firmly in the obese BMI category.
People in the study who tried to lose weight had similar gains, with their average BMI rising from 30.49 at the start of the study to 31.89 by the end.
At the same time, the proportion of overweight and obese people who thought they weren’t too heavy increased from 24.3 percent to 28.4 percent.
The study has several limitations, including its reliance on self-reported data on weight loss efforts as well as eating and exercise habits, researchers note.
A Growing Acceptance of Obesity May Be Driving the Epidemic, Some Say
It may well be that when it comes to weight, Americans are looking at a new normal, Dr. Roberts says.
“We have got into a negative cycle where the environment is so terrible for weight management, and obesity itself causes metabolic abnormalities that make it hard to manage your weight so that it is easy for weight gain to happen,” Roberts says.
“And over time our culture has adapted so the excessive restaurant portions, norms for sedentary behavior and so forth are just that — norms,” Roberts adds. “So rather than supporting healthy weight management, our culture now supports weight gain.”
Part of the problem may be that there are so many weight loss plans being touted as the perfect solution, people get overwhelmed and don’t know what to do, says Jian Zhang, MD, DrPH, a professor of epidemiology at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro.
“We are making weight loss or maintaining [weight] so complicated and intimidating,” Dr. Zhang says.
“Zillions of strategies have been proposed and tested,” Zhang adds. “Very, unfortunately, more choice at the end of the day means no choice. There is no eating right or wrong, just eating more or less.”
Which Diet Plan Is Best for Sustained Weight Loss?
Many people may seize on the start of a new year as the best time to join a gym and go on a crash diet. Yet lasting results require a long-term commitment to a healthy lifestyle — not simply a few months’ worths of effort at the start of the year, says senior study author Lu Qi, MD, Ph.D. Dr. Qi is a professor of epidemiology at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans and the director of the Tulane University Obesity Research Center.
“Eating healthy foods and exercising more are the right ways to control body weight,” Qi says. “The key is to strictly follow the healthy habits for a long time.”
There isn’t necessarily one perfect diet for weight loss. Some people may find success by reducing carb intake, while others may prefer a diet with no hard-and-fast rules, such as the Mediterranean diet or a plant-based diet (such as a vegan or vegetarian eating style).
Qi believes a low-calorie diet works best. “Low-calorie diets all work well to promote weight loss and maintenance; foods rich in vegetables, fruits, [and] whole grains are recommended,” Qi says. “Regarding exercise, there seems no magic type, and any exercise would work, together with reducing sitting time.”
Expert Tips for Losing Weight and Keeping It Off
That said, it seems that exercise is best for sustaining weight loss, not initially losing it, suggests a study published in November 2017 in Obesity.
Gradual weight loss — shedding one to two pounds a week — is the most successful way to slim down and then keep off unwanted pounds, according to the CDC.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020, a healthy eating plan:
- Includes lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and reduced fat milk and dairy products
- Includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts
- Limits saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars
- Stays within your daily calorie needs
In addition to weekly targeted strength training, adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, or a mix of the two each week, according to the CDC.
During moderate-intensity activity, your breathing and heart rate may speed up, but you should still be able to carry on a conversation. These activities can include:
- A brisk walk
- A casual bike ride
- Light yard work
- Actively playing with children
Vigorous activity, though, will increase your heart rate substantially and accelerate your breathing so that it’s hard to chat while you exercise, according to the CDC. Examples include:
- Swimming laps
- Most competitive sports
During the holiday season and those first months of the new year when many resolutions fall by the wayside, the key to success is not to get discouraged and give up on healthy eating and exercise habits altogether, Roberts says.
“Pick what you know works best for you, be mindful not to let one day of bad eating over the holidays turn into six weeks, and do lots of walking to burn some extra calories,” Roberts advises. There are “no ideal exercises,” she adds. “Just do what you can.”
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