Dieting and weight loss culture redefined: Study

Diet and Weight Loss Culture Redefined: Study | Photo credit: iStock Images

Washington: A new study re-evaluated decades of nutritional research to redefine the way researchers and the public define and understand diets and the culture of weight loss. The results of the study were published in the journals “Appetite” and “Physiology and Behavior”. The research was conducted by Michael Lowe, PhD, professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel University. For decades there has been an accepted definition of diet in science and in society as a whole.

According to Lowe, the most pressing problem is not the diet itself, but the collision of the modern food environment with our immutable evolutionary heritage that drives us to find and consume food when it is available. In today’s food environment, this combination makes permanent control of food intake (and usually body mass) extremely difficult. These challenges are compounded when there is a genetic predisposition to excess weight gain. Lowe, along with PhD students Joanna Chen and Simar Singh, explained how this background relates to diets.

“Research into the definition and consequences of diets has led to controversy for years. That controversy has spread to the general public, particularly as eating disorders and obesity are more common,” Lowe said.

“One of the earliest and longest-running controversies concerns the low-key eating concept created by Professors Peter Herman and Janet Polivy at the University of Toronto in the mid-1970s,” added Lowe.

Lowe and colleagues suggested that historical trends have influenced the development of restraint theory in ways that inappropriately challenged the practice of weight control dieting. In the 1970s and 1980s, two worrying health problems began to increase significantly: obesity and eating disorders that accompany binge eating (bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder). Although obesity and binge eating sometimes co-exist, one often occurs without the other, Lowe explained. The basic problem is that what they call “chronic diet” (or “restrained eating”) is measured by restraint theorists of weight fluctuations and emotional overuse of food, Lowe said.

Herman and Polivy attributed the latter traits to chronic dieting, but at the time (mid-1970s) they could not have known that Western societies were on the verge of a double epidemic of obesity and binge eating. So they failed to realize that diets were usually not the cause of eating and weight problems, but rather a consequence and symptom of a nascent, toxic food environment.

“In other words, whether dieting is ‘good or bad’ is analogous to whether taking methadone is good or bad,” Lowe said.

“If someone is on a weight loss diet because of unwanted weight gain or loss of control, dieting will at least temporarily improve those conditions,” Lowe continued.

“Just as methadone ingestion is a consequence of a pre-existing susceptibility to drug addiction, dieting is usually a consequence of a pre-existing susceptibility to obesity or loss of control over eating,” said Lowe. He added that the best way to curb dieting is to make major changes to the food environment, both in society and in the home.

Understanding that diets are more of a scapegoat than a bad guy should focus people’s concerns on the real source of our obsessions with food, weight, and diet: a food environment as unhealthy as the “tobacco environment” in the 1950s. Lowe’s final difference is that there is a small fraction of the population for whom weight loss is really harmful, namely those with anorexia or bulimia nervosa. Also, at least among the disordered eaters who are clinically noticeable, they also tend to reach elevated BMI before embarking on radical dieting and extreme weight loss. This leads to a condition that Lowe and colleagues call weight suppression, which paradoxically helps maintain their eating disorder. For these individuals, a weight loss diet was indeed dangerous. But again, an unhealthy eating environment is the likely culprit that led to weight gain causing them to eat unhealthily to find a solution.

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