“The truth,” researcher Traci Mann writes, “is that diets do not work and may be bad for you, and obesity is not going to kill you.”
That might surprise a lot of readers. We have been taught to think that diets can be successful if you simply have enough willpower, and that obesity is the ultimate enemy of health. But as Mann writes, even if willpower works in some domains, there’s a reason it routinely fails us when it comes to food. A social psychologist who has studied eating for a long time, Mann has found that your supposed lack of willpower is not about you: it is about your circumstances. And, even worse, fear-mongering around weight only promotes scientifically inaccurate ideas.
In Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again, Mann implores us to stop relying on the notion of willpower and to start taking steps that actually work with how our brains are wired. Her smart, savvy, science-based, and oh-so-readable book discourages dieting. Instead, it provides impressive evidence that we can get to what Mann calls our “leanest livable weight” and stay there, with more joy and far less distress than when we pretend to have self-control. And, further, it shows how, through Mann’s analysis of lots of research, obesity is not as bad for us as we think.
The book’s opening epigraph reveals Mann’s appealing sensibility. It also introduces an important theme. It reads:
“‘You study self-control. You should study me. I have great self-control.’ — NOBODY, EVER.”
With that humorous start, Mann explains how our ancestors shaped our inability to resist treats today. She looks back at the evolutionary roots of eating when food was not always available, and also takes us on a tour of our current food landscape. Turns out, it’s all a set-up. Considering how our forebears had to approach food, and keeping in mind all the alluring and unhealthy foods that are around us all the time, it becomes clear that dieting and willpower just aren’t going to deliver us from temptation.
Mann also draws from her own findings as a world-renowned researcher who has studied all kinds of people’s eating habits, from schoolchildren to astronauts. At the University of Minnesota, she writes, her lab has an unmarked door. When participants come in for a study, Mann and her students trick them into thinking it’s a study about something else. If participants knew it was about eating and food, she writes, they’d become self-conscious and stop acting naturally. Instead, they’re led to believe it’s a study on things like memory, or mood. When the lab hospitably supplies snacks, the participants don’t realize that’s the real reason they’re being observed.
From her more than twenty years of lab research as well as research in the everyday world, Mann has found that, as she puts it, “everything I thought was true about eating was false.”
If you follow just about any diet for a while, she allows, you may well lose some weight. But you don’t just want to shed some pounds temporarily — you want the weight to be gone for good. When Mann scrutinized the literature on dieting — scientific studies that tracked dieters for years, not months — she found what the highly lucrative diet industry will not tell you: that diets do not work. Close to half of dieters actually end up weighing more than they did before they started their diet, not less.
Even worse, Mann writes, “Diets interfere with your thinking ability, lead to obsessive food thoughts, and cause stress, which leads to increases in your levels of the stress hormone cortisol.” And in high doses, she explains, “cortisol can cause a multitude of problems, as well as lead to weight regain.”
So what will work? Mann’s strategies are all about re-arranging your environment and reframing your thinking about food in ways that are easy and effective. She explains how to set things up so that you are more likely to reach for that vegetable first and yet not feel deprived of the foods you might like better. She shows how to put little obstacles in the way of the foods you want to cut down on, without admonishing you to forsake them entirely. And she tells us simple ways to avoid stuffing yourself when you are headed out to a culinary feast. Notably, none of these things involves vowing against the yummy treats entirely.
Mann also reveals scientifically-based ways of tricking yourself into feeling like you ate more than you actually did — tricks that still work even when you know that you’re using them. And she has some ideas for how the people in your lives can become your partners in healthful eating — no eye-rolling or nagging allowed!
Following the strategies from Secrets from the Eating Lab is not likely to turn you into a skinny person if you are not one already. But that’s not the goal, Mann writes, because trying to starve yourself for long periods of time is brutal and often counterproductive. The goal, she tells us, is to reach and maintain your leanest livable weight.
But even if you are obese, you shouldn’t beat yourself up over that. In a brilliant, myth-busting chapter called “Obesity Is Not a Death Sentence,” Mann explains what’s wrong with the relentless scary messages we hear about obesity. True, there are studies that show obesity is linked to certain bad health outcomes. Shockingly, though, most such studies don’t test whether the bad outcomes are really a result of obesity or whether they’re more likely about some other factor that’s only correlated with obesity.
What’s more, Mann writes, there is actually an upside, known as the obesity paradox. Once people have a disease, she writes, they may actually have a better prognosis if they are overweight or obese, rather than normal weight.
There are, though, some truly terrible consequences of obesity that have nothing to do with the character or health of the obese person. And anyone who has ever been overweight, or who has had unkind thoughts about another person’s weight, knows what they are: prejudices and nasty stereotypes.
There’s discrimination, too, in very significant domains, such as hiring and pay and admissions to higher education. We need to take on that pervasive weight stigma, starting with our own attitudes toward obese people as well as our overly harsh appraisals of our own bodies.
And as part of that project, we should read Mann’s book. She’s an accomplished scientist, but she’s also a wonderful writer. And from her warm, wise, funny, and never-judgmental text, we can learn why the term “lack of willpower” should be banned from the dinner table.
Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again
HarperWave, April 2015
Hardcover, 272 pages