This post discusses dieting, food restriction and eating.
I’ve known Traci Mann for almost seven years now, and have admired her work for much longer. After earning a Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University in 1995, she was a professor at UCLA for nine years before moving to the University of Minnesota to found the Health and Eating Lab. There, she and her associates study how people control their health behaviors after deciding to make a change. As her bio states, “She does not run a diet clinic or test diets, and she has never taken a penny from commercial diet companies, sat on their boards of directors, or endorsed one of their products. Because of this, her livelihood, research funding, and reputation are not dependent on her reporting that diets work or that obesity is unhealthy.”
Traci’s new book, Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again, explores her research and its results, and also talks about simple, reasonable regulation strategies that can help you reach and maintain your leanest livable weight. Husband Mike is just finishing the book now, and I plan to dive in soon, but wanted to talk with Traci about her process, observations, and motivation for getting this book out into the world. Read on to find out more!
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How long have you been researching food, diets, and the psychology of weight? Why were you drawn to these topics?
I have been studying these topics since halfway through grad school, twenty years ago. I was studying other things entirely, but then to prepare for a scary oral exam in which the questioners could ask me anything, I decided I better learn a little about obesity. And when I started looking at journal articles about obesity, I was completely shocked. Nothing in the articles was remotely what I had always assumed to be true. For example, I read studies showing that obese people didn’t eat more calories per day than non-obese people. I read studies showing that when you diet your metabolism changes, which makes it harder to lose weight. I read studies of identical twins raised in separate homes which showed that your weight is 70% genetic. All of this was eye-opening, and yet nobody was talking about it. Why wasn’t the general public being told that in many respects, your weight is not under your complete control?
Can you list the top three most surprising things you’ve learned about dieting?
- Dieting makes dieting harder. Does that sound weird? Well, it’s true. When your body senses not enough calories coming in, it thinks you are in danger of starving to death. So it makes changes to keep you alive. Those changes make it possible for you to live on fewer calories than you used to, which means you have more calories left over to store as fat. And that means that even if you eat the same thing you were eating when you were losing weight, you won’t keep losing weight, and you may even gain weight. Your body also makes changes that make you less likely to feel full, make you more likely to notice food when it’s around, and make you completely preoccupied with thoughts of food. That makes it harder to resist foods when they are there.
- Not surprisingly, given the first point, within three years of starting a diet, the average amount of weight dieters have managed to keep off is 1 pound.
- If you lost weight and gained it back, it’s not because you didn’t try hard enough, or didn’t want it enough, or have no self-control. You probably got by on fewer calories and used more willpower than any people who would accuse you of not trying hard enough.
Do you believe that all efforts to lose weight are bad and/or doomed?
People have a set weight range. That is a range of weights that your body tries to keep you in, and that you body can stay in without a ton of effort. People can lose weight within their biological set range without difficulty. But when people try to live at a weight below their set range, that is when the trouble begins. That is when that biological starvation mode kicks in. A small minority of dieters lose weight to below their set range and manage to keep it off, but that means their body is biologically the same as that of a starving person. I don’t think it is right for us to expect people to live as if they are starving in a famine, just to look a certain way, when their body, genetically, is more comfortable at a higher weight. Instead I encourage people to aim to live at the lower end of their set range, not below it. That is a weight that people can be healthy at, and that they can attain and maintain without dieting, with some simple strategies I describe in the book.
What do you think needs to change in order to reroute (or obliterate) our culture’s obsession with thinness?
People need to understand that genetically, we are meant to be all different shapes and sizes, and we can be healthy at all different shapes and sizes. It doesn’t make sense to try to force everyone into one weight category when that isn’t where their body is meant to be. We need to get our heads off of this thinness thing and onto this healthiness thing, which, I’ll say again, does not require thinness.
You mentioned at your book launch event that you tried to get this book written and published years ago. Why do you think the time was right for it to get out into the world now, but not back then?
When I first tried to get a book deal to write a book about why diets don’t work, I was told that the topic was bad news and that nobody would want to read it. I found this crazy, because it isn’t bad news to learn that it is not your fault if your diet doesn’t work. Plus, I believe that people want to know what is true, and my book was going to tell people the truth, rather than promise things that nobody can promise (like “you will keep the weight off forever”). The funny thing is that the bestseller at the time was the worst bad news ever: “He’s Just Not That Into You.”
I was also told that diet books were the bread and butter of the publishing world, and that no publisher wanted to put out anything that would conflict with the many diet books they were publishing. Scary.
I think the time is right for Secrets From the Eating Lab to be published because people are catching on to the diet industry’s lies and false promises. It is getting harder and harder for people to believe it when the diet industry says that diets work, since we are all surrounded by people who are losing weight and regaining it. But also, I now offer strategies for healthy eating in the book, which were not a part of the original plan ten years ago (because at that time I hadn’t done that much research on strategies). But over the last ten years I have studied strategies extensively, so I had a lot of helpful positive information to add.
What was your biggest challenge in getting this book researched and written?
I was just doing my job, which was doing research and teaching classes, and suddenly ten years had gone by, and then twenty, and I found myself with a lot I wanted to say. The hardest part was getting the book deal. Once I was free to sit down and work on the book, it was an absolute joy. I hope I get the opportunity to do it again some day.
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Author photo by Richard Wadey-James
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