In late 2011, in a nearly 6,000-word article in The New York Times Magazine, health writer Tara Parker-Pope laid out the scientific evidence that maintaining weight loss is a nearly impossible task—something that, in the words of one obesity scientist she quotes, only “rare individuals” can accomplish. Parker-Pope cites a number of studies that reveal the various biological mechanisms that align against people who’ve lost weight, ensuring that the weight comes back. These findings, she notes, produce a consistent and compelling picture by “adding to a growing body of evidence that challenges conventional thinking about obesity, weight loss, and willpower. For years, the advice to the overweight and obese has been that we simply need to eat less and exercise more. While there is truth to this guidance, it fails to take into account that the human body continues to fight against weight loss long after dieting has stopped. This translates into a sobering reality: once we become fat, most of us, despite our best efforts, will probably stay fat.”
But does this mean the obese should stop trying so hard to lose weight? Maybe. Parker-Pope makes sure to include the disclaimer that “nobody is saying” obese people should give up on weight loss, but after spending so much time explaining how the science “proves” it’s a wasted effort, her assurance sounds a little hollow.
The article is crammed with detailed scientific evidence and quotes from highly credentialed researchers. It’s also a compelling read, thanks to anecdotal accounts of the endless travails of would-be weight-losers, including Parker-Pope’s own frustrating failures to remove and keep off the extra 60 pounds or so she says she carries.
In short, it’s a well-reported, well-written, highly readable, and convincing piece of personal-health-science journalism that is careful to pin its claims to published research.
There’s really just one problem with Parker-Pope’s piece: Many, if not most, researchers and experts who work closely with the overweight and obese would pronounce its main thesis—that sustaining weight loss is nearly impossible—dead wrong, and misleading in a way that could seriously, if indirectly, damage the health of millions of people.
Many readers—including a number of physicians, nutritionists, and mental-health professionals—took to the blogs in the days after the article appeared to note its major omissions and flaws. These included the fact that the research Parker-Pope most prominently cites, featuring it in a long lead, was a tiny study that required its subjects to go on a near-starvation diet, a strategy that has long been known to produce intense food cravings and rebound weight gain; the fact that many programs and studies routinely record sustained weight-loss success rates in the 30-percent range; and Parker-Pope’s focus on willpower-driven, intense diet-and-exercise regimens as the main method of weight loss, when most experts have insisted for some time now that successful, long-term weight loss requires permanent, sustainable, satisfying lifestyle changes, bolstered by enlisting social support and reducing the temptations and triggers in our environments—the so-called “behavioral modification” approach typified by Weight Watchers, and backed by research studies again and again.
Echoing the sentiments of many experts, Barbara Berkeley, a physician who has long specialized in weight loss, blogged that the research Parker-Pope cites doesn’t match reality. “Scientific research needs to square with what we see in clinical practice,” she wrote. “If it doesn’t, we should question its validity.” David Katz, a prominent physician-researcher who runs the Yale Prevention Research Center and edits the journal Childhood Obesity, charged in his Huffington Post blog that Parker-Pope, by listing all the biological mechanisms that work against weight loss, was simply asking the wrong question. “Let’s beware the hidden peril of that genetic and biological understanding,” he wrote. “It can be hard to see what’s going on all around you while looking through the lens of a microscope.” In fact, most of us know people—friends, family members, colleagues—who have lost weight and kept it off for years by changing the way they eat and boosting their physical activity. They can’t all be freaks of biology, as Parker-Pope’s article implies.