Why you should care
Because it’s not all your fault. But you can make it better.
At this very moment, either you or someone you know is probably going to try to lose some weight. Either you or that person will probably fail. In fact, only 77 percent of people maintain their resolutions for a single week. Only 19 percent last two years (some claim the success rate might be as low as 8 percent). Why is it so friggin’ hard?
It’s because weight loss isn’t really about willpower. And if you blame yourself for failing to slim down, you place all the responsibility for success or failure squarely on your shoulders. But there are many biological reasons people get heavy, from genetics to evolution to chemical exposures. And if the stuff inside your body wasn’t complicated enough, there is stuff outside your body that makes it hard to stay the course as well. Junk food companies design snacks to be addictive by exploiting how your body reacts to certain flavors. High fructose corn syrup is in everything and adds to your weight. Even the way society talks about overweight people is part of the problem — fat stigma has actually been linked to weight gain, especially in women. There are more than enough examples to bore you to tears. (By the way, boredom causes weight gain too.)
Try changing the world around you so that it helps, rather than hurts, your chances of reaching your goals.
But there’s another way to think about it. Take, as a case study, the way public health policy has addressed another common wellness resolution: quitting smoking. Legislators tried to motivate individual smokers to quit by taxing cigarettes. But they also made it harder to smoke in public. They banned smoking in bars and restaurants, then in parks and public spaces. While the evidence isn’t perfect, there are indications that this has reduced smoking overall, especially among teenagers. These public policy interventions that make it harder to be unhealthy are called structural interventions: They alter the way the world is structured and therefore influence the way people behave, not by persuading them to behave a certain way, but by making it easier or harder to do certain things. This approach has also been used in battling the HIV/AIDS crisis, as researchers realized that it wasn’t just people’s behavior, but also police harassment, dilapidated buildings and many other factors that contribute to the spread of the disease.
While it may seem like a no-brainer that the world around us contributes to our health, we seldom take that into account when we talk about trying to improve ourselves. Realizing it’s not all your fault, and not blaming yourself so much, can help you maintain your resolution. You can also make your own structural changes. Instead of trying to muscle through to your weight-loss goals on willpower alone, try changing the world around you so that it helps, rather than hurts, your chances of reaching your goals. For example, research shows that people unknowingly eat more when they use larger plates, so making a switch from platters to saucers might help. (Researchers used self-refilling soup bowls to study this. Can’t make this stuff up.) Or try rearranging your kitchen so the first thing you see in your pantry or fridge are apples, not Oreos.
So that covers your health on an individual level. Which just leaves … the whole country. Which is why it might be a good time to remember to stop putting all the blame for stretched health systems on unhealthy people and start looking at how our world undermines its own health.