As the COVID-19 pandemic starts to fade and other health crises come back into focus, we must confront the glaring reality that America's obesity epidemic has continued to worsen. An astounding 41.9% of adults over twenty are now obese. For a man of average height (5 foot, 9 inches), that equates to a weight of 203 pounds or more. For the average woman (5 foot, 4 inches), it's 175 pounds or more.
So be prepared for online discussions about boosters and masks to once again return to talk of fad diets and fat-trimming supplements. Although maybe, just maybe, after being faced with a once-in-a-century pandemic, in which people with obesity were drastically more likely to suffer severe disease and die, Americans will finally get serious about their collective weight problem, turning away from seductive – but ultimately ineffective – 'lose weight fast!' solutions and embracing the boring truth about weight loss: it's a matter of motivation, time, and effort.
Promoters of fad diets like Paleo, raw food, intermittent fasting, and low-carb generally want you to think that theirs is the 'one true eating solution', much like many religions tout their deity as the one true God. But the reality is that any diet can produce weight loss provided caloric intake is less than caloric expenditure. This much is clear from studies looking the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR), a cohort made up of more than 10,000 individuals who have maintained at least 30 pounds of weight loss for one year or more. On average, NWCR members actually lost more than twice that weight and kept it off for five and a half years or more. Impressive! And when surveyed by researchers, they said they used all sorts of diets to achieve their success. No specific diet outperformed any other.
Researchers did, however, distill three specific strategies that propelled the vast majority of NWCR members to their sustained weight loss. And they're all pretty boring...
First, they weighed themselves frequently, allowing them, as researchers wrote in 2007, to "catch weight gains before they escalate and make behavior changes to prevent additional weight gain."
Second, NWCR members ate monotonously, eating a smaller variety of foods than heavier individuals. Once they discovered eating habits that produced weight loss, they generally stuck to them. And on the rare occasions that they branched out, they cut down elsewhere or increased their physical activity to make up for it,
Third, NWCR members exercised... a lot. Nine in ten reported working out on average about one hour each day. What's more, researchers found that while diet was the most effective method for initially losing weight, exercise was absolutely key to keeping it off. In studies, cutting physical activity was the single strongest predictor of weight regain.
"If the National Weight Control Registry has taught us anything, it has taught us that a person who is sufficiently motivated to lose weight is bound to succeed..." sports nutritionist and author Matt Fitzgerald wrote in his book Diet Cults. "There is no weight-loss system that teaches dieters to weigh themselves every day, eat the same meals, do tons of exercise, and choose their own set of diet changes."
Weight loss isn't rocket science, requiring secret knowledge to make it work. It's simply a matter of motivation. That's the boring truth.