Fat Girl Wearing Thin

Life beyond the loss.

   Apr 20

Are Fat People Destined to be Fat?

On Tuesday I had the opportunity to watch a most interesting segment on 60 Minutes Australia.  If you happen to live in the US, chances are you might have missed it.  I’m sure that I would have, if not for visiting one of my favorite blogs, Lynn’s Weigh.  The title of the story was called ‘The Fat Gene’ (you can watch it here as well as read the transcript) and it reported on a weight loss study that was done in Australia about why fat people remain fat. Lynn was interviewed for the story.  

The only photo of me at my heaviest.


A group of 50 Australians participated in this study; they were put on a 10 week diet.  They lost a lot of weight.  They were then given the tools they needed in order to keep that weight off in the form of advice about what to eat and how to exercise.  Slowly, the participants regained the weight they’d lost.

According to the researchers, it wasn’t the lack of participants’ willpower but their body’s hormone chemistry that made these people regain their weight.  Ghrelin, a so-called hunger hormone, rose 20% which in turn told the body that it was starving, even after the participants ended the diet.   The researchers go on to say that our weight is predetermined in our DNA. 

Liam Bartlett was the 60 Minutes correspondent. Summing up the researchers findings he said,

“The bottom line of this new science of weight loss is pretty harsh – fat people, despite their best efforts, will probably stay fat and there’s really not a lot they can do about it.”

Playing Devil’s Advocate, he then interviewed Dr. Rena Wing who is one of the researchers of the Weight Control Registry of which Lynn and 10,000 other maintainers are a part of in the United States (I am currently filling out my paperwork to join the study). She felt that Melbourne’s study was sending out the wrong message to heavy people.  With the thousands of maintainers she keeps track of she stated that many people are able to maintain their weight loss.  Lynn was featured as a representative to those of us who have been successful in maintaining their weight loss.  She discussed how she’s been able to maintain her loss for the last seven years: keeping track of her calories and daily exercise.   As a fellow maintainer who has also kept off 100+ pounds for 7 years I completely relate to what she said and I attribute my success to doing the exact same thing as she.  It all comes down to one word: diligence. 

But diligence is not the word that Professor Joe Proietto used.  He was the team leader in the Melbourne University study.  The words he used to describe maintainers like me were ‘obsessive-compulsive’.  He went on to say this:

“These people weigh themselves every day and run marathons. What do you think they are?”

It’s not that I disagree with Professor Proietto’s findings.  As a former heavy person I completely understand the frustration felt by people who, no matter what they do, regain some if not all the weight they’ve lost.  I’ve been there a few times myself.  What I disagree with is the way Professor Proietto presents his findings.  In my opinion, he basically sounded as though he has no faith in overweight people; that not only is it next to impossible to lose weight and keep it off but in order to do so we sacrifice ourselves as sane, well-rounded individuals. 

Labeling maintainers as obsessive-compulsive is a little over the top, in my book. If you watch the segment you’ll also hear words like ‘not normal’ to define us. But…what is normal? It seems like no matter who we are, whether fat or thin, we’re doing nothing but dodging labels (and you know how I feel about labels). 

Taken on vacation in September, 2011

I could probably write another several lengthy paragraphs on this topic but I’m not going to.  Instead, I’m going to sit back and read what you have to say on this topic, and end my post by borrowing a very eloquent, very beautiful thought by Lynn, who summed up my feelings in the most perfect way:


My former body and the me who occupied it continue to be the source of my determination. I would dishonor she who was me by giving up the fight, because she is the one who thought enough about herself to start that march down the scale. 

Thank you for that, Lynn.  And thank you all for reading today.  Have you seen the 60 Minutes Australia segment?  What are your thoughts on the findings of Melbourne University’s study?

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  1. Hanlie says:

    Why am I always first? And what a provocative post!

    This is a prime example of “proving something through science” but starting with the wrong premise (there’s a lot of that around, especially in the area of health). Our bodies, fat or thin, by way of our hormones (including ghrelin), are genetically and metabolically programmed to gain weight when we restrict calories and then resume eating. That is why diets don’t work.

    It seems that Prof Proietto wouldn’t recognize “normal” if it reared up and bit him on the nose. Does he consider the way the majority of people in the First World eat to be normal? Does he consider being physically inactive normal? These things are not “normal” – they’re just common. There’s a difference.

    We’re supposed to care about what we eat. Our bodies are designed for physical activity. Doing these things is normal, although sadly not common.

  2. Reading an article years ago that had a similar dire declaration for obese people was one of the instigators in my own renewed efforts to lose weight. I actually got mad when I read it and remember thinking, I am NOT a statistic. I am a human being. But it did light a fire within me, and I channeled the same inner 3-year old who rebelled against a restrictive diet and instead used the energy to prove that statistic wrong. It worked. Now I’m too busy/active to listen to what those people think or read what they write.

  3. Jill says:

    I am actually offended by how the professor defined maintainers like me as obsessive compulsive. I don’t really have a choice. If I do not pay close attention to what I eat and how much of it I eat, I will gain my weight back. To define that as a disorder is unfair and hurtful. I am proud of what I have accomplished and that I stayed committed to being healthy. When a professor makes a comment like that it makes me feel like I have to defend myself- and that should not be the case. Ellen- I do not get angry often, but this has made me angry. I suppose I need to think more like Cammy and not pay attention to this kind of stuff.
    By the way…. your photos are amazing and inspirational. xoxoxox

  4. I first have to qualify my response and say that I have probably never been what most would consider “fat.” I’m equating that with obesity and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. But I have been overweight many times and, as you know, regained weight loss many times. I don’t think I am destined for that – I totally agree with you on the use of the word “diligence.” (I might have to borrow that one!) The other word that I think of in regards to myself and my struggles is “consistency.” Seems to me the key to maintaining is easily explained by either word, but not so easy to do in practice. There is clearly an emotional component to all this for many of us, that further complicates things. But from my own experience, it is about the choices I have made and not any destiny to return to my heavier weight.

  5. Had I’d heard of this study right before joining WW (again) 4 years ago (after years and years of failed weight loss attempts,) my then fragile self would have been devastated. Maybe I wouldn’t have even given weight loss another go feeling that there was no point in fighting what I was predestined for. Professor Joe, you are an irresponsible a$$!!! (Pardon my French!)

  6. NewMe says:

    I just don’t get it.

    The 5% of people who maintain a significant weight loss must, for the most part, fight like hell to do so (yes, I know there are exceptions, but reading the trials and tribulations of maintainers like yourself and Lynn and countless others, I would say that most are working REALLY, REALLY hard to maintain a lower weight).

    The kinds of mental and physical gymnastics that maintainers require of themselves are not normal. Weight loss maintenance requires constant hypervigilance. Some might call it a certain degree of obsessive-compulsiveness. Clear-eyed maintainers like Debra (debrasjustmaintaining.com) freely admit that maintaining weight loss is at very least a part-time job. A number of people have turned their weight loss success story into a source of income. And that’s fine for them. Others have made their quest for weight loss into one of the most important things in their life. Weight loss maintenance is never on the back burner. Let down your guard for even an instant and the weight comes piling back on. And letting down your guard doesn’t mean bingeing. It can just mean an extra handful of nuts, one more piece of whole-grain bread, an extra egg yolk. People who have never been heavy don’t live this way. Their bodies, for some reason we still can’t quite pinpoint, are much better at regulating energy intake and expenditure and they maintain their weight in what our society considers a “normal” range. They’re not calorie counting, weighing their food and exercising every day while keeping an eye firmly fixed on the “calories burned” counter of the elliptical trainer.

    If you’re a successful loser, I say “Embrace your hypervigilance! Embrace your obsessive-compulsiveness! Admit it, you couldn’t have done it without these character traits.”

    But let’s go a step further: I agree that–especially in many parts of North America–we live a world where physical activity is discouraged and junk food is often king. However, I am firmly of the opinion that even in an ideal world (good public transit, the opportunity to engage in regular, enjoyable physical activity, a world where junk food was unusual instead of the default choice for many, a world where people didn’t have to work two jobs or more to make ends meet and thus had the time to prepare food from scratch, a world where people accepted the same diversity of size that we see in the natural world, a world that doesn’t worship only body types like Victoria Beckham’s, etc. etc.), we would still see both overweight and overly thin people. It’s just that we would see fewer of the extremes that we see today: people who need to lose 100+ pounds or people who have starved themselves down to near-death.

    OK, I’ve put my neck on the chopping block, hack away!

  7. caryesings says:

    I watched that broadcast because of Lynn as well.

    In a way I find having to maintain a 100 lb weight loss as a bit of a blessing. Everyone should be getting regular exercise and watching what they eat, but seems like the only ones I know who truly do it all the time are those trying to maintain a weight loss.

  8. Caron says:

    I’ll admit I do not like being called names but if that is what I am, I embrace it. I want to live as healthy as I can for as much time as God gives me. If that involves obsessive behavior, so be it. :)

  9. I haven’t seen it – but now I want to!

    Although I don’t want to say too much before I’ve seen it, I can say that I “sort of” agree with what they are saying. I don’t like calling it “obsessive-compulsive” but that’s probably what it is for me! I’m painfully afraid of re-gaining weight and employ a ton of techniques to ensure that I don’t (or hope I won’t). Some I don’t love, but I’m so unwilling to go back to where I was, I’m willing to make those sacrifices. I hate the feeling of a loss of control and tapering for my marathon tomorrow has been physically, mentally, and emotionally horrible (so much so that I definitely haven’t reaped the benefits of a REAL taper because I’ve still run more then I should).

    Glad you posted this – can’t wait to see it!

  10. teresa says:

    I will watch that later and I just got Lynn’s blog for my feed. I didn’t know about her, but that quote from her at the end of your post really moves me.
    I think it’s about the hormone chemistry and that is probably altered from all the years of over-feeding our bodies and reducing the functioning of many systems. Just as if someone was on a medicine that took over a function for a long time, then they go off and their body has to re-learn how to do that thing. It’s possible but much more rare for a body to truly lack the ability to preform a function.
    I believe that when we gain fat, we gain those fat cells and then they might shrink but not go away. That’s part of the problem. we’ve created a body type for ourselves.
    Some people have genetic predispostions for say, big arms or hips or thighs…. And no matter how thin they are, they will carry more weight there.
    I only accept that variations of 10-20 pounds are genetic. Super thin people naturally and then people that carry a bit more naturally.
    I know without a doubt that I am and was meant to be a thin person. My body type is not skinny, but is very proportioned and naturally muscular, flexible and strong. I have always worked out and been more fit in many ways than even my sister who was always skinny (and so never built a muscle.)
    I think there are all kinds of people, and we get fat for all kinds of reasons. But none of us have to stay this way.
    we may always have to be a bit more obsessive to keep guiding our bodies not to store fat. But think about it, most of us have been fat for 20, 30, 40 years and we don’t give our bodies any time at all before we expect it to adapt to thinness!
    Chemistry it is. And we each have to find our own formula to balance out the places where our individual bodies have compensated for the extra weight for so long.
    Gee… I guess I did have something to say on this topic!
    You look so wonderful in that water!!!

  11. Val says:

    I doubt I will have time to search this out & read it “directly” so I appreciate your synopsis!
    Not that I would waste my time doing so… Eloquently put, NewMe – I know that morbid obesity is prevalent on the paternal side of my family. My dad has “fought the good fight” against extra poundage since the onset of adulthood. Of course I know it doesn’t help (a confounding factor, n’est ce pas?) that each & every family event is commemorated by big celebratory meals (I’m not ashamed to admit that many of my aunts & cousins are fantastic cooks!). Nature vs nurture? I should count myself lucky; if we’re stranded on a desert island, I’m likeliest to survive 😉 !

  12. Cindy says:

    I had seen the segment on Lynn’s blog as well. I don’t even know where to start. I was a bit irritated by it to say the least. (I’m being nice.) While there may appear to be truth to theories about the ghrelin hormone, I think to say that the result can’t be managed is misleading. I also don’t agree that our DNA is the final word on who we are going to be. (Thank goodness!) Yes, we are pre-disposed to certain characteristics given our DNA, but environment and choices also play a role. With regard to DNA and hormones, I think the truth is somewhere closer to the middle – yes, it affects us, and can make loss and maintenance a whole lot more difficult, but it’s not completely insurmountable.
    Now the piece that got me most “riled up” (sorry, I’m from Texas, I can’t help myself sometimes) was the bit about what’s “normal,” or the view that committment to personal health should be characterized as being “obsessive compulsive.” I felt like to telling this professor guy, “mister, I have anxiety. Obsessive-compulsiveness is a friend of mine and knowing the calorie count of an egg is NOT obsessive compulsiveness.” Also, as someone who is an admitted food addict, obsessive thoughts about food, when I’m not hungry, is what creates a compulsion for me to overeat. I can’t imagine that I am the only person who has ever gotten morbidly obese due to obsessive compulsions with food. Again, maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle: maybe obsessive compulsiveness as related to food exists on a spectrum and there are people who fall all along that spectrum. To single out people who are focused and dedicated to their health as being the ones who are obsessive-compulsive when it comes to food is completely stigmatizing and ultimately off-putting to someone who may want to manage their weight, but are afraid of being seen or labeled as obsessive-compulsive. Finally, that word “normal.” I read a quote somewhere, and I wish could remember where so as to properly attribute it, but here it is: “There is no such thing as normal. It’s just a setting on my washing machine.”
    Hope you havea great weekend, Ellen! Thank you for the opportunity to vent!

  13. Okay, I think these kind of studies are a bunch of sh*t put forth by people likely to be in the business of treating “symptoms of obesity.” Even this new drug Qnexa that may be approved by the FDA soon is all about changing diet. The drug changes the way food tastes and decreases cravings… by product = people eat less. It’s all about how much you eat and how much you exercise. It really is that simple.

    But society doesn’t want to hear that it takes hard work to lose weight and maintain a healthy lifestyle that will maintain a lower weight. People want an easy fix, people don’t want to do the work. It’s that simple.

  14. I think the truth is somewhere in between. I do agree that there are certain chemical imbalances that can cause someone to gain weight and make it harder for him or her to lose and/or maintain loss. Does it mean it’s impossible? No. Does it mean that in order to maintain it, some people have to be obsessive? Maybe. The problem is that underlying causes are not being addressed!

    And there are certain chemical imbalances that make people depressed, anxious, bipolar, and so on. And there are certain chemical imbalances that cause other issues.

    But there are other factors at play, including the current definition of “overweight” (or “obese” or whatever you want to call it) and the Western culture’s take on what an ideal, attractive body looks like. Somewhere along the line, actual health has been relegated to something that will only happen once someone loses weight. I think that healthy bodies can exist at a broader range of weights than is currently accepted.

    The current way our culture focuses on weight/appearance (even when couched as a concern about someone’s health) tends to shame people and people who feel shame are less likely to care for themselves or to seek care, especially if every time they try, they’re told to lose weight. It was only when I found a medical practitioner who wanted to focus on my health (in totality…holistically) and not my weight that things started to change for me. I had a number of issues like Lyme, thyroid/hormone imbalance, and some viruses that were causing fatigue, anxiety, high cholesterol, and a whole lot of shame. When she addressed those issues, the weight took care of itself. I am still technically overweight according to current BMI standards, but I am healthy!

    So I believe that maintaining a healthy body shouldn’t have to be an obsessive undertaking…it should come easily and if it is not, then perhaps there’s some other issue going on (and I don’t mean laziness or lack of willpower ).

  15. NewMe says:

    KCL: Thanks for adding your extremely wise comments!

  16. vickie says:

    very interesting. thank you for posting, I would have missed the whole thing if you had not.

  17. sargirl1 says:

    The professor is not an awful person or trying to be insulting. Remember this is mainstream media and he was on for about two minutes, they love to edit to be controversial. There are entire lectures by him on youtube I’ve listened to. He runs a clinic, has conducted many research studies and appears very empathic to obese people. He appears to believe that for most people long term maintenaince of weight gain will require medication that keeps the hormones under control and that’s what he’s looking for. He doesn’t want to promote the message of hypervigilence because he perceives a future where medication will make it easier. (My interpretations of him and his ideas).

  18. RedPanda says:

    I am actually offended by how the professor defined maintainers like me as obsessive compulsive. I don’t really have a choice. If I do not pay close attention to what I eat and how much of it I eat, I will gain my weight back. To define that as a disorder is unfair and hurtful.

    What she said!

    When my husband described me as “obssessed”, he means it as a compliment. He figures (rightly) that someone has to be obssessed to eat and work out the way we do to keep the weight off.

    I agree with Hanlie too.

    Does he consider being physically inactive normal? These things are not “normal” – they’re just common. There’s a difference.

    By eating and exercising like a “normal” person, I ended up weighing 220 pounds. I’ve lost 90 pounds and kept it off for about 8.5 years.

    The Australian version of “60 Minutes” is well-known for its sensational reporting, but it’s irresponsible of Professor Proietto to join in. What a negative message to send!

  19. RedPanda says:

    Sargirl1 You may be interested in reading this related post by Dr Sharma, an obesity specialist:

    According to Dr Sharma, there is currently no “regulatory pathway” to approve drugs which would help people maintain a reduced body weight.

    My interpretation is that drug companies don’t see enough profit in marketing such drugs. I’m sure they can make more money through appetite suppressants and drugs to treat diabetes.

  20. E. Jane says:

    I also read Lynn’s post and watcher the video clip. I think that the truth lies somewhere inbetween. It is certainly not as black and white as the professor implied. And as far as the “obsessive compulsive” label he has tacked onto maintainers, that is completely unfair. If tracking calories and exercising regular is “obsessive compulsive,” then what is eating two candy bars every day?? I prefer to think of it as having developed “healthy habits” that will promote good mental and physical health.

  21. Marion says:

    This post was extremely well written! I’ve heard that kind of research results too–yet–many people do defy the odds. We have to believe in ourselves.

    :-) Marion

  22. DebraSY says:

    Late to the game here, but enjoyed reading the discussion. All the points made resonate with me, except for the one that concludes to the effect, “it’s as simple as that.” One should count one’s blessings if, for you, it is simple. Please know you don’t speak for me.

    “Obesessive-compulsive.” Ouch. For some reason, that stings. I think it’s because it both marginalizes what we do and what legit OCD people must contend with. It lumps us together and then dismisses us both as impossible.

    I am also no fan of the NWCR and Rena Wing. That group began with a hypothesis — to identify maintainer behaviors and get others to replicate them — but over time that hypothesis morphed into an agenda, and in service to that agenda they have oversimplified us and don’t allow us to speak honestly or use our own language to describe what we do. They ask too few questions, wrong questions and confusing questions, and don’t accept critique. They’ve now added surgically-assisted maintainers to the rolls, but play sleight of hand with their results and include the post-surgicals when its serves their agenda and don’t when it doesn’t. Ack.

    I guess I side with those who say “it’s somewhere in between.” Most days I’m pretty stoic about what I do. I also acknowledge, though, that the maintainer commitment in my life, to many, would appear extreme and undoable — especially to those with horrible paid work situations. I have blessings and resources that make it possible for me. It dishonors others to not acknowledge that.

    You know, wouldn’t it be great if people looked at us as individuals and let us define ourselves? I actually accept that some may view my maintenance as “disordered.” Fine. But OCD? I’m uncomfortable because that is a specific condition and deserves its own respect. I’m even more uncomfortable, however, when people use “lifestyle” to describe (marginalize) my maintenance. Style is optional; maintenance is not. Moreover, I am not in the least stylish.

  23. didi says:

    My initial response to reading this post was shock, sadness, and a little bit of anger. I believe that the findings in the research were summed up very poorly, and worded badly, but it is a television program, so what can people expect? Telling obese people that they shouldn’t even bother, and that the only people who can maintain have to be obsessive compulsive marathon runners is pretty darn negative. It seems that the angle here is that this guy doesn’t believe an obese person can maintain without some kind of prescription drug (unless they are a whacko.)
    Yes, I believe that some people are more inclined to be heavier. Yes, I believe that it is difficult to undo years of bad habits. It is tough for ANYBODY to change the person that they are when they have stumbled away from their parents’ door and enter the realm of adulthood and independence. Some of us are dealt trickier hands, but that doesn’t mean that it is useless to try to change. Nor does it mean that if we do change it is only because we are obsessive compulsive. The term “obsessive compulsive” is so grossly misused these days that it makes my head spin.
    It’s tough to keep off weight because a person has to kind of be reborn and relearn how to do EVERYTHING. I have to learn when I am actually full. I have to learn how to eat enough vegetables, and balance a healthy amount of fats in there, and make sure that I don’t feel deprived. I have to learn that physical hobbies are just as important as reading and making arts and crafts. One fad diet isn’t going to do it, and that is why so many people regain whatever it is that they lose. I think it is dangerous to blame genetics for weight issues. Sure, parents who are hefty seem more likely to have kids who have weight issues as well- but this is because they are passing on bad habits to their children. In the end it is up to the individual to make a decision to live better, move forward, and make permanent changes. It’s hard work though, and an addiction to food is just like any other addiction. Unless everything changes everything will go back to the way that it was before.
    Provocative post!!! This one really stirred up some emotions.

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