Why ‘Lose Weight’ Is an Impossible New Year’s Resolution

12 mins read

According to a survey by Statista, 40 per cent of Americans have resolved to lose weight in 2023 – the third most common resolution. 52 per cent decided to exercise more and 50 per cent to eat more healthily, which are closely linked to losing weight. This is not a new trend and every January sees gym memberships and athleisure purchases soar.

Unfortunately, this issue is astonishingly complex. The more you learn, the more you realise just how little we know about the mechanisms of weight gain and loss, and even whether being thin really is the holy grail of health in the way that it’s made out to be. There’s so much to unpack, and that’s before we start down the path of why people want to lose weight.

Let’s start off with a few caveats: maintaining a healthy diet and exercising are both unequivocally good for you. The right balance of nutrients and calories are literally required by your body to keep you alive.

There have been studies that show calorie restriction has serious negative ramifications for health outcomes including heart arrhythmia, and studies that show an excess of processed food can cause permanent changes to your metabolism. Exercise too, in moderate quantities, is almost universally positive.

This article is not arguing for sedentary lifestyles and giving no care to the nourishment of our bodies.

dwayne 'the rock' johnson
Image Credit: @The Rock / Twitter

The Murks Origins of the BMI

However, for many years we have had it drilled into us that the pinnacle of health is epitomised by daily gym visits, tiny portions, fad diets, and an overall patina of misery. The words “obesity epidemic” are seared into our minds, and an unacceptable BMI score can be a reason for doctors to deny treatment.

The BMI, short for the Body-Mass Index, is an insidious ghoul, looming over much of this conversation. Many people know the sound bite that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson would be classified as obese under the BMI measurements, and it’s common for it to be trotted out when someone is expressing their own dismay. Sadly, this often serves only to dismiss someone’s legitimate anguish, neither helping them feel better nor expressing what the well-wisher truly feels –  a contrived platitude.

There’s a lot more to this ‘Rock paradox’ than most people know, though. It was invented originally in the 1830s in Belgium and was known as the Quetelet Index after its creator. Adolphe Quetelet (pronounced ket-leh) wasn’t a medical professional, he was a statistician more interested in the statistical average of a person rather than any medical outcomes. He wanted to see if there were any population level correlations between height, weight, age, and mortality. Crucially, he was very clear that population measures couldn’t be used in relation to individuals.

Adapted through the years by insurance companies, the Quetelet Index languished in relative obscurity until it was picked up in the 1970s by researcher Ancel Keys. Keys, who was also not a medical professional, renamed Quetelet’s Index the Body Mass Index and weight became, for the first time, an indicator of health. 

Aside from the BMI being disconnected from any medical knowledge, there are still more problems, primarily the overwhelming whiteness in all the subjects the data is based on. In fact, the BMI is an extremely poor predictor of fatness and health concerns for people of colour, tending to underpredict in Asian people and overpredict in Black people.

To really emphasise the point: the BMI was never intended to be used for individuals, and was devised by statisticians and not medical professionals. One of the core drivers of the cultural pressure to lose weight is deeply flawed.

The Healthy = Thin Paradigm

So the whole system used for ranking fatness is problematic, but this is far from the only reason why losing weight makes for a bad New Year’s resolution. A further issue arises when people who claim to be body positive – people who would never admit to thinness being a goal or motivator for them. They still want to lose weight, but in order to get healthier rather than to get thin.

‘Fat’ is used as a shorthand for ‘unhealthy’ frequently in our society and it’s both totally unnecessary and demonstrably false. There is a widely cited study saying that obesity causes over 300,000 deaths per year. What many people who quote that number don’t know is that the study was debunked shortly after publication. What people also don’t know, or don’t care about, is contextualising the data of how obesity affects mortality.

8 people of varying genders and body types stand with arms linked wearing only underwear. The letters Body Love are written across them.
Image Credit: Times of Malta

In Data, Context Is Everything

Nobody’s death certificate says “died of being fat”. To say that obesity causes deaths is a drastic simplification from complex aggregate data on correlation down into a simple headline. The problem is exacerbated by long years of anti-fat stigma: people know that the marriage certificate isn’t what causes married people to have lower mortality rates but are much less willing to see the same messy combination of correlations apply to fatness and mortality.

The water is muddied even further when you look more closely at the data. While it is true that very fat people have a higher mortality rate, so do very thin people. Overweight and obese people are actually protected against some causes of mortality (they are more likely to survive heart attacks for example).

Indeed, fat people who exercise regularly and eat a nutritious diet are more likely to be healthy than thin people who eat trash and don’t exercise.

The stigma and bias that fat people face is more than enough that no matter the murky history and debatable connection to health, the desire to lose weight can still be understood. Unfortunately, the complexity does not stop there. Even if you are still resolved to lose weight, it is exceptionally difficult.

Vector drawing of 6 fat people. Some of them are eating.
Image Credit: upklyak on Freepik

How Wise Is ‘Conventional Wisdom’?

Conventional wisdom boils weight loss down to “calories in, calories out” – if you expend more calories through exercise than you consume through eating, you will lose weight, natch. Except it doesn’t work that way. There is increasing scientific evidence that as many as 90 per cent of people will never successfully sustain weight loss. What you eat consists of 100 per cent of the calories you consume, but exercise is not the only thing your body uses calories for. Scientists think that you can only lose around 30 per cent of your calories by exercise. You can never exercise enough to “account” for the calories you consume to maintain your body.

Humans evolved in a time of scarcity, where every calorie had to be worked for. Your body’s proclivity for clinging on to every gram of fat you give it is what has allowed us to come into our own as a species. We are biologically designed to get and stay fat.

The discrimination fat people face is most worrying when it is looked at through the lens of healthcare. There are many stories of people being told to lose weight, only to find out later they had a cancerous growth, or some chronic disorder that has nothing to do with their weight – and might in fact be the cause of weight gain. You have an ear infection? You need to lose weight.

Doctors have been shown to spend less time in consultation with fat people and to form less emotional connections with them. They are paradoxically convinced that being fat is a sign of ill health, whilst denying fat people basic healthcare. 

So What Should You Do?

If you feel fat in the new year, the only real action you can take to set yourself up for success is to begin to dismantle your own unconscious anti-fat biases. Educate yourself about the science surrounding weight and weight loss. Advocate for inclusive clothes sizing. Don’t treat fat people like they have committed some dire social sin. Obesity is not a behaviour that can be changed.

Resolutions work best when they are specific and measurable. Instead of something woolly, where it’s hard to ever define success, get really close up. “I want to be able to climb the stairs to my fourth floor flat without getting out of breath” or “I’m going to get takeaway at most once per week”. These resolutions are both specific so you know where to focus your efforts, and measurable. This makes them easier to achieve and you can start your new year with success rather than the general feeling of unease that comes with “this year, lose weight.”

Featured Image Credit: AllGo / Unsplash

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Student journalist & freelance writer

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