Is obesity purely a willpower problem?


A fascinating article by David Berreby about obesity as a clinical issue. Are public policies that focus on personal responsibility helpful? Does that even matter?

The issue, rather, is whether the government policies and corporate business plans are in fact doing their best with the evidence they already have. Does the science justify assuming that obesity is a simple matter of individuals letting themselves eat too much? To the extent that it is, policies such as Japan’s mandatory waist-measuring […] will be effective. If, on the other hand, there is more to obesity than simple thermodynamics, some of the billions spent on individual-centred policies and products may be being wasted. Time, in that case, to try some alternative policies based on alternative theories, and see how they fare.


Set a target and make it SMART.

Yesterday I spoke about the importance of a weight loss target. Today I wanted to expand on how to set one.

Setting a target is one thing – but how do you make sure it’s one that will fit and inspire you?

There’s lots to mock in business-speak, jargon and buzzphrases. However, clichés can still hold some truth. One of these is SMART. This is an acronym for how to make a meaningful target.

  • Specific – If you just say “I want to lose weight” then you could just accept 2 kilos when really you wanted to lose 8. Decide what you really want and are willing to work towards.
  • Measurable – Track your progress. This doesn’t have to be the scale (even if it is, it shouldn’t be too often, you know the drill) but do track – kilos on the scale, inches off your waist or physical abilities you’ve gained/improved. It’s important to know how you’re getting on.
  • Achievable – Don’t start by saying you want to lose 50 lbs in 4 months. You’ll decide its too much of a mountain. Pick something possible; NICE‘s recommendation of 1kg/2lb a week is helpful.
  • Relevant – Make sure your target fits you. Don’t try for 3lbs a week just because a friend managed this. If you’ve a reason to lose weight, try to build that in to the target. If you’re losing weight for a party, make your target weight a specific (attainable) dress size – then go and buy that dress.
  • Timely – Pick a deadline, either an important date (for me it was my 30th birthday) or work backwards from how much you want to lose and therefore how long this will take. A deadline strengthens your resolve as you can’t slack.

Keep track

One of the most important ways to keep motivated when you’re losing weight is to recognise your successes. That’s why it’s crucial that you monitor your progress.

However, this can be taken too far. Most dieticians recommend against weighing yourself daily. Just because you ate nothing but lettuce yesterday and worked out for 45 hours, you may still not see this reflected on the scale. The human body isn’t a “perfect engine” – it’s not quite as simple as ‘calories in < calories out’, no matter what some Personal Trainers say.

Unfortunately this can be quite demoralising if you rely on that number alone to track your progress. So here’s some other ideas you can add to your trackers.

  • Waist, neck, thigh and arm circumferences – measure with a tape measure – they even make ones that are easy to use for measuring yourself. you may find that you are still shrinking, even if the scale doesn’t show this.
  • Clothes – how are your clothes fitting? Looser than before? Have you had to buy new outfits? Keep one item of your old stuff – I kept an old suit – to reaffirm your progress when you’re struggling.
  • Activity – If you’re being more active, use this as a measuring stick. Can you swim for further, or in less time?  How many flights of stairs can you climb before you’re out of puff?
  • Non-scale victory – this is a term used by some online slimming communities to talk about anything other than the scale. Did your friend finally notice your progress? Was this the first time you were able to refuse dessert at your favourite restaurant? You managed to gracefully accept a biscuit from an open pack without scoffing the lot? Write it down! By noticing these little successes you’ll find more of them – and find more of a reason to create future victories, too.

Do you have any other ideas? Mention them in the comments and I’ll add them to the list.

Your diet approach – are you an abstainer or a moderator?

Have you heard some of the more recent advice, that a diet that focuses on calorie counting alone won’t work?

Well, it will – if you stick to it. In fact, every diet tip you hear will work, as long as you stick to them.

I had to lose 100lbs when I started dieting. I cut out bread, potatoes, pasta – I went on a low-carb diet, in other words. This helped me because I’m an abstainer.

There are two types of diet. One is to abstain; identify certain foods that you just won’t eat any more. The other is to moderate. Limit the quantity of the foods you eat.

Every diet is one or the other of these things. Calorie counting is moderation. Atkins is abstention.

Which would work for you?

You need to decide that you want this. You want this more than anything else. Because if you want this more than anything else in your life, you’ll prioritise it over other issues.

Hang around here to get a feel for what might work for you. But start. This isn’t going to be a quick-fix, so that best thing you can do is to start anything and see how it works. If it works for you, great! If not, OK, try a different diet.

But don’t give up.

Good luck.

Sugar is toxic

Eating too much is bad for you. That’s well known. But what more and more studies are showing is that sugar specifically is terrible.

In a NYTimes opinion piece, Mark Bittman writes (emphasis mine):

A study published in the 27 February issue of the journal PLoS One links increased consumption of sugar with increased rates of [type 2] diabetes by examining the data on sugar availability and the rate of [t2] diabetes in 175 countries over the past decade. And after accounting for many other factors, the researchers found that increased sugar in a population’s food supply was linked to higher diabetes rates independent of rates of obesity.

In other words and to oversimplify, according to this study, obesity itself doesn’t cause “adult onset” diabetes, the version that you give yourself: sugar does.*

A fairly bold claim. But people make claims like this all the time – what makes this different?

The study demonstrates this with the same level of confidence that linked cigarettes and lung cancer in the 1960s… “You could not enact a real-world study that would be more conclusive than this one.”

Ouch. But it gets worse. David DiSalvo wrote in Forbes:

Overeating, poor memory formation, learning disorders, depression – all have been linked in recent research to the over-consumption of sugar.

[…]Research indicates that a diet high in added sugar reduces the production of a brain chemical known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Without BDNF, our brains can’t form new memories and we can’t learn (or remember) much of anything.

[…]Research has also linked low BDNF levels to depression and dementia. It’s possible that low BDNF may turn out to be the smoking gun in these and other diseases, like Alzheimer’s… what seems clear in any case is that a reduced level of BDNF is bad news for our brains, and chronic sugar consumption is one of the worst inhibitory culprits.

So, eating too much sugar is directly linked to type 2 diabetes, depression, dementia and a host of other problems. It also highlights something missing in the “calories in < calories out” weight loss model that has been preached for decades. Calories are not equal. We’re not engines; although 1 calorie will give off the same amount of energy regardless of where it was obtained, the source of that energy can have vastly different impacts on your body and your health.

*Note: It has been rightly pointed out that I didn’t distinguish between type 1 and type 2 (t2) diabetes, which I have now corrected. Type 2 diabetes does have some genetic predisposition – not all people who trigger t2 diabetes are overweight or have poor diets.back

Bad sleep ‘dramatically’ alters body

It’s been known for some time that a good night’s sleep is essential for those trying to lose weight. Now, a study by the University of Surrey has shown why this may be the case.

Prof Colin Smith, from the University of Surrey, told the BBC: “There was quite a dramatic change in activity in many different kinds of genes.”

The study shows that hundreds of your genes are affected if you sleep for less than 6 hours a night for just a week.

Prof Smith added: “Clearly sleep is critical to rebuilding the body and maintaining a functional state, all kinds of damage appear to occur – hinting at what may lead to ill health.

“If we can’t actually replenish and replace new cells, then that’s going to lead to degenerative diseases.”

BBC News: Bad sleep 'dramatically' alters body