The 95% Problem

A much-touted number around the Fatosphere is 95%. 95% of diets fail to keep weight off long-term, and many diets add weight onto the baseline by the end of the diet cycle, and repeatedly as many times as a dieter cycles over his/her life.

I see this argument in comments on articles that bring out the fat-haters and concern trolls; I see this argument in blog posts; this argument has been used in fat studies and HAES literature.

What I’m going to address today is what I call the 95% problem. That is, why the 95% number fails to convince many people of the ultimate futility of dieting and the relative impossibility of making a fat person permanently thin.

The set of characters I tend to run across, enumerated below, accept and believe in the 95% number to some extent. They just don’t think that it’s a reasonable argument (or excuse, as they put it) for why the diet is failing, and not the dieter.

1. The anecdotalist. Sure, it’s hard to lose weight. But I personally (or a friend) just spent X weeks eating healthy/paleo/vegan/low-carb/low-cal/cleanse, and I’ve lost Y lbs. It was easy, and I don’t see any problem keeping it up. 

The implication being: that current dieters in the honeymoon part of their diet, or first-time dieters, or non-dieters (with the friend who lost weight) are part of the 5%. The 95% are all those inferior people who didn’t have the superior willpower/diet plan/education of the person who lost weight successfully.

2. The social engineer. Sure, it’s hard to lose weight. I’m not fat and I can afford to eat paleo/low-carb/etc, and the membership fee to a nice indoor gym. So we need to make it so everyone else can afford those things. There’s a reason most fat people are poor!

The implication being: that 95% fail their diets because they don’t have enough money to buy superior food, or that they don’t have access to superior food/exercise, and so on. The belief is that fat people can be made permanently thin if only they could eat a superior paleo/low-carb/vegan/low-cal/etc diet and exercise X min a day on socially-approved treadmills.

3. The moralist. No, it isn’t hard to lose weight. Fat people are just lazier than regular people. It isn’t surprising that 95% of them can’t manage to pry their butts from their couches, or bother to learn to cook vegetables. I mean, how hard is it to eat an apple instead of a Twinkie? Seriously. Oh, and those fatties who say they work out and eat right are obviously lying, or think that ‘eating right’ means snarfing S’mores on whole wheat graham crackers or something.

The obvious implication (the moralists don’t tend to mince their words as much as the others): that 95% diets fail because fat(ter) people are morally inferior to ‘normal’ people. It’s an argument from uninformed, bigoted logic that ignores all scientific points thrown its way. Moralists are also good at projecting their anti-scientific beliefs on others: when someone responds to their ‘lazy’ comment with a study or article disproving something they said, they claim the responder is ‘cherry-picking,’ then link to the CDC stats on obesity like this is an end-all refutation. Moralists also like to connect fatness to social ills like global warming and consumerism (if progressive), or lack of self-responsibility and bloated social entitlements (if libertarian).

4. The self-loather. Well, I’m fat (or recently gained weight) and I’m tired/lethargic/short of breath/in pain, and I know personally that I eat too much/eat emotionally/binge eat/am addicted to food/eat too much sugar/(reason du jour). Though it’s hard to make changes, I have to if I want to feel better.

The implication being: that all fat people are just like this person—they feel generally unwell, out of shape, they eat junk, and so on. The commenter is faux-sympathetic to their plight, but is certain that most fatness still comes down to bad behavior/brokenness/stupidity/ignorance, and not to any kind of biological mechanism. This person believes in the 95% number but still think they should forge ahead with their plan to ‘fix’ themselves. They believe that healthy/normal/smart/educated people are naturally thin(ner), or at least not as fat as they are/were.

5. The immortal. Well, X disease (correlated to fatness) runs in my family. So I need to diet constantly, or else there’s a good chance I’ll get fat and get X disease. Or: I have X disease correlated with fatness. I have to lose weight in order to deal with my condition/have the best chance of living normally.

The implication being: that fat causes X disease (not just correlated, and not the other way around), and that weight loss is the main treatment/preventative measure. These individuals might agree that 95% of people fail to lose weight and keep it off long term, but still maintain that they personally are required to. This attitude subtly implies that willpower and desire is the key to entering the vaunted 5%, and further, that those in the 95% must have less willpower and desire to lose weight than those who “have to.”

6. The genetic superior. Well, sure it’s hard to lose weight and I personally don’t have to worry about it, but you should still try to lose weight. Even if it takes the equivalent of a part-time job, loads of cash, and constant vigilance. Even if it makes you sad and crazy. Sorry. Them’s the breaks (dear gosh I’m so glad not to be you!). 

This one kind of explains itself. And yes, I was involved with someone once (a thin guy) who said I had to lose 50 lbs to be ‘hot enough’ for him, and when I cried, he said, “We all have our trials and tribulations.” This was also when I was near my thinnest.

What about you—what kind of arguments do you come across that try to refute the power of the 95% number? And did you have trouble accepting this number at first, or was it (like it was for me) a lightning-bolt to the brain of sudden, joyous, clarity?

21 comments on “The 95% Problem

  1. vesta44 says:

    I’ve heard every one of these, and most of them even came from doctors. When I told the doctor I saw for my determination for SSDI (whether I was disabled or not) that I had had WLS (a VBG) and it obviously didn’t work, and I was fatter afterward than I was before, he had the nerve to tell me that another WLS (RNY) would work this time to make me permanently thin and “cure” my disabilities. When I told him that doctors had had their one chance to kill me and weren’t getting another one, he wasn’t amused (he was actually outraged by that and thought I was being overly “dramatic”).
    According to most people, anyone who is fat is supposed to anything and everything in their power to become thin(ner) no matter how miserable it makes the fat person because there is nothing worse than being fat (according to them). I’m glad I quit buying into those ideas 10 years ago.

    • bigliberty says:

      Vesta, I completely agree that the common narrative about being fat is that there’s nothing worse than being fat. Not starving yourself or spending oodles of money and hours on crap diet food or a gym membership (traditional WL diet), not mutilating and re-sewing healthy organs into freakish pretzels with side effects often much worse than the original ‘problem’, not spending the equivalent of a part time job for the rest of your life jogging after some ever-retreating fountain of youth, with no guarantee you’ll earn the prized few years of additional, healthy life promised by the anti-fat establishment and its many citizen police officers.

      By the way, that’s horrible about your doctor. Even in the face of direct evidence this guy refused to believe that WLS wasn’t some magic potion to cure all ills.

  2. Where would something like this fall?

    I once had a doctor tell me that the key to losing weight was cutting calories, and that I needed to keep cutting calories out of my diet until I found a point where I would lose weight (and keep losing it until I got to my “ideal” BMI number — which, by the way, is a number I probably haven’t been in since I was 10, but that’s not the point right now). I pointed out to him that eventually calorie-cutting becomes dangerous. He looked right at me and said, “Well, you want to lose weight, don’t you?”

    I guess it’s an extension of the willpower argument. Who cares if eating X number of calories a day is dangerous, you’ll do it if it makes you lose weight, and if you don’t then you CLEARLY lack the will power/morals/whatever to lose weight. Right?

    • bigliberty says:

      Hi Shori_hime,

      Yes, I think it’s an extension of the “genetic superior” (you just need to do it, regardless of the costs, because that’s the price of being an ‘inferior’ fat person).

      However, it might deserve its own category. Like: The brick wall.Lose weight. What do you mean, it’s dangerous? (Blank stare) Do it anyway. – These happy individuals believe that weight loss is an end in itself, and no evidence or even logic can permeate that singular goal.

  3. Patsy Nevins says:

    Yes, you need to lose weight, no matter what the cost, usually because the speaker doesn’t like looking at you (I have come to understand that most of the ‘you are costing me money…& most of us are not costing them a damn penny…arguments are really based in “I don’t like looking at you, don’t want to have sex with you’ reactions & the core belief, especially by fat-hating males, that we should do all in our power to be as attractive as possible to as many people as possible or at least not to offend their delicate sensibilities.

    And all of these above attitudes are so widespread & so absolutely accepted as truth that at least 95% if not more of fat people believe them completely, hate themselves for being fat, & can be expected to keep trying every so often, maybe for the rest of their lives. This BS gives rise to such things as Carnie Wilson planning to have a SECOND weight loss surgery & someone whose blog is linked on some of the fat feeds saying something like, “Well, at just over 5 feet tall & 240 pounds, she IS very fat.” And that somehow means that being fat is more dangerous for her than playing surgical roulette or that permanent weight loss should somehow be more attainable for her than it is for someone with 30 pounds or less to lose? Maybe if Carnie’s body keeps going back to 240 pounds regardless of what she does or what she risks, she is supposed to weigh 240 pounds. And maybe we should all leave each other alone & all work harder at accepting & respectfully caring for the bodies we have, instead of believing that everyone has to be the same size & shape or be willing to die in the attempt.

    I am 62 years old & I would have to be completely insane to allow anyone to persuade me to diet again, since for someone my age, weight loss increases my risks of early mortality by several hundred percent. However, that doesn’t keep AARP from pushing weight loss for people into their 80’s, a very good reason why I am not a member. Nor does that keep people doing public service announcements about preventing colon cancer, something which mostly happens to older people, from emphatically calling ‘obesity’ a strong risk factor for colon cancer & stating that one of the things we can do to be ‘responsible’ in caring for ourselves & trying to prevent the disease is ‘maintaining a healthy weight’. Apparently, it doesn’t matter if you, as I do, do all the other things…eat a diet rich in fiber, not smoke, not drink, get regular exercise, take an aspirin daily (sometimes two or three, since aspirin is also what I usually take for arthritis pain)…just being fat means to these people that I am more likely to get colon cancer. Whatever do they find to nag the thin people, who get all the same diseases fat people get, about?

    • bigliberty says:

      Thanks, Patsy (always good to see your comments!). I’m sad about the AARP. I can think of more than one senior in my life who, if they’d intentionally lost weight in their 70s and 80s, would have been in danger of not surviving later ailments.

    • The Real Cie says:

      Poor Carnie. All the weight loss surgeries in the world are not going to make her like herself. It’s a shame that this lovely, talented, and from everything I’ve seen very nice woman would be so filled with self loathing that she is convinced that risking her life is a better choice than being fat.

  4. I’m slightly bemused at the number of people I come across who combine two contradictory viewpoints.

    They claim it’s easy to lose weight, anyone can do it, etc etc. But they then view themselves as superior human beings for having done it (or more likely, for just having the lucky genetic combination that stopped them from putting it on in the first place).

    Look, I’d say to those people, either something is easy, therefore you personally don’t deserve any credit for doing something you believe anyone can do. Or it’s hard, and while you may indeed deserve credit, you have no right to assume that everyone else should be able to do it. Make your mind up, but being both part of the ‘everyone’ in ‘everyone can do it’ and a special snowflake of unique achievements for having done it, is not an option open to you.

    Does that make sense?

    • bigliberty says:

      That absolutely makes sense. I think it’s all about cultivating the feeling of superiority. They are, in effect, saying, “Only stupid, bad, or broken people fail at dieting. Aren’t you proud at me for not being stupid, bad, or broken?” It’s like how some mathematicians work on really hard problems, spend a lot of time doing them, and then alpha-dog over non-mathematicians or mathematicians who haven’t worked on the problem by saying, “Oh, well, you know, once I applied this theorem then it was just like running downhill.”

      Dieting and body size is predominantly about one thing: status.

  5. The Real Cie says:

    I hadn’t done any focused exercise in a long time (my job forces me to exercise to a degree, but it isn’t the same) because I had always correlated exercise with weight loss and thus was always disappointed in the results. I was tired of letting my old conditioning get in the way of me improving my strength, stamina, and flexibility so I decided to start exercising again regardless. I’m at a point where I don’t want to gain any more weight if I can help it, so I also started using a tool to track calories, just for shits and grins. I’m a nurse and I’ve taken nutrition classes, so I had a theory that if I was getting adequate nutrition, I might be hungry less often, because I was pretty well ravenous all the time. So I started supplementing with Ensure shakes to be sure that I was getting the right vitamins and minerals.
    Here’s what happened. I lost 500 pounds out of my 310 and am now a negligible weight and thus ultra superior to all you fat fatties!
    Not really, and I do hope that everyone realizes that I’m joking. What happened is that I very quickly lost 11 pounds. My old conditioning was really excited by this and so sure that the weight was going to keep just falling off, though the new me was cautious about squelching this thinking. I have an eating disorder and in the past have been an over-exerciser as well. I did not want to get back into those patterns.
    Lo and behold, 11 pounds is what I’ve lost. Even though I’m eating 1000 less calories a day than I was previously. Even though I am taking in adequate nutrition. Even though I am now exercising again.
    Yes, I could really ramp up my exercise and start working out for 3-5 hours a day again like I was doing 20 years ago. Yes, I could cut 1000 more calories out of my diet (I’m currently eating between 2000 and 2500 and am comfortable with it.) But then guess what I’d be? Miserable and doomed to failure. I’ve learned in my nearly 50 years that I’d rather be a reasonably healthy and somewhat content fatty than a self-loathing, thinner but never thin enough person.
    Diet: something that starts with DIE and ends in failure.

  6. Patsy Nevins says:

    The last line reminds me of one of my favorites, Garfield, who says, “Diet is die with a T.” Amen.

    • bigliberty says:

      I’m not ashamed to admit that Garfield was one of my first fat heroes. As a kid I despised the weight-related strips, and loved that he always ended up returning to the same average weight despite gains and losses. Take that, Jon!

      (by the way, Garfield minus Garfield is one of the funniest and most depressing things ever)

  7. The reason I asked questions about the 95% in Ragen’s post was not because I try to argue it or disqualify it as a reputable statistic. I was only asking out of curiosity because I don’t know what this study is based on. I have heard many of you talk about it, but I have never seen any sources or details about it beyond that.

  8. bodytruth says:

    Great collection of resources you’ve posted. The article on the futility of weight loss doesn’t use the number 95%, though. It reports a range of failures, from the 60% range to the 83% range.

    • bigliberty says:

      Thanks for pointing that out! I recently added it quickly on a recommendation and did a no-no for me — didn’t read it thoroughly first. I’ll take it down and hunt for the real one.

  9. wendyrg says:

    How about the “magical thinker”? I know that 95% will gain the weight back, but I’m in the 5%!

  10. […] Big Liberty takes on some common refusals to believe that 95% of dieters will fail and regain weight.  The comments are a nice filling out of the discussion. For other 101-style topics check out her newly moved Truth Behind Fat references page. It’s rather well-rounded and a great place to start gathering verbal weapons for any mild to intensive Fat Acceptance “arsenal” you might wish to have at your disposal! […]

  11. Only a couple of years ago I allowed myself to be bullied (by medical professionals AND well-meaning family members) into having a LAP-band procedure when I really didn’t want one, I can say at this point it was not my smartest move. i’m still fat, and I’m fine with it. Of course it’s disappointing for those around me that their ‘miracle cure’ didn’t work for me, and it’s my failing. It may be, but I’m happy the way I am, and getting happier every day! I love reading posts like yours that inspire me to focus more on being healthy and the awesome person i always knew i was rather than zeroing in on the size of my ass.
    Focusing on dieting and weight loss is a vicious road I’m more than happy I gave up on following and I can only say that it’s been quite a hinderance to my wellbeing because i regularly and involuntarily throw up whatever I’m eating (I know, pleasant..). If that’s healthier than what I was.. then I’m the Queen of England.

  12. Hoot says:

    Did you end up finding the reference for the 95% claim?

    • bigliberty says:

      In the absence of access to full articles (paywall), I’ve had to make-do with abstracts that don’t usually have concrete numbers. They tend to say “almost complete,” and there’s a study that shows 80 – 90% regain over 2 years, but the study size is very small. The problem is, mostly, that studies tend to end somewhere on the regain part of the curve, from 12 – 24 months. Rarely do they go longer than that.

      But here’s an article that has the “almost complete” remission language:
      Here’s a study behind another paywall, which shrouds its most important aspects, as noted by Sandy here. This shows just how few long-term studies are conducted, the skewed population of these studies (half are on diabetics), and the paltry size of the relevant WL study (25 people, on the regain part of the curve).

      You can look through my Truth About Fat page for more. Really, from what I can tell most comprehensive diet studies dance around the same problem: the regain 12 – 48 months. Most don’t go past 12 months, likely for this reason. The authors are trying to show weight loss success, and while 1 year is sufficient to show success for other kinds of behavior therapies, it’s abundantly clear to those of us who have rifled through these studies (and have ourselves dieted) 1 year is not long enough to show long-term efficacy in weight loss diets.

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