Will the Real Fat Trap Please Stand Up? A Response to Tara Parker Pope

Abra Pappa for Nutritious America

I read an article in the New York Times a few days ago called “The Fat Trap” and I can’t seem to shake it. The article, written by Tara Parker Pope, highlights the newest research in what she called the ‘fat trap’, losing weight but not being able to keep it off.

I found the article to be a somewhat fatalistic snapshot of the journey from weight loss to maintaining a new weight. Some of the points made were valid, like the call to focus on prevention; helping people before weight gain becomes an issue, but most of the research sited in the article seemed fatally flawed to me.

The Fat Trap” opened with a research study of 50 obese men and women. In the study they had the participants lose weight by going on an extremely low calorie diet of a mere 500-550 calories per day.

The research showed that despite best effort, the 34 participants that ultimately remained in the study regained an average of 11 of the pounds lost and also reported feeling far more hungry and preoccupied with food than they had been before.

What is most perplexing to me is why we continue to conduct research on obesity using the same methods that we know have failed time and time again. Of course, a dramatically reduced calorie diet will result in cravings. When one’s body is depleted of the very sustenance it needs to be satiated there will be cravings to follow.

Weight loss is also a hormonal game, not just a numbers game. (I was happy to see this mentioned in the article.) But if we are admitting that there are hormones at play, like leptin that tells us when we are full and ghrelin that tells us when we are hungry, we then also need to connect the dots. Obesity is more than just calories in versus calories out; it also stems from an issue of hormonal imbalance. So why conduct an experiment using calorie restriction? In addition, what the article failed to mention is that obesity is also a problem of the type of food we are eating. We need to look at what is disrupting this delicate hormone balance. Yo-yo dieting disrupts it, for sure, and it is true that your metabolism will suffer from extreme dieting as Pope points out. But let’s not leave out the massive issue of low quality, low nutrient food that is currently the staple of the SAD (Standard American Diet.)

The article shared some personal stories of women registered with The National Weight Control Registry. One woman, Janice Bridge, chronicled her diligent system of counting and tracking; her weight, her calories, her 7-day-a-week exercise regime, and her system of recording all food, all day/everyday. Pope said “Just talking to Bridge about the effort required to maintain her weight is exhausting.” Agreed. No argument there.

Another woman used the word “hyper vigilant” to describe her relationship with eating.

Hyper vigilant is a curious choice of word to me. In order to maintain weight loss there needs to be awareness and consciousness, certainly, but hyper vigilant is a heavy word, an almost Marvel Comic-like, extreme power-over-an-evil-villain-type of word. Isn’t it this same power that we give to food that begins to create the problem of over eating?

This is what I am here to tell you and here is what the article completely missed: You can lose weight and you can keep it off without having to fight the evil villains with hyper vigilance.

It’s true. I promise you.

For instance, I ate too many cookies over the holidays (thanks to my mother’s ‘hyper vigilant’ baking), but in a fully conscious way I listened to my body and knew I needed a few days of clean, simple, nutrient dense foods to feel my best and stay on track. That’s it, it doesn’t have to be exhausting. And in case you are wondering, no, I am not just naturally thin or blessed with a perfect metabolism. I too have had to work to reduce my weight and learn to live in a way that supports my vision of a healthy, fit body.

I encourage researchers to stop wasting time on studies where participants are set up to fail. These studies give us no new information and result in making us feel discouraged and in need of a comforting cookie (or six). If we are doomed to fail why try anyway, right? It is time to shift the focus. If researchers understand the hormonal effect of weight gain and weight loss then why are they not looking at what is causing these hormones to be so off balance? Perhaps low calorie, low nutrient diets? Let’s begin to pay attention to the issue of our food supply and work towards creating a healthier environment where conscious eaters are embraced. An environment where it is the norm to say “Can I have kale with that?” or “A grass fed burger with a side of quinoa, please.”

Dr. Mark Hyman, New York Times bestselling author, doctor and nutritionist had this response to the article:

The big missing fact is that 100 years ago obesity was not a problem. In 40 years we have tripled the obesity rates. Now 3/4 of Americans are overweight. This is not genetic problem, but caused by an obesogenic environment. Extreme weight loss programs don’t work, because they trigger survival, starvation genes. With the right information you can upgrade your biologic software and shift the tide of cravings, weight gain, obesity and diabetes.

Thank you Dr. Hyman, I couldn’t have said it better myself.

After a decade of work with hundreds of clients that have come to me with weight problems, I am here to tell you that you CAN lose weight and you CAN keep it off without having to fight evil villains with hyper vigilance. You can have your holiday cookie and eat it too.

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