The media is lying to you about how to lose weight

News media love sensationalizing scientific studies about losing weight and miracle diets. Don't trust them

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published March 11, 2018 7:30PM (EDT)


Like millions of my fellow obese Americans, I have a weight loss story that ended in failure.

It began in the summer of 2011, when I finally mustered up the willpower to control my diet and exercise regularly. As a result, I lost an astonishing 55 pounds in only three months, then shed another 10 pounds over the course of the remainder of the year.

Between 2012 and 2015, however, the weight gradually crept back on, despite my best efforts to keep it off. Once I returned to my old dreaded weight in 2015, I gave up entirely on dieting and exercise, returning to the sad state of affairs at which I found myself seven years ago.

I am one of those people who wishes there were an instant cure for obesity. I also realize that you very often can't get what you wish for. And I know the media does a disservice to obese people when it comes to reporting on weight loss.

"One disconnect between how the media represents obesity research and scientific reality is that media reports tend to gloss over how much weight was lost by the participants in scientific studies," Alexxai V. Kravitz, Ph.D., an investigator at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, told me. "Headlines often include lofty language ... that sound like a game-changing solution for obesity has just been discovered. But the results of weight loss studies are usually modest, no matter what they try."

Kravitz added, "Ten to 15 pounds is a very good effect size for a weight loss study ... Many studies report smaller effects. For instance, exercise studies tend to report around three to five pounds of weight loss in their participants."

Kravitz repeatedly pointed to a study that was reported in the New York Times last month. It argued — not unreasonably — that the quality of the food you eat often matters more when it comes to losing weight than the quantity. In other words, a person who calorie-counts while maintaining a fast food diet is less likely to be healthy than someone who eats healthy fruits, vegetables and whole foods while paying less attention to the exact amount.

This is good advice, but it isn't the miracle cure that the headline ("The Key to Weight Loss Is Diet Quality, Not Quantity, a New Study Finds") could lead you to believe it to be. The same can be said for a number of other studies that suggest crash diets or probiotic treatments, new exercise regimens or various foods that you should completely cut.

The underlying problem is twofold: One, that losing weight is rarely as simple as finding a magic silver bullet that will cause the pounds to simply fall off, and two, that studies find the vast majority of people who lose weight will gain it back and that successful long-term dieting is often effectively impossible.

"Unfortunately, many scientific studies don’t follow up on whether the subjects maintain the weight loss after the study, so journalists cannot report on this," Kravitz told me. "This is largely for practical reasons — to follow up on this point, researchers would have to track subjects over years, which is very difficult."

"The short answer here is that most people lose weight (on any diet) for about three to six months, but after this the weight creeps back on," Kravitz continued. "So in that regard, it is incredibly important to know not just how much weight study participants lost, but how much was sustained after one year, two years, five years, etc. Not knowing whether the weight loss was sustained adds to the disconnect between what is reported in the media and what a person might expect if they follow the diet exactly as the study participants did."

Kravitz's point was reinforced by Kevin D. Hall, Ph.D., who is a senior investigator at the NIDDK.

"Permanent weight loss is very difficult to come by, especially substantial permanent weight loss, other than bariatric surgery which does that quite readily," said Hall, who had earlier recalled how several major media outlets had also inflated the results of a study he had worked on. He added that "unless you have Type 2 diabetes, you don't really need that much weight loss to confer health benefits. So, for example, 5 to 10 percent weight loss, if you're able to do that, you can actually reduce your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes."

One problem, Hall elaborated, is that when people focus on losing weight, they often aren't doing so for health reasons.

"There is a conflation of the cosmetic benefits of weight loss with the health benefits of weight loss," Hall said, meaning that a mere 5 to 10 percent weight loss simply isn't what they want to see.

Unfortunately, a significant part of the emotional toll associated with failing to lose weight or keep it off is that people face social stigmas for not adhering to society's cosmetic standards. As I prepared to write this article, I reached out to a number of people from my social circle who had lost a significant amount of weight only to gain it back. All of them described the pain of being judged for their size after the weight had come back on.

"I've overheard plenty of under-their-breath comments from strangers while running errands; I see the looks I get, judging the contents of my shopping cart at the grocery store," Erin, who declined to give her last name for privacy reasons, told me. "I would love to get back down to a size 16, even a size 18 so I could shop at 'regular' clothing stores. The pounds don't matter to me as much anymore, it's my size that bothers me."

Penelope, who lost a considerable amount of weight only to gain it back after becoming pregnant, had a similar story.

"I actually haven't stepped on a scale since I gave birth ... I've been so wrapped up in recovering from PPD that my weight has become a secondary objective," Penelope, who wished to remain pseudonymous, told Salon. "I plan to get back to the gym when I get things sorted, but I am trying not to beat myself up too much in the meantime."

And, not surprisingly, self-loathing was a common theme here.

"I blame myself for gaining it back. I stopped eating healthy and stopped working out," Mary, who similarly struggled with her weight, told Salon. "People have made sly comments on my weight gain. It hurts."

While I'm not arguing that people shouldn't accept any personal responsibility for their health, it's impossible to avoid the conclusion that our media's depiction of this important issue only makes the situation worse. In the most immediate sense, media outlets need to place scientific studies in their proper context instead of sensationalizing each new result as if it was a game-changer. They also need to stop viewing weight loss itself as an indicator of whether a person is healthy or not and, instead, focus on the benefits of permanent lifestyle changes — particularly those involving diet and exercise — that should be lauded when they're followed, regardless of whether they yield measurable results on a bathroom scale.

Which brings me to the most important point: We need to stop acting like going from being obese to not being obese, permanently, is simply a matter of willpower. The science does not support that notion and it exists not because its purveyors believe in truth or helping people improve their health, but because they want to shame individuals who don't abide by society's prevailing cosmetic standards.

Like the number on my scale, the truth on this issue is not pleasant ... but that doesn't mean we have any right to avoid it.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Academia Dieting Health Media Coverage Media Politics Nutrition Obesity Science Weight Loss