Declare War on “The Fat Trap”

In Tara Parker-Pope’s recent New York Times article, The Fat Trap, she puts forth the contention that the body will inevitably fight weight loss via various physiological processes, citing numerous studies that show evidence of metabolic changes following weight loss, weight regain, and weight-preserving genes.  She even subtly discounts the National Weight Control Registry, a study of thousands of people who have been successful at maintaining a significant weight loss, the purpose of which was to understand and learn from their habits.  Their habits include an hour of exercise a day, diet diaries, and a low fat diet.  The article puts a grim light on this data by underscoring the enormous effort put forth by successful losers who are basically freaks of nature because most people have not accomplished that degree of weight loss.  She questions whether such an enormous effort is feasible or worth it.  She leverages comments from Dr. Kelly Brownell, Director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Research, suggesting that members of the registry are unusual people who spend every minute thinking about their weight.  By the end of the article, the situation appears very grim.  The bright spot for Tara is that she felt comforted by these studies and interviews because they show that her struggles are not a result of her lacking character, laziness, or willpower.

Overall, the article feels more like a soliloquy than a snapshot of the state-of-the-state of obesity research.   Tara is clearly struggling and is bravely open about that struggle in the article.  So many others will relate to her struggle.  I wanted to write a reaction to the article because the doom and gloom theme is more likely to zap motivation than spark it.  A pep talk is direly needed. But first, some tough love on two points.

Even Science Says I Can’t Lose Weight

If you resonate with Tara’s arguments, I’m as concerned for your ability to lose weight as I am for Tara’s.  A LOT.  You (and Tara) are on the wrong track.  Searching for evidence for why it is impossible for you to lose weight, that your weight is genetically destined, that exercise doesn’t work, that counting calories doesn’t work, that your metabolism is slow, etc, is a sign that you have thrown in the towel and now looking for good justification for having done so.

After Tara interviews a member of the National Weight Control Registry, she reflects, “Just talking to Bridge about the effort required to maintain her weight is exhausting. I find her story inspiring, but it also makes me wonder whether I have what it takes to be thin. I can’t quite imagine how I would ever make time to weigh and measure food when some days it’s all I can do to get dinner on the table between finishing my work and carting my daughter to dance class or volleyball practice.”  BULLSHIT.  This line of thinking tells me you have forfeited the game.

The key to weight loss does NOT lie in diets and genetics and metabolism.  It is a psychological game of endurance.  Genes, metabolism, fast food, and all that crap are on the opposing team.   You cannot go into a game coming up with all the reasons why you are going to lose.  Ask any coach and they will tell you that this is a losing attitude.  Your mind needs to be in a place where you are thinking of all the ways you can win.  It doesn’t mean winning is easy, it means losing is not an option.  If making the effort to win is too much trouble in your mind, then you don’t want the win, you don’t even want to play.  People who have lost a lot of weight and kept it off might be freaks because they aren’t the norm, but I sincerely believe if anyone wants to win this game, it is theirs to win.

Blame Game

Tara signs off by lamenting… “While I do, ultimately, blame myself for allowing my weight to get out of control, it has been somewhat liberating to learn that there are factors other than my character at work when it comes to gaining and losing weight.”   This entire line of thinking is all blame game. Anyone playing the blame game is allowing themselves to be distracted from their goal.  Imagine a basketball game. If at every play of the game you are trying to decide whose fault it was that the point was lost, the ball was turned over, who caused the foul, you are not focusing on how to win, but instead making the case for why you are about to lose.  You have predetermined your losing destiny.

Your current weight and your ability to lose weight have nothing to do with your character.  Forget about blame.  Forget what has happened.  Stop speculating about your genes, reading research to support your case.  All of that is a distraction.  All of your energy should be focused forward. On what to do next.  Ask yourself honestly right now,  Is this is a game you want to win?  Yes or NO?  The prize:  more energy, better health, and by extending your life, more time with your children.  If you sincerely want these things, then find a chair and sit down right now with your calendar and find 6 of the 168 hours of your week that you spend doing something LESS important than:  more energy, better health, and more time with your children.  Use 5 of those hours to exercise and 1 to plan meals.  This is an investment of 3.5% of your time.  If you don’t want to, it’s ok, but don’t say it was because your body didn’t let you, your genes didn’t let you, or a study said you couldn’t.  The only thing stopping you is you.  Are you in to WIN?

I’m going to sign off with a pep talk from a champion.  I hope that it convinces you that you too can be a freak of nature.

Need some inspiration?  Read my interviews with some Real Life Biggest Losers.

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  1. Oh, Dr. Sherry—thank you so much for this excellent post. I, like half the blogosphere, read and wrote about the original NYT article, but I think your take is the best I’ve seen.

    The point I often try to convey is that knowing your enemy (our obesigenic environment, dicey genetics, history of obesity, whatever) is a very good thing. It does not defeat us; it makes us aware of precisely what we’re fighting.

    I just love what you say here: “Imagine a basketball game. If at every play of the game you are trying to decide whose fault it was that the point was lost, the ball was turned over, who caused the foul, you are not focusing on how to win, but instead making the case for why you are about to lose.”

    Thank you.

    • Sherry says:

      Thank you for your comments, Mary. I took the opportunity to visit your blog, and loved your reaction to the Fat Trap . I see that our reflections on this are similar. I would be inclined to believe it’s impossible to lose weight and keep it off if I didn’t have so many examples of people who made it possible– and I know their genes and other factors were not working in their favor. It’s a tough road, but I hold strong in my mission to get people to believe, because I see what can happen when they really do. Thanks for reading!! –Sherry

  2. I’m a nutritionist who helps people make small changes that add up to weight loss over time. I’ve never agreed that the “extreme low calorie” diet will help someone achieve weight loss that they can maintain, because almost no one is able to. But small changes DO work, and often without a ton of effort, as long as you’re patient in waiting for results.

    I think in general, we as Americans have a highly emotional relationship with food. Whether you’re fat or thin, if you think about food all the time you probably aren’t as happy as you could be, and that’s too bad. Preoccupation with food is much like substance abuse – it will always be a part of you even when you’ve “recovered” by losing weight. As you say, Sherry – you need psychological “endurance” just as you would for anything you want badly.

    To achieve and maintain a healthy weight for a lifetime, we all need non-food ways to relax, enjoy ourselves, and find comfort. Sounds easy but with the stressful lives we all lead, it’s not. No matter your genetics, it’s hard to live in a food-focused culture and staying fit is a real feat, but it is possible.

    • Sherry says:

      Thanks Amelia. You have made great points. Small changes can really add up over time. The key to a successful “diet” is one that is sustainable, and making small changes is far more sustainable than diets made up of strange nutrient compositions or very low calories. You also bring up the very important issue of emotions. Stress and other negative emotions are also members of the opposing team. They threaten to overcome us, but we can battle them just as you have suggested, with non-food ways to comfort ourselves. Exercise is the single best way to combat stress from both a psychological and physiological standpoint. I agree, not an easy road, but not an impossible one. I completely understand the frustration along the road, but not a reason to wave the white flag.

      Love your blog,, I encourage my readers to check it out!



  3. Mbfgmike says:

    SPOT ON SHERRY!!! This post should be mandatory reading in ALL schools. I wish someone told me this 5 years ago. THANK YOU AGAIN for another great post.

  4. gene @boutdrz says:

    Thank you. This falls right in line with my #nomorebs philosophy. I believe that if more people took honest responsibility, more people would see better results in their lives; not just in regards to health status.
    Keep up the great work!
    Mike, as a bonus for our comments, we should give the Doc a 30 second plank. Just because.

  5. mandosally says:

    Spot on! Great post. Blaming is nothing but a distraction. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Sherry, I totally agree with you. The Fat Trap article saddened me, because it really sounded like she had given up. I remember reading a similar article by Oprah a few years ago, where she essentially said she didn’t think it was possible for her to lose weight.

    But the fact is, people like Tara and Oprah have not failed. Their weight loss methods have failed them. They have been taken in by the “diet mentality”, using short term strategies to fix a long term problem.

  7. Kate Wolin says:

    Sherry, We love that Michael video, but THIS is our favorite video about “failure” – the Mister sends it every time one of my grants isn’t funded (which these days is… well you know how the funding environment is these days!)

  8. Anoop says:

    H Sherry,

    Don’t you think the people who lose a lot weight and keep it off are a minority? And there are a lot of obese people who exercise and eat healthy and are still obese. So it is not just about eating healthy, making choices and such. For those people who have tried everything, the article might be a great relief to know that it is not their personal failing as everyone says.

    And I agree the article is a bit sad. But atleast people will set some realistic goals than base it on what a magazine thinks that they should look.

    And if you look at research it is even sad, but true. 80-90% people gain most of their weight back in 3-5 years.

    A suggestion: will be good to have a place for latest articles.

    • Sherry says:

      Thanks for your comment Anoop. Yes, people who lose weight and keep it off are in the minority, but they aren’t in as small numbers as you would think. I put out a tweet every couple of weeks for success stories and get responses every time. They can’t be that rare! It takes a lot of effort to consistently draw a negative energy balance to lose a large amount of weight and then keep it off. While there are plenty of overweight and obese folks exercising and eating healthy diets, in my experience I have never encountered a single patient who was drawing the proper negative energy balance but still not losing weight. What I see far more often is that the amount of intake and exercise is insufficient relative to the hoped results. This becomes a huge focus of the counseling, to get expectations more realistic and to ramp up the exercise and rein in the intake enough to result in meaningful weight loss. Our food environment works against us as does the quick fix fad diet industry which has sold us a dream that is never going to come true.

      If it was easy everybody would be doing it, but if it was impossible, nobody would. The bottom line: it’s hard. My mission is to help motivate, support, and hopefully, make it a little bit easier.

      Thanks for reading,


  9. Anoop says:

    Why not motivate people to lose modest weight enough to maintain health? Also is easy to keep it off. Why not motivate to eat healthy and exercise which we know has benefits independent of weight loss.

    And if they are so worried about their looks, they are welcome to lose 50-100 lbs and go OCD to keep it off.

    Also would be good idea to count the negative stories too.

  10. Sherry says:

    Hi Anoop. The goal of the weight loss programs I have run is 7%, which is fairly modest but is associated with tremendous health benefits such as reducing risk for type 2 diabetes. Yes you are absolutely correct that eating healthy and exercise has benefits independent of weight loss, especially exercise. Chances are if one adopts these healthy lifestyle behaviors weight loss will follow, if there is weight to lose. While I profile successful folks on the blog, a great deal of my other posts are about the challenges of weight loss, so the negative side certainly is out on the table. Since we’ve all had our failures I like to post the success stories to inspire, but even more importantly, give people some ideas on how others have managed to lose weight and keep it off. Thanks for a great dialogue.

  11. Anoop says:

    Thanks Sherry.

    I think you should emphasize the 5-7% weight loss in your blog. People just pick a number based on the what they see in a magazine.

    And almost everyone thinks that if they don’t get to normal BMI, they are not normal or healthy. This is unrealistic to the core. Even gastric bypass is not helping people to get normal BMI which has the most success rate!!

  12. Sherry says:

    You are right! I think you just inspired a new post! Stay tuned!

  13. gothchiq says:

    You also have to see the doctor if you suspect there are physical problems rather than just guessing at them and then giving up. If you have hypothyroidism, polycystic ovaries, or a number of other things, you’ll need treatment for the condition in order to make it possible to lose weight. Before getting my thyroid meds, nothing I did had any effect. With meds, diet and exercise work as expected.

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