Obesity affects approximately 40 percent of American adults, and I’ve been one of them for nearly as long as I can remember. There are innumerable schemes that promise effortless, or nearly effortless, weight loss, and many diets that claim to be the best approach.
Most of us recognize that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
It’s much simpler to identify the miracle potion advertised on our social media feed as snake oil than it is to sort through all the conflicting and seemingly changeable advice on what makes a healthy diet. Should we be cutting out fat, or cutting back on carbs? Is there a particular combination of foods or spices or supplements we should be eating to be slim and trim and healthy?
In truth, obesity is a tenacious disease, and many people successfully lose weight with any of a multitude of diets. Many other people are also unsuccessful with those very same diets.
Between my second and third years of medical school, I had a month without work or structured academic obligations to study for the important Step 1 board exam. Every morning, I would get up and exercise for an hour before I hit the books. I would prepare healthy meals, and snack on carrots and celery while I read. I was determined to lose some of my excess pounds and set a good example for my future patients.
At the end of that month, I’d lost two pounds. This was not at all what I had anticipated. I was frustrated, angry, and hurt. I felt that my efforts had failed. I felt that “I” had failed.
Let’s think about what “success” means. Although we may want to get down to our ideal body weight, very few people with obesity actually achieve that goal, especially without surgical help. From a medical perspective, losing just five to ten percent of your body weight improves your health in a variety of ways. More importantly, the lifestyle changes that can lead to that weight loss have health benefits of their own.
With the wisdom of nearly 30 years in medicine, I realize that by focusing on the scale, I hadn’t seen something even more important. Eating fruits and vegetables reduces the risk of heart disease, strokes, cancer and many other chronic diseases. Daily exercise strengthens hearts and bones. In short, even without weight loss, exercise and a healthy diet are good for you.
Experts may debate the nuances of the “best” diet, but there are some fundamentals that can bring success with or without the loss of pounds. Eat a variety of produce and lots of it. Watch the sodium. Minimize processed foods. Avoid added sugars and trans fats.
Your diet isn’t something you are “on” or “off.” Your diet is the way you nourish your body every day, and success is the choices you make that support your health.
Debra Johnson, M.D. is part of The Prairie Doc team of physicians and currently practices family medicine in Brookings, South Dakota.