If the weight loss industry really worked, it would put itself out of business. But there is a way out of this contradiction. It’s not easy, but the problem of weight loss is fixable. You could even help fix it.
Two out of three adults are overweight or obese. Some of us are happy to be that way, and that’s fine — I’m not out to shame anyone. But most of us would like to change — and since we’re at higher risk for diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer, it’s worth the effort. But despite huge amounts of effort, the problem is stubborn.
It’s not a matter of will power. Bodies, once overweight, try to get back to where they were. This is a fundamentally hard problem. If we could solve it, we’d save billions in health care, but equally important, we’d change the quality of life for tens of millions of people.
At the center of the treatment problem is a question of objectives. Specifically:
- People want to lose weight quickly, rather than permanently. Quick results are temporary, because people cannot stay on a diet forever. The focus should be on long-term success.
- People want to get thin, rather than less fat. But for health benefits, a person who loses 20 pounds, but is still overweight, is far better off. The goal should be improvement, not perfection.
- People focus on eating, rather than their whole situation in context. Eating is at the center of cultural and family traditions that extend far beyond the plate. You can’t change eating without addressing the holistic elements of culture.
Because there is no profit in slow improvement and cultural change — it’s hard to do, and hard for companies to monetize — there is no “slow health improvement” industry. Weight Watchers succeeds if you continually fail and come back. LoseIt! and other apps can’t surround people with the help they need. Doctors and hospitals try, but there is no program they can implement that consistently succeeds.
Rethinking a holistic approach to weight loss
There is no magic pill. But there is a way to do this better. I’ve seen it. Here are some statistics from one program that’s working in Arlington, Massachusetts:
In this program, 168 participants lost an average of 16.6 pounds, and 61% of patients lost at least 5% of their body weight. This is typical of other weight loss programs.
However, 69% of participants maintained most of that weight loss a year later. Even three years out, out of the 50 participants that were still tracked, 71% maintained most of the weight loss. That is far from typical.
That’s permanent change. It’s imperfect and not universal, but overall, more successful than anything else out there. The program is called wellnesscampaign.org, and it’s a pretty different approach. People learn, not just facts, but habits, over a 20-week period in small groups of 18-20. Here’s what’s different about it:
- It’s non-profit. As a result, it’s free from the profit-making part of the industry, which has a vested interest in people failing and coming back.
- It’s focused on habits. Habits are sustainable, diets and “will power” are not.
- It addresses cultural elements that go beyond eating. Participants learn about shopping, cooking, family support, restaurant eating, and hunger. People learn to change everything about how they think about food and wellness.
- It’s not based on special diets or proprietary fads. All the exercise and food advice is based on mainstream dietetic science, like reducing red meat and sugar and adding vegetables.
- It integrates other healthy behaviors. Participants learn about exercise, movement, stress, and sleep. They change how they think about themselves, not just what they put in their mouths.
- It succeeds through community support. Participants, through an email list, share their successes, challenges, and triumphs over temptation. One participant may remind the others that it is evening and there’s no more snacking. Or another may ask for help with a particular issue, like preparing for a family feast. Since people are going through the challenges at the same time, they are well equipped to help each other.
These elements, taken together, are unique. The result of one of these groups is 18-20 people who are somewhat less overweight, but permanently so. That’s unprecedented.
Scaling up (with a little help)
When the founders of wellnesscampaign.org, Dr. Wayne Altman and registered dietitian Kerri Hawkins, set out to create these groups, they had a big question. Could other doctors and dietitians replicate their results?
So far, the answer is a qualified yes. They’ve trained one other doctor/dietitian tandem which is succeeding. And they’re currently working on training more.
To scale the program up, they’ll have to train lots of new health providers. More importantly, the participants in those programs will need a place to support each other. We need to move beyond email lists.
This is where I come in. As a former patient, I saw the unique success they were creating, and agreed to serve as CEO of the non-profit. One of my responsibilities is to build a community platform that will enable many small patient groups to support each other and get access to content. That costs money, and we have hardly any.
Instead of scraping pennies together, I decided that we needed about $3,500 to get that community platform off the ground. So I decided to raise that $3,500 — myself.
On July 3, I’m riding my bike 84 miles from Arlington to Falmouth, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. (I guess this makes me the Cape Crusader.) It will take me all day. I’m using the ride to dramatize our need. I’ve already raised about half of the money we need. With a little help from you, we can raise the other half.
If you want to help kick in a few bucks (or more), go to my GoFundMe page.
I’m convinced that if we can scale this program up, we’ll make a dent in the obesity problem in America — even without a profit motive. If you’ve already helped — thanks.
You can follow me on July 3 on Twitter and Facebook — hashtag #JoshRide4WC.
Why I did this wrong the first time
This is my second pitch for this program. And I want to apologize for the first one, that I posted last week.
My previous post had an obscure title, a deceptive opening, and failed to get to the point until much later in the post. It was a bait and switch post. And as a result, it violated every writing principle I espouse in this blog.
The point is that there’s a better way to help people lose weight — not that I like to ride my bike. But I was afraid to ask for money, and fear interferes with bold writing. I’ve tried to fix that today.