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?