Convinced by Science You Can’t Lose Weight?

I know how it feels….

to be told you can’t change your body type.

to be told that diets don’t work and even if you lose weight you’ll never keep it off.

to be told that your metabolism is your destiny and you can’t change it.

I accepted these lies for most of my life, while living in a body I hated.


Then one day I decided to apply reason and logic – and KABOOM! everything changed.  The day I started actually changing the shape of my body, changing my metabolism, the way my body stores fat – that’s right – changing all those things that science said were impossible to change, was the day I figured out what I’m about to tell you.

I wouldn’t blame anyone for accepting these lies.  I believed them most of my life.  I love to read and do research and I believe in the scientific method.  The scientific evidence basically concludes that even if a diet works for weight loss, your odds of maintaining that weight loss long term are infinitesimally tiny.  The scientific evidence concludes that exercise doesn’t work for weight loss.

In fact the evidence is staring us in the face every day.  2/3 of Americans are overweight or obese, and the numbers are growing.  This is despite spending about $50 Billion on weight loss annually.  The obvious conclusion is that whatever we’re doing just isn’t working, in fact it’s having the opposite effect – we’re getting fatter.

Science advances 1 pill at a time

The problem with scientific studies is that the paradigm is structured to only test one intervention at a time.   Want to know if aspirin cures a headache?  Randomly assign headache sufferers to 2 groups, one gets aspirin, the other a sugar pill (placebo).  If the statistical math shows that aspirin is more likely to cure the headache, then it works.  But what about multiple concurrent interventions?  And what if they’re not pills but behaviors?

Changing multiple behaviors really does work as this study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience demonstrates.

Pushing The Limits

A fascinating study from the University of California, Santa Barbara, with the audacious title Pushing the Limits: Cognitive, Affective, and Neural Plasticity Revealed by an Intensive Multifaceted Interventionaddresses this very question.  College students were assigned to an intensive regimen of behavioral interventions (shown in blue) for 6 weeks.  The behavioral changes involved sleep, alcohol, nutrition, exercise, meditation, and random acts of kindness.  The behavioral intervention was supplemented with daily lectures and activities teaching myriad aspects of well-being from stress management to happiness (shown in magenta).

lecture interventions 11

Daily lectures and discussions focused on myriad aspects of well-being

How well did it work?

Really-freakin’ well.  The students in the multi-faceted intervention group compared to a control group were more flexible, fitter, and stronger.   They were also smarter – outperforming controls on memory, thinking and focus tests.  They were happier and calmer with higher self-esteem.  Scans of their brains showed changes that indicate a greater ability to focus.

It gets even better – the effects seemed to last even after they stopped the program of behavioral intervention.  Six weeks after the end of the experiment, despite the fact that many of the students weren’t exercising or meditating as often, they still showed improvements over their former selves with respect to well-being, fitness, mood, and cognitive abilities.  So if these college kids got fitter, smarter, and happier in 6 weeks with pretty simple interventions, why are there so many headlines telling us all of the things that don’t work?

1 pill at a time

Scientific investigations tend to study the effects of individual behavioral changes in isolation.

According to the studies’ authors:

“Given that most phenomena are the result of many interacting causes, there is a risk of neglecting how multiple influences combine to have greater effects than when they are studied in isolation.”

One-pill or one-diet fixes don’t work in precisely the conditions where multi-faceted interventions would excel.  And this is precisely the problem.  Pursuing a magic single intervention that will result in permanent weight loss is exactly what is causing the failure of each intervention to show results in these tightly controlled studies.  Scientific studies tend to avoid the type of multifaceted interventions of the UCSB study because what matters to the investigators isn’t achieving the result, it’s determining which intervention was responsible.  Multiple interventions just introduce too many confounding variables to tease out the major contributor to change, and if it’s a combination of factors, the statistical math makes significant conclusions more difficult.

Good News – your life is not a laboratory experiment

You aren’t subject to the rigors of experimental design.  Your top priority is the outcome, not determining which factors are major or minor contributors.  Of course you run the risk of doing too much – extraneous effort – but if you achieve the results you want, who cares?

Multifaceted interventions work.  I know this from personal experience.  When I decided to start making tiny incremental “micro-habit” changes, I started seeing the body in the mirror change its shape and fat composition, while eating my fill of delicious food.  I started seeing a lean, angular, muscular, defined toned body that I loved in the mirror.  I was surprised at how easy it was to make these small changes.

An analysis of 150 studies of behavioral interventions and their outcomes concluded that a moderate number (more than 1 but fewer than 4) of interventions are most likely to result in change.  The authors found that the number of interventions, the motivation of the subjects, and the outcomes were all factors in determining the likelihood change.  The formula for success is a moderate number of behavioral changes, motivated subjects, and measurable outcomes.

Starting small with a huge advantage

You can do anything you want if you just break the task down into micro-habits.

– James Clear’s review of Superhuman by Habit

So if scientific studies continue to conclude that diet or exercise alone doesn’t work for permanent weight loss, what does work?  – The researchers from UCSB give us a glimmer of hope and a model by which to proceed.  How can you incorporate a multi-faceted intervention like the one the UCSB researchers developed into your life?

You have a huge advantage over the scientists designing experimental studies.  Instead of implementing all the changes completely and at once to measure their effects, you can implement them as tiny micro-habits over time.  These 2 differences in time and intensity can mitigate the effects of complexity, compliance, and motivation identified by the 150-study analysis.

Start simple

Notice how simple the changes were in the UCSB study:

They didn’t say quit alcohol – they just reduced alcohol consumption to one drink a day.

They didn’t say quit sugar completely – they just reduced added sugar to after workouts only, other times carbs were limited to produce only (fruits and vegetables).

They placed no limitations or calorie restrictions on the students’ diet.

They recommended 8 hours or more of sleep per night, taught the students sleep hygiene, and had them keep sleep journals.

Start your own multi-faceted intervention experiment

You can change your body type.

You can change your metabolism.

You can love the body you see in the mirror.

All you have to do is begin doing the things that work, slowly, over time, in micro-steps.

Try one micro-habit per day.  Skip dessert, skip happy hour, go to sleep an hour earlier.  If you gradually increase these interventions daily until you are getting a good night’s sleep every night, cutting added sugar out of your diet, and consuming no alcohol – you will be amazed at how quickly your body will change.  I know.  I’ve done it.













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