Dec 2, 2018
yourself in for a wild ride on the rollercoaster of yo-yo dieting!
My guest is utterly fierce HAES psychologist and eating disorder
specialist Deb Burgard @BodyPositivePhD who is DISEMBOWELLING a new
study which claims that yo yo dieting is actually really good for
you. You will not believe how shaky this science is, or the lengths
that Deb went to in order to sniff out the truth! Join us for a
fabulous rant about the evils of the weight cycling industry, mouse
research, dodgy science, cake icing, white supremacy, and
- The fabulous Deb Burgard is fired up about the weight
scientists desperately trying to legitimise the failure of dieting
by using mouse research to justify weight cycling.
- The vast majority of people who diet put the weight back on.
The evidence to support this is extremely robust - Level “A”
evidence according to the National Health & Medical Research
Council. We are as sure that people will put weight back on as we
are that smoking causes lung cancer. The evidence just doesn’t get
any stronger in research!
- But the weight loss industry has profited from selling the hope
of long term, permanent weight loss, and it has even convinced us
that when we fail, it’s us that’s the failure, not the product
- It’s probably one of the largest gaslighting industries in the
- It’s hard wired in us to regain weight, it’s a normal process
of our bodies returning to homeostasis. We are supposed to have
- Weight suppression is a pathology, not an achievement. But we
only recognise it as a pathology in thin people, and we completely
miss it in larger people.
- Higher weight people with exactly the same illness (AN) won’t
get the diagnosis as easily (or at all!) as a thin person with AN.
We prescribe for fat people what we diagnose as eating disordered
in thin people.
- Deb is renowned for standing up and calling things as she sees
them. She’s not afraid to call out the weight cycling industry and
challenge the paradigm!
- Deb has seen people for 30 years, she’s seen how people suffer
at the hands of diet culture. Larger people with lives worth
living, the casualties of this idea that they’re supposed to spend
their life pursuing thinness. For Deb, pursuing diet and weight
loss is a giant waste of time which we can’t get back. No-one
should have to lose years of their lives dedicated to this project
of weight loss, which science shows us won’t work.
- Deb wants everyone to divest from the weight cycling industry,
because it’s a death industry. We need all hands on deck to
dismantle weight-centric business models. It’s a white supremacy
model, based on oppression.
- Deb has been around for a long time, she grew up absorbing the
atmosphere of the women’s movement and the civil rights movement,
and for a long time she has fought for social change. Getting
together and fighting battles really does and can change the
- When we wake up and realise that it’s not us, but the world
that is wrong, and we come together as a community, we become
- Looking at diet culture nowadays is kind of like the story of
the Emperor’s New Clothes, where you’re standing there looking
around for the other people who can see that he’s naked! We need
each other. We need to know that other people think like this!
- Deb has a big community of people, both locally and online, and
this community has helped her to find and use her voice, and to
gallop the HAES movement forward.
- This is how we got started on today’s topic: in a chat room, a
new study came out on mice which showed that mice who weight cycled
- ie the mice who went off and on diets - lived longer than mice
who stayed fat. The paper concluded that people should still try to
diet, even if they will put it back on, because presumably the same
effect would generalise to humans.
- It’s a really irritating way to interpret the failure of
dieting - that even though diets don’t work, we should just put up
with weight cycling and yo yo diet all of our lives, because the
less time spent being fat, the better.
- Weight science history - at first, it started out aiming to
make fat people not fat anymore. But when that didn’t work, the aim
became 20% weight loss, that didn’t work, so they went to 10%, and
that still didn’t happen, so now they’ve dropped the definition of
weight loss ‘success’ to 5% and even less - not because science
shows benefits there, but because humans just don’t lose that much
weight in weight loss studies.*
- People like Paul Ernsberger have been turned away from studying
weight cycling and actively discouraged.
- The Look Ahead study is often talked about as an example of
‘proof’ that people can lose weight & keep it off, even though
that study was stopped early because it turned out that making
people lose weight didn’t actually reduce their risk of having a
heart attack. Deb talks about how people in this study were older,
and even the control group were losing weight. Also, the people in
the intensive lifestyle intervention group were subjected to
intense pressure, and knew they would be weighed every year, so
everyone made a big effort in the 6 months leading up to the weigh
in. So this is actually a study of weight cycling, not a triumph of
effortless lasting weight loss.
- Behind the scenes, people in these studies talk about how much
bullshit goes on. When people are not weighed and just provide
answers, they know what the researchers want to hear, and there's
shame about weight regain too. Deb loves to really dig into the
research studies, to go beyond the headlines and abstracts and
really ask the question - what did they do here?
- In the mouse study, it is a particular strain of mice that were
studied. Deb went & spoke to people who know more about mice
research than she does, including the authors.
- The study concluded that weight cycling in mice was a good
- There’s a few issues here. Paul Ernsberger speaks about the
unique properties of species like mice. They are basically a food
supply for predators. When there is a lot to eat, they don’t need
to turn on their genes to make them live longer, because they’ll be
able to quickly procreate and make lots of offspring. When there’s
not a lot of food around, these genes in the mice switch on,
allowing them to live longer and procreate later, ensuring that
they will continue to exist as a species. As an apex predator,
humans do not follow this pattern and do not display this type of
change. So right there, there’s reason to doubt that whatever we
see in mice when they are deprived of food will be similar in
humans. So mice research in this area really doesn’t generalise
well to understanding humans.
- The other interesting point here is how these mice were fed in
order to produce ‘obesity’. The study says they were fed a high fat
diet. Paul Ernsberger says that it is probably more accurate to say
that the mice were fed the equivalent of cake icing! For breakfast,
lunch and dinner. Even the most extreme human diets don’t mirror
this type of diet.
- So interestingly, even when mainlining cake icing, ⅓ of the
mice didn’t get fat, so they were eliminated from the study.
- As Deb points out, in humans, many of those at higher weights
are not like that because they’re all eating fast food. They’re
just larger people. So the mice who started small and became big
through force feeding are really different to the human population
who basically have multiple reasons that they may be larger.
- So of the ⅔ of the mice that were left, a huge number of them
got a condition called ulcerative dermatitis and either died or had
to be euthanised. This was more than 200 animals out of 500. But
the authors are using their lifespans to argue for weight
- It is possible that the mice who were being fed only the cake
frosting diet were getting sick and dying, so now we have a
completely confounding factor here. How did this paper get through?
Deb has asked the author but really didn’t get an answer,
apparently another paper is coming out.
- Basically, the weight cycling mice were given a break from the
relentless cake icing feeding, and it may very well be that break
from a horrible diet which was related to their longer lifespan,
not weight cycling.
- So Deb went to the company that bred the mice, and asked how
long their lifespan was. The average lifespan of this strain of
mice was apparently well below what all of the mice in the
experiment lived for! So all of the mice in this experiment -
including the ones who were always fat - lived longer than the
average lifespan for this strain. This fact was not mentioned in
the paper. New headline - “cake frosting prolongs life if it
doesn’t kill you?!”
- A well fed population, a population with good nutrition, means
we change - our puberty happens earlier, it also means we are
heavier. And yes, this change brings different health
- There’s definitely a health disparity between higher weight
people and lower weight people. This may be about fat cells driving
things. But also, If you’re treated poorly it’s going to have an
effect on your health. And we have very good evidence that larger
people are not treated well. So it is plausible that there is an
interaction between all of these factors - structural oppression,
weight stigma, health care inequities - with our biology - and to
ignore all of these factors and focus only on the narrow physiology
is another case of the Emperor’s new clothes.
- Some people would argue that all of the rat and mice studies
are impacted, because they are social animals but in experimental
conditions they all live separately.
- Researchers really want to be doing research follow ups for
longer than they are right now, but grant money and structures
don’t support such models.
- We absolutely need more research to understand the whole
phenomenon of weight cycling in humans, given that most of us will
weight cycle. But it’s not an area which is heavily researched.
Many weight loss studies don’t last long enough to cover a whole
weight loss/regain cycle - they stop the research at the end of the
weight loss period, and don’t look further.
- There is a real issue in research in weight science of not
following people for a minimum of 5 years, which really should be
the standard. Short term weight loss research really is a waste of
time and money. We should do less research, but do it for longer
time periods, to gather meaningful information.
- The harms of interventions are also not being captured in
current research models, even though Stunkard was saying it back in
- Speaking of harms not being captured, researchers in the eating
disorder field are planning to present at the ICED conference in
2019 saying that dieting in adolescents doesn’t lead to eating
disorders! This will no doubt be based on research with flaws like
- It’s really sad how the diagnostic criteria for binge eating
disorder completely misses the restriction part. Those of us who
work with people with binge eating issues know how restriction
shows up - in a feeling of guilt after a binge, in experiencing
thoughts about restricting food, and in restrictive behaviours -
but it’s just been disregarded by the powerful people who were in
charge of creating the diagnosis whose weight bias stops their
ability to imagine that fat people could also be restricting!
- Our eating disorder criteria is tragically bound to weight
biased understanding of eating disorders.
- It’s sad that the people in power had so little understanding
of the phenomenon they were describing. It’s back to white
- The drive to make some bodies have more worth than other bodies
- If we don’t understand this history, we will repeat the
- Food insecurity also impacts on all of this.
- People who publish research on binge eating disorder who
trumpet about how their intervention not only led to a reduction in
eating disorder symptoms but also to weight loss, are missing the
point. They are embroiled with the eating disorder and not seeing
the bigger picture. You’re just at the bottom of the diet cycle.
But many researchers are so weight biased that they don’t
understand that people with this disorder can not binge for months.
They are capable of restriction. Restriction is part of the
- If you’re too good at restriction you’re going to run into
trouble one way or another.
- what we think of as success is actually part of the problem, if
you just look at the psychology of this.
- Back in the days when homosexuality was considered an
'illness', Evelyn Hooker presented psych test batteries to
psychiatrists and asked people to pick out who was gay from
examining the tests. She showed them there was no difference
between psych results based on sexuality. Here’s another way of
thinking - if we presented eating disorder experts with a list of
behaviours of something a client was doing, and asked them to
determine if the person had an eating disorder. If people agree
that it is an eating disorder if a person is thin, but not if a
person is fat, this is a problem. It’s not ‘tips’ from the weight
control registry, it’s a disorder!
- Science is supposed to be about stepping back from our
presuppositions. We need more people who think critically, ask
questions, and push back. We need to recognise our bias. It is part
of science to come up with alternative hypotheses. It can be
difficult to get access to the training in order to critique
studies, but thinking critically is a time-honored tradition of all
people resisting oppression.
The NH&MRC slide from the fabulous Fiona Willer:
*A really good study
which talks about the history of % weight loss targets
study on weight cycling
Look Ahead study
Find out more about Deb here and