Long-Term Weight Gain: Studies show that “Eat Less, Move More” too simplistic

lemur dancing

Not as simple as Calories In, Calories Out? Don't worry; I'll figure out a way to bring it all back around to that by the end. Never doubt the Leaping Lemur my dears.

In case you haven’t heard the news yet; there was a recently released set of results from a set of three prospective cohort investigations.  The study’s aim?  Find out why that deceptively simple “Eat Less, Move More” mantra fails to explain the general human-wide tendency to gain about 1 pound of weight each year as we age.  So, for 20 years researchers followed over 120,000 US men and women to find out what was up.

While I have to almost laugh at such long-range work to find out why human bodies dare to have the audacity to gain an average of less than 1 pound of girth a year; I mostly wanted to point out a few things I noticed when flipping between an article describing the study and the actual study abstract.

Firstly, here’s an article that led me to the study: “Changes in Specific Dietary Factors May Have Big Impact on Long-Term Weight Gain”.  The sub-line actually really takes the credit for drawing me in: “Weight-loss Strategy to Only “Eat Less, Exercise More” May be Overly Simplistic”.  Huh!  Actually looking at how telling people they are just lazy food-stuffing assholes is useless, perhaps?  No.  Silly April.

In a series of three separate studies looking at how changes in multiple dietary and other lifestyle factors relate to long-term weight gain, Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers found that modest changes in specific foods and beverages, physical activity, TV-watching, and sleep duration were strongly linked with long-term weight gain. Changes in diet, in particular, had the strongest associations with differences in weight gain. (Emphasis mine)

Turns out it is just a re-packaging of the same mantra; with slight modifications to insist that (and I quote):

“The idea that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods is a myth that needs to be debunked.”

When has the idea of no moral judgments on food been something proposed seriously by anyone outside of this small realm of the internet known as the “Fat-o-Sphere” and related books?!

Not only that, but I point you again to that last line, which I’ve bolded.  Here’s where I take an even larger glance askew at this article.  Only 5 days out in the New England Journal of Medicine (despite these studies ending in 2003 and 2006; but I’ll leave more intense ripping apart of the study’s mechanics to others for now.  You know, where someone actually gains access to the entire study paper to read into the hows and whys, etc.  Is this self-reported data every 4 years?  Why so long a gap between the studies and the results being released?)  and already authors are clamoring that changes to diet and exercise were the most strongly correlated with that distressing 1 pound per year weight gain.  Here’s the kicker though.  Even taking just the information from the abstract I am currently able to access, Long Term Weight Gain is NOT highest for the demonized eaters of more potato chips and drinkers of more soda.  It is highest for newly quit former smokers.  And, depending on the number of drinks per day, alcohol drinkers.

Interesting how the focus, despite what the numbers show, becomes the way that we in the US are somehow Almost Unknowingly eating enough additional chips and sodas each year (yay!  Let’s look forward to more “Don’t you realize how much you’re eating, Fatty?!” initiatives to come!), bit by bit, to merit gaining an average of nearly an extra pound of weight each year. Perhaps this has a slight something to do with a few of the supports of the grant funds given towards funding this research?  (GlaxoKlineSmith, Aramark) Or perhaps a bit of conflict of interest might be seen in one of the researchers

“being listed as a coinventor on a provisional patent application filed by and assigned to Harvard University for the use of trans-palmitoleic acid to prevent and treat insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and related conditions” (emphasis mine)

Related conditions?  Like… obesity? Which is always fronted as the dreaded boogie-man of type 2 diabetes?  Maybe I’m digging too deep here.  Surely studies aren’t done and promoted as drastically important when they barely show the results you’re looking for; simply because you have a vested interest in studies confirming that levels of obesity are threatened (with risk of RISING) by that pesky 1 lb per year phenomenon.  Surely… right?

Wording is everything.  Here again we see that in a study focused on such a minute (in comparison with, say, the weight change needed to move from one end of a BMI range to another) gain of weight across human beings over time; the results can even indicate that bodies are not as simply broken down as “Calories In, Calories Out” and STILL the focus by the end of an article highlighting these results will boil it all down to :

“Overall, the weight-changes associated with any one lifestyle change were fairly small. However, together they added up, especially for diet. “Small dietary and other lifestyle changes can together make a big difference – for bad or good,” said Mozaffarian. “This makes it easy to gain weight unintentionally, but also demonstrates the tremendous opportunity for prevention. A handful of the right lifestyle changes will go a long way.”

That’s right.  The effect of any of the actions examined individually was small; yet cumulatively the effect can be monstrous! (Bring to mind the initial article’s declaration of changes leading to a “Big Impact”) Like… a whole pound a year people!  Change your ways before it is too late!!!  Isn’t it so wonderful that the researchers are optimistic that these studies reveal such great chances out there for more prevention initiatives?  Opportunities that no doubt they’d be willing to throw themselves out there under the push of well-funded initiatives to encourage and promote?

Perhaps I’m too cynical.  Still, anyone have any delusions that this will stop people from pinning weight gain on a laundry list of “wrong” lifestyle changes since obviously weight gain is not as simple as In/Out? Yeah.  Me neither.

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9 thoughts on “Long-Term Weight Gain: Studies show that “Eat Less, Move More” too simplistic

  1. The “science news” article and the actual abstract rarely have much in common… And hey, it might be a questionably-done study, but it says what we think it should say so publish that thing and get the press release out and get it on CNN!

    I’m curious on how the self-reporting was done. Maybe I can get access to the paper later. (I love this! The news bits about academic papers are usually way off but hardly anyone can see the actual paper without jumping through hoops.)

    • G: the inability to easily access the actually referenced documents is what really frustrates me as well. If folks like me who are LOOKING to dig deep can’t get access; then folks with just passing curiosity certainly aren’t going to jump through such hoops either; which may just be what reporters are banking on.

      • that’s why so much of America believes in the old diet trope. if the media reports on only the money making diet industry stories (which the media has a vested interest in reporting on, watch tv, who buys at least half the ad space) how can America get the “real” information. when i went to college and started reading actual studies instead of science today for my information i felt like i got let in on the real information and everything else up to then had been a carefully marketed lie designed to get me to buy stuff.

  2. I especially love the fact that virtually ALL ‘researchers’ (bar the occasional few here & there) totally ignore the huge role of genetics in body size & shape, as well as the fact that we are genetically, biologically programmed to gain weight with age because it is natural for virtually all mammals to do so & it is often protective. Those who are larger &/or gain some weight with aging usually live longer & do better at surviving/dealing with the various rigors of life, the diseases & disabilities which often come with age, etc. I am nearly 62 & all the information I can find, even in the mainstream media, tells me that I have far less chance of sustaining a fatal hip fracture in the next 25-40 years, however long I may live, than if I were small & slender. I laughed at the way it was reported in the last online article I came across, the author avoiding ever admitting that larger/fatter people have much less risk of osteoporosis; oh, no! It was people who have few lines & wrinkles for their age, with firm, smooth skin, who look young for their age. I can pass for 20 years younger than I am if I chose to do so & have more than once, when out in public with my son & his daughter, been mistaken for his wife; I have few lines & wrinkles, smooth skin for my age. So do a lot of other fatter people.

    Many studies for many years, most notably studies led by Stunkard, have shown that weight gain with aging is consistent to overall better health, faster recovery from illness, & longer life. But don’t hold your breath waiting to get too many mainstream people to admit that.

  3. April, I downloaded the original paper because I have access to the NEJM. I wanted to email it to you but I can’t find your email address on this site; if you want it please let me know your address.

    I’d like to point out (as someone who constantly reads scientific papers as part of her job) that since abstracts are so short and kind of need to be catchy they usually don’t do justice to the study, so it’s really a bad idea to try to rip apart a study without actually seeing it and examining the methodology and results yourself. I’ve noticed that FA bloggers tend to automatically assume that something is bad science whenever they don’t like the results found, and also here you put words in their mouths (so to speak) and then criticized them for those words, which is unfair. I didn’t read the full article, I just downloaded it, but I am sure there is a heap of fat hate in it, so I guess I’m just saying you should read the paper before writing about it.

    As an aside: 1 pound a year does seem laughably small except that in my case 40 years would take me from so-called “normal” to “obese”, which is quite a difference (not that it necessarily would have any effect on my health).

    Anyway, please give me your email address if you want the pdf of the journal article.

    • sbvds: abstracts are indeed short and unsubstantial. Which is one reason I already stated that I did not go into the methods or such (not having access to that information and all). What I attacked in the post here was the way that a media report on this very same, quite unsubstantial abstract, managed to interpret the findings so that the desired lesson boils down to “Losing weight is hard and even this huge study found that any of these habits had minuscule effects…still: combining them all may just be what we need to Battle Obesity!” I agree that having the paper would make a better informed story. However; that didn’t stop the article I read from reporting on it. Which is why I brought it up. But indeed I would be interested in reviewing the full study and will email you. Thanks! 🙂

  4. April, in many areas you can get the full text of many studies for free via your local library or medical library. Even just the medical library of a small community hospital will often have acccess (via interlibrary agreements) and some budget for this sort of thing for health consumers.

    There are some copyright limitations, of course (so you have to prioritize which studies to get) but many areas have programs like these. I don’t know if YOUR area does, and in this age of budget cuts, I worry whether this access will stay around or not…..but for now, many libraries/medical libraries will let consumers have access to the full text of articles for free or for a much smaller fee than would occur if you ordered it online. This is how I get the full texts of many of the studies I review.

    Alternatively, if you know someone involved with a university, they may have access to many of these journals as well. There are some limitations to that, but you can always ask and find out what those are.

    • Thanks Well Rounded. If Suzie hadn’t offered so nicely to forward the pdf she had access to I was next going to head to the public library which does subscribe to the magazine. But all very good ideas to follow-up on and I appreciate them!! 🙂

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