Why Is it so Hard to Lose Weight?

Wanting to learn "how to lose weight" is the number one reason athletes choose to make a nutrition appointment with me. They express frustration that they "cannot do something as simple as lose a few pounds." While few of my clients are obese, their frustrations match those of dieters in the general population.

At a recent conference presented by Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School, and the Boston Nutrition Obesity Research Center, researchers addressed some of the issues that contribute to difficulty with weight loss. Perhaps the following highlights might offer insights if you are among the many athletes who struggle with shedding some unwanted body fat.

Why Gaining Weight Is Easy

  • To the detriment of our health, we are living in a food carnival. No wonder today's kids enter adulthood 20 pounds heavier than in 1960. By the time kids are 4 to 5 years old, 60 percent of them have lost the ability to self-regulate food intake.
  • Most people believe that obesity is a matter of will power, but it's not that simple. For example, in obese people, the brain's response to food odors and flavors is often blunted. Compared to lean people, they need more of a food to experience a positive brain response.
  • When stressed, obese people (more so than their lean counterparts) seek high fat foods such as chips, ice cream, fries, etc.
  • Impulsivity, a genetic trait, is a risk factor for obesity. That is, obese people (more than their lean counterparts) tend to impulsively eat, for example, the whole plate of cookies.   
  • Food advertisements are designed to encourage impulsive consumption.
  • Food advertisers know that marketing "works"—and kids who watch TV are a prime target. The average child sees an average of 13 food ads a day on TV; most of these foods are high in sugar, salt, and saturated fat.
  • Research with children who watched TV with four ads for food ate 45 percent more Goldfish Crackers (100 calories more) when exposed to the ads for food as compared to when they watched four ads for games. The kids who liked the taste of Goldfish ate even more calories.
  • Foods marketed with a character (such as Scooby-Doo) sell better. Fifty-two percent of pre-schoolers said the character-food tasted better (as opposed to 38 percent who said it tasted the same, and 10 percent who said food without the character tasted better).
  • The standard supermarket diet is rich in sugar, saturated fat, and sodium. It causes obesity in rats. That is, rats fed standard rat chow maintained a normal weight. But rats fed a standard supermarket diet ended up overweight—until researchers took away that food. The rats then lost weight when they returned to eating rat chow. There's little doubt that fats, sugar, and salt stimulate us to eat more than we need.
  • When the calories are listed near a food, as is happening in many fast food restaurants, some people choose the foods with higher calories, believing it will be yummier. That response certainly negates the intention of the calorie campaign!
  • People make an average of 200 food choices in a day; all these decisions can deplete our limited mental "resources" that govern self-regulation. That's one reason why, at the end of a hectic day, you can more easily overeat. You lack the mental resources to say "no" to that tempting cookie.
  • The food industry's bottom line is profits. When Pepsi started marketing more of its healthy products, sales of the unhealthy products dropped. The stockholders complained—and that puts the food industry in a bind.

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