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Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again Hardcover – April 7, 2015
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“Mann - who has been on a diet only once, for just two weeks, and who loves ice cream, especially rocky road - does not suggest that we give up altogether. She offers some research-based ways to change unhealthful eating habits and get to that leanest livable weight.” (Los Angeles Times)
“Secrets from the Eating Lab offers a behind-the-scenes look into one of the most ingenious and creative labs in the country. In her clever book, Mann provides key insights and practical lessons that will make you think about-and then change-the way you eat.” (Brian Wansink PhD, author of Mindless Eating and Slim by Design)
“In a seemingly endless parade of ‘new’ fad diets, we are in great need of Dr. Traci Mann, an open-minded iconoclast who exposes the diet mega-industry’s hype-filled promises with watertight research and fascinating studies.” (Kate Christensen, author of Blue Plate Special and Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award)
“While it’s scientifically undeniable that diets don’t work, there is also good news...In Secrets from the Eating Lab, Traci Mann offers a realistic alternative, providing a scientifically-supported path to achieving health and fitness goals while debunking the many myths surrounding this complex and emotionally charged topic.” (Paul Campos, Professor, University of Colorado, and author of The Obesity Myth)
“While it’s scientifically undeniable that diets don’t work, there is also good news...In Secrets from the Eating Lab, Traci Mann offers a realistic alternative, providing a scientifically-supported path to achieving health and fitness goals while debunking the many myths surrounding this complex and emotionally charged topic.” (Jonathan Bailor, New York Times bestselling author of The Calorie Myth)
From the Back Cover
Is Your Diet Making You Fat?
From her Health and Eating Laboratory at the University of Minnesota, Professor Traci Mann researches self-control and dieting. And what she has discovered is groundbreaking: not only do diets not work, they often result in weight gain. We are losing the battle of the bulge because our bodies and brains are not hardwired to resist food—in fact, the very idea of it works against our biological imperative to survive.
In Secrets from the Eating Lab, Mann challenges assumptions—including those that make up the foundation of the weight loss industry—about how diets work and why they fail. As Mann explains, most weight loss plans are reliant on the notion of willpower—and willpower is an illusion. Moreover, even when we are able to successfully lose weight, our bodies fight our efforts, seeking to regain the weight we've worked so hard to lose. In the end, we become chronic "yo-yo" dieters, destined to lose and regain the same pounds time and again. The diet industry is well aware of these facts and has tellingly built their business model on the concept of the "repeat customer"; they know we'll be back.
The result of more than two decades of research, Secrets from the Eating Lab presents cutting-edge science and offers exciting new insights into the American obesity epidemic and our relationship with food. From redefining "comfort food" to reconsidering healthy food labeling that, ironically, makes us less inclined to make healthy choices, Mann presents an arsenal of simple, common-sense strategies that take advantage of human nature instead of fighting it—helping you to achieve a healthy and sustainable weight.
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Although she is a researcher, Dr. Mann takes pains to distinguish herself from obesity researchers with a public health focus who are motivated to warn people about the dangers of increasing body fat. Her interpretation of the data is often the opposite in some ways from theirs, she sees the growing incidence of body fat and she sees the growing incidence of adult onset diabetes, but she reports that the link between body fat and health problems is far weaker than is implied by the rhetoric of most obesity researchers and much weaker than the popular impression has become. In addition, our efforts to fight obesity have, she concludes, actually become counter-productive because of the manner in which we typically attempt to fight our own biology by restricting calories and exercising in ways that increase our stresses and increase our preoccupation with food, and that both of these things feed back into exacerbating the original problem.
The book starts off ripping into both the commercial diet industry and the focus of a lot of articles by doctors and obesity researchers by announcing that their "3 pillars" are all simply false:
1. That some diets work for losing weight
2. That some diets are healthy for losing weight
3. That obesity itself is deadly
Among the central and most compelling aspects of this book is where Mann observes that our ideal body image often tends to be outside of the range that we can reasonably sustain. And this becomes confused with health concerns and fed by commercial interests. We could transform our bodies potentially through diet and exercise, but at the cost of altering or entire lives in the service of that goal and experiencing extended self-denial and obsession with food.
And the clincher for her argument is that all this self-denial and obsession would be mostly serving our aesthetic ideal rather than actually improving health. She finds that according to best available evidence upon close inspection mortality is not significantly improved by losing weight, unless you are already extremely obese and still have a long life ahead of you. The population in that category is far smaller than the one targeted by both the diet and fitness industries and most obesity researchers.
Mann finds that diets consistently fail in two ways: (1) only a tiny percentage of dieters retain their weight loss, regardless of which diet it is, and (2) even when people lose enough weight to satisfy the goals of improving their risk profile, they rarely lose enough to satisfy their aesthetic preference. This means that according to the person themselves, their diet failed even when for health purposes it succeeds. Our aesthetic goals trump our health goals for the purpose of satisfaction with the diet.
If we should want to attempt small changes that help us regulate our own eating so we can maintain a sustainably lower body weight, Mann offers several well-tested behavioral suggestions along the lines of "nudges" that help us avoid being triggered to eat excessively.
I think her principles seem sound and her use of evidence is compelling. I would say that anyone who wants to lose a few pounds permanently would probably benefit from the sort of cognitive-behavioral suggestions Mann gives in her book.
I do have a criticism of her otherwise superb and unique exposition though.
She argues for a set point model of body weight regulation that maintains our weight within a fairly narrow range but she doesn't really address the obvious question of why people are statistically getting fatter if we are so consistent at maintaining our weight in such a narrow range. She puts most of her focus on obesity not being as deadly as it appears except at the extreme, and she explains why people can't simply diet away unwanted body fat, but she doesn't at all dive into the reasons for our growing bodies.
That's a big topic and it isn't her area of research so I can understand leaving it to others to try to explain, but for me it left a logical hole in her argument that begs to be filled and should have been addressed with at least some general thoughts. She should have touched on the moving of "settling points" that move somewhat rather than implying a single weight range exists for each person. Clearly that range shifts under different clusters of life conditions. That's not just important because we need to explain why we get fatter. It is also important because we need to explain the few outlier cases where people do successfully make the changes needed to lose very large amounts of weight and keep it off for years or decades. They are I think becoming different people in a sense, with different weight regulation settling points resulting from different activity patterns and eating habits and different environmental conditions. She doesn't really seem to allow for that at all. Her insistence that a "diet" doesn't allow for that may give a misleading impression that people _never_ successfully lose significant weight for the long term. That is clearly not true. Playing the odds is fine, and we need to be realistic about what is required, but knowing why the outliers succeed is important as well.
The reason she is right most of the time I think is that it is a lot more work than we expect to be able to do the experimentation and learning and self-observation needed to learn to avoid temptations and prepare our own food in a nutritious way and so on, and as she says, "diet" to most people means eating certain things, not engaging in a challenging ongoing learning process and strategically altering clusters of habits. If you expect to do that sort of thing, then I think it is entirely possible to shift from one "settling point" to another to lose a lot of weight over time and keep it off. She is right that if you do this kind of staged life adjustment to become very lean, you will have a much harder time maintaining it in general until it becomes a developmental change. She is right that this cannot possibly be done in most cases simply by acts of discipline. You have to become smart about it.
The author admits she was very surprised by her findings: "Much to my surprise, I've learned that nearly everything I thought was true about eating was false. "Perhaps one of the most important conclusions of this book regards the failures of diets: "The most rigorous diet studies find that about half of dieters will weigh more for 25 years after the diet ends than they did before the diet began."
One of the big problems with diets is that diets cause stress. But a stress response itself is something that leads to weight gain! "Stress cannot be avoided when you are dieting because dieting itself causes stress. Dieting causes the stress response that has already been showed to lead to weight gain."
One of the recurring themes of SECRETS FROM THE EATING LAB is how realistic your weight goal is. Your realistic weight is highly correlated to the weight of your biological parents. She cites studies with twins who are living in separate homes. They discovered that the weight of the twins was very similar to each other, even though they had been raised in separate households.
The author estimates that your genes account for 70 percent of the variation in your weight. It's not that you can't affect your weight at all but that what you can change is probably a lot more limited than you think: "Your body is trying to keep you within that genetically determined set weight range."
The most controversial part of this book will certainly be Dr. Mann's assertions about obesity. She points out that the scientific evidence does not really support the idea that all obesity is unhealthy. The author cites a study which found that overweight people actually had a slightly lower risk of death than normal weight people. In fact, "being overweight appears to be even a bit healthier than being the recommended weight." The doctor clarifies that it's not slightly obese people that have the health risks--it's what are called "Class 3 Obesity." And only 6 percent of the US population is in that category.
A surprising finding from the author's research is what is called the "obesity paradox." This section of the book was a real eye opener for me. Here's the paradox: Obesity in America has greatly increased over the past few decades. One would think, therefore, that the rate of diabetes would have skyrocketed, but it has not. Dr. Mann points out that the prevalence of diabetes went from 9% to 11%, and that the rate of cardiovascular disease actually decreased.
Dr. Mann recommends that you aim for your lowest realistic weight--not some idealistic weight that is not actually attainable. Rather than going on and off diets, you exercise, eat nutritiously, avoid weight cycling, and get proper medical care. She gives lots of practical suggestions on how to do this. For example, remember that the actions of people around you do has a great impact on how you eat.
The author is a big proponent of regular exercise, even though it doesn't usually lead to big weight loss. The benefits of exercise are numerous, the author points out. Simply put, "Exercise prevents death," and exercise "works as well as drugs in preventing death among people with heart disease, stroke, or pre-diabetes." In addition, "Exercise helps even if you don't lose weight." Exercise also helps reduce stress. You really do feel better on a regimen of exercise.
The author has some final words for the reader in the section called "Final Words: Diet Schmiet." She really discourages the reader from trying to go on diets: "Diets don't work. Big deal. You don't need them to work. You need to not go on them." Instead, she suggests, "reach your leanest livable weight, that comfortable weight at the lower end of your set range. You'll have no trouble reaching it if you exercise regularly and use some of the smart regulation strategies in this book to create reasonable eating habits."
All in all, I found SECRETS FROM THE EATING LAB to be a surprising book, with some very unusual conclusions. The author's experience and qualifications are solid, but this book is bound to be controversial, because it takes aim at some of the core assumptions in the health/diet world.
Advance copy for impartial review.
The other thing I like about the book is that the trigger-avoidance advice is consistent with models that explain overeating as an addiction to processed foods. Drug and alcohol addicts are also advised to avoid people, places, and things associated with the use of addictive substances. Dr. Mann’s book supports the idea that for addictive processed foods, cue-avoidance is a much more complex task and she provides appropriately comprehensive strategies for accomplishing this. Such a high level of understanding is unusual and makes the book very worthwhile.
If you are recovering from addiction to processed foods, I would offer a word of caution. Research shows that even small amounts of processed foods can trigger the cravings associated with the addiction. So for food-addicted readers of this otherwise outstanding book, please don’t be persuaded that by following cue avoidance and a generally healthy diet, it could be safe to eat small quantities of addictive processed foods.
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