Dieting and the Weight Gain of Americans

Lincoln University has caused quite a stir. An exercise class in their curriculum is necessary for graduation only for their students of size. Now there is nothing wrong with an exercise class, but why is it a requirement only for students with a BMI over 30? Can the need for exercise be determined by a number on the scale? Or is the intent to help these students lose weight?

Helping someone lose weight may be well-intended but in reality, the notion that his or her body is unacceptable is damaging. Many experts hold the opinion that weight loss attempts, whether self-imposed or institution-imposed, cause weight gain. Repeat often enough with large numbers of people and dieting just may lead to a weight gain epidemic.

One of the first scientific studies to look at this issue was led by Ancel Keys. In 1946, Keys and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota conducted experiments on 32 young men. This study is referred to as the Minnesota Starvation Study for a reason. The men were underfed enough to induce weight loss. They were observed for signs and symptoms related to insufficient food. The point of the experiment was to determine how to re-nourish them. One phenomenon that surprised everyone—most of the men ended up weighing more than they did prior to the caloric restriction. Six of the men gained nearly 10 additional pounds of body fat.

Fast forward sixty years or so and we are still trying to pinpoint exactly why this happens. Study after study shows the association between dieting (any behavior undertaken with the intent of losing weight) and subsequent weight gain but we have yet to determine the reason.

Researchers Herman and Polivy, in 1980, coined the term “restrained eating” to mean chronic dieting. They noted that chronic dieters were unable to keep to their diets despite concern with weight. Dieting behavior was accompanied by occasional lapses of restraint. They and other researchers described restrained eaters as very motivated but rather unsuccessful with weight loss.

In the intervening decades, many studies comparing the behavior of restrained and unrestrained eaters have taken place. Researchers have determined that, when presented with food cues, restrained eaters have stronger urges to eat than do unrestrained eaters. Pleasurable thoughts about food guide restrained eaters’ behavior despite their weight loss goals. Unrestrained eaters are less sensitive to food cues and more likely to follow their internal sense of hunger.

In a society where dieting messages are ubiquitous, how can you dodge the bullet?

  •         Accept your natural weight—never start the down-again, up-again weight cycle.
  •         Look kindly at your body and treat it with respect.
  •         Do the same for others.
  •         Identify a pattern of meals and snacks that works for you—then follow through with appetizing foods.
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