We just observed Memorial Day in the U.S., and that means summer with its skimpy clothing is just around the corner. This triggers fat panic in many people, but don’t start thinking about dieting again. Diets don’t work, and there’s another way that does.
We’ll start with the goal: How much should you weigh?
What Is Your Normal Weight?
What is your normal weight, and how do you know when you’re there? It’s easy to get the wrong idea about this. You can’t go by your BMI because people differ so much in bone size and musculature. You can see this clearly by looking at photos of people at different BMIs (from Kate Harding’s BMI Project). Many people who are technically "overweight" by the charts don’t look overweight in the least. This is not a one-weight-fits-all world.
Nor can you go by what you see in magazines since these photographs are significantly altered. This has been reported in many places, but most recently in an excellent New York Times article titled "Smile and Say ‘No Photoshop’". Magazines not only remove blemishes, they stretch figures to slim them and smooth out lumps.
To make matters more confusing, people who have been overweight for a long time may tend to retain extra weight even after they start eating normally. This doesn’t mean your normal weight is "fat". The difficulty is due to "setpoints", which are partly genetic but not entirely, and can be lowered to an extent. I talk about the setpoint problem in my book in the chapter on "How to Lose Weight":
The body tries hard to maintain its weight since both gaining and losing are physically stressful. Though it resists gaining as well as losing, it especially resists losing. This is an evolutionary adaptation to prevent us from starving too easily since our ancestors often went hungry. When your calorie intake drops significantly, your body helpfully slows your metabolism so you can conserve energy and maintain your weight. That’s why highly restrictive diets can backfire.
The Weight Loss Strategy that Works
In his book Break Through Your Setpoint, Dr. George Blackburn of Harvard Medical School describes the basic strategy for lowering your setpoint. You can lose up to 10% of your body weight at a time without triggering the setpoint mechanism. So lose just 10%, and then maintain it for six months. Then if you still need to lose more, do it again – lose 10% and maintain it for six months. Repeat as needed! Research confirms that this works.
So how do you lose that 10% of your body weight? You don’t go on a diet! The best way is to listen very carefully to your body wisdom and let that be your guide. (Please note that this comes in Stage 4 of Normal Eating®, after you have resolved your emotional eating issues!) From the chapter in my book on "How to Lose Weight":
To lose weight, you need to eat just barely what your body needs, no more and no less. If you eat less, your metabolism will slow. If you eat more, your body will maintain its weight or gain. You can’t rely on outside rules to tell you how much this is. Only body wisdom can tell you.
Basically, the idea is to undereat just a tiny bit (I define this more specifically in the book). Only your body wisdom can tell you exactly how much this is. Don’t try to lose too fast or too much at once or setpoint biology will make you gain it all back. Have patience. Lose 10% of your body weight, maintain the loss for six months, then repeat as needed. If this sounds too time consuming, then consider the alternative: starving yourself, then gaining back everything you lost. There really is no other way but the slow way to lower your setpoint and permanently lose the weight.
I gain weight very easily. If I don’t eat enough raw vegetables or if I eat dessert a little too often, my weight will creep up (especially now that I’m over 50). So now and then I lose weight the Normal Eating® way – by carefully monitoring my hunger and eating just enough. My experience is consistent with Blackburn’s advice. I’ve never been able to lose more than 10 to 15 pounds at one time. I plateau. But if I maintain the new weight for a while, I can lose more if I need to.
Your Genes and Your Weight
Not everyone gains weight easily. People differ significantly in their tendency to retain fat. Numerous twin studies, both experimental and longitudinal, have demonstrated a strong genetic component. The weight of twins raised apart is more similar to their biological parents than the parents who raised them. In overfeeding studies, identical twins gain very similar amounts of weight whereas unrelated people gain highly variable amounts of weight. The author of the first twin study, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, talked about his findings in an interview.
Researchers estimate that genetic characteristics account for 70% of weight. People differ in their number of fat cells, tendency to store white or brown fat, tendency to burn fat or carbs for fuel, and dozens or even hundreds of other factors that affect the tendency to gain weight. I’m not saying that people are born obese and what they eat plays no role. I’m saying that genetics load the gun, and overeating pulls the trigger – especially overeating processed foods that bypass body wisdom.
That fact that our weight is not completely – or even mostly – under our control is important to recognize because of fat prejudice. The pressure to look a certain way is intense – insanely intense. Not everybody is biologically able to look like Ms. California (or whatever the male equivalent is) without starving. But we all are told that we must, or we’re not okay. This sets people up for emotional eating (of junk food, usually) or worse, full-blown eating disorders. And then what would have been a small amount of natural extra fat becomes a large amount of unnatural extra fat. Once you’ve gained the extra weight, it’s very hard to lose because of setpoints – especially if you’re genetically inclined to retain fat.
But it’s not hopeless. No matter what your genetic inheritance, you can reach your normal weight if you’re patient and understand setpoints (after you’ve dealt with the emotional piece, of course, in Stages 1 through 3).
You’ll know when you’ve reached your normal weight when you can’t maintain a lower weight without undereating (going hungry). Don’t be disappointed if your normal weight is a little higher than what the weight charts say it should be, or what you originally set as your goal weight. The number doesn’t matter. The weight that’s normal for you is your healthiest weight, and your most attractive weight.
Something to Try…
You can’t tell by looking at someone exactly what she does or doesn’t eat, but almost everyone makes these assumptions.
People assume that everyone with extra fat is an overeater, maybe even a binge eater. And they assume that everyone at a normal weight eats normally. But a person with extra fat might just look that way genetically, or may have been eating normally for years but have a recalcitrant setpoint. A normal weight person could be maintaining her weight through bulimia.
Along with the eating assumptions go a whole host of other assumptions about the person’s character and personality. This is fat prejudice, and I mention it because people tend to judge others as they judge themselves. Inevitably, the traits you despise most in others are those you view as your own faults.
If you look at someone who is fat and apply all the fat-prejudice labels (lazy, weak, etc.), you probably say even worse things to yourself. So try to catch yourself in this and not do it. And of course, try to catch your judgments of yourself, as well.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them.