Why Weight is a Poor Target for Wellness Programs
By Scott Dinwiddie, Senior Health & Productivity Specialist
Weight is a natural area of focus for workplace wellness programs. It ranks among the most urgent concerns that people have about their health, it’s easy to measure, and weight-loss contests tend to draw energized participation from employees. The underlying assumption is that with enough will power, personal responsibility, and the right behaviors, anyone can lose weight. However, research has revealed that view is overly simplistic, and efforts promoting weight loss that way frequently backfire, doing more harm than good.
Here are a few reasons why:
1) Weight is strongly influenced by genetics
We tend to see body size as a direct reflection of a person’s health habits, good or bad, but this isn’t always true. Genetics alone account for 70% of a person’s risk of developing obesity, and similarly 74% of thin people come from a family history of thinness. In a population of 1000 people living the exact same lifestyle, we would still expect to see significant variation in body size.
Therefore, a person’s weight doesn’t necessarily indicate anything about their health, motivation, or the quality of their habits. It’s possible to be quite healthy while occupying a bigger body, or unhealthy while occupying a thin one. This means that weight-based discrimination, an increasingly common problem throughout society, is both unscientific and unethical.
2) You can’t outrun a bad diet
The idea we can melt away our body fat through exercise seems like common sense, but scientists have been unable to support it with compelling evidence. This is due, in part, to the fact that most of the calories we consume are directed toward our resting metabolism, leaving just 10-30% that can be burned through exercise.
Plus, it takes a surprisingly large amount of exercise to burn a meaningful number of calories. For example, a 250 lb. man will burn just 3 calories climbing a flight of stairs, which is 92 fewer than he would consume eating a single apple. If the same man proceeds to climb another 30 flights, there’s a reasonable chance he’ll be hungrier and eat more later. The more calories we burn, the more we tend to eat, and there’s nothing inherently inappropriate about that.
3) Someone poisoned the waterhole
People are no less motivated to make healthy choices today than they were a few decades ago, before obesity rates started climbing explosively. This suggests that weight problems have been driven by social and environmental factors, one of which is almost certainly the overall health quality of the food supply. A frightening percentage of the most convenient, inexpensive foods available today have been carefully engineered to hijack our behavior at the expense of our health.
A 2015 study found that approximately 58% of the average American’s daily food intake is comprised of ultra-processed foods – industrial formulations which, in addition to being loaded with salt, sugar, oil, and fat, also include additives used to impact taste, texture, and other qualities. Unsurprisingly, studies are beginning to show a direct relationship between ultra-processed food consumption, weight gain, and poor health.
4) Weight-loss programs have poor long-term outcomes
If you’ve ever participated in a weight-loss program then you probably had the experience of losing some weight at first, only to find that keeping it off over the subsequent weeks and months was an entirely different challenge. Short term weight loss can be accomplished predictably and consistently by restricting calories to a certain level, but those restrictions are rarely sustainable. Almost inevitably, we run into a wall.
Complicating things further, our bodies often react to significant weight loss by adjusting our metabolic systems to encourage regaining the weight. Thus, 95% of weight loss program participants don’t come away with sustained, long term weight loss. Over the long term, they are more likely to end up heavier than when they started and may enter a “boomerang” cycle of constant weight gain and loss, creating a host of new health risks.
Ultimately, the evidence suggests that employers should avoid focusing on weight in favor of a more holistic conception of health and wellbeing. The benefits of a healthy lifestyle are available to people of all body shapes and sizes, and employees who want to lose weight will experience better outcomes if they feel safe and supported, rather than unfairly judged, by the workplace environment.
Taubes, Gary. “Why We Get Fat”