Written by Caroline Christian, M.S., Fourth Year EAT Lab Graduate Student
Before reading this blog post, please first take a minute and think about what factors you believe influence how much a person weighs.
What was on your list? Was anything on your list related to food or exercise? Were these factors near the top of your list? In American society, as well as in many other parts of the world, there is a common belief that weight is determined almost exclusively by the amount and type of food consumed and amount and type of physical activity. While this is partially true (energy input and output from food and physical activity can impact how much you weigh) there are several, far more important factors that are often left out of the equation, which I will discuss later in this article.
If you feel resistant to the idea that weight is more than diet and exercise, you are not alone.
Many systems in our society are based on this belief, including virtually every diet and exercise plan that you see advertised today. And it is not an accident that this belief is so pervasive, as many corporations make a ton of money (over 70 billion dollars a year) from this commonly held belief (Marketdata, 2021). Industries that are benefitting include insurance companies, gyms, clothing stores, diet food companies, diet pill corporations, plastic surgeons, weight loss nutritionists, social media influencers, and many more. Do you know who doesn’t benefit from this belief? You.
In fact, this belief contributes to many problems in our society. One of which is that this belief fuels stereotypes and discrimination towards people in larger bodies (Nadler & Voyles, 2020). For example, over one third of people in a larger body report being discriminated against due to their size, including being denied jobs and proper healthcare (Sikorski et al., 2016). Second, mental health concerns, including depression, negative body image, and disordered eating, are also linked to misinformation and myths about weight control (Carels et al., 2013; Hayward et al., 2018). Third, this belief leads people in all body types to spend excessive amounts of time and money on products and programs that don’t actually improve health or even influence weight in a lasting way.
Beyond the fact that the weight = diet x exercise belief is harmful, this belief is not supported by science. Yes – food and physical activity can have an influence on weight, but these are two of many factors that determine weight (Bacon, 2011). Below, I talk about some of the other factors that are more important to influencing weight than food intake and exercise output.
These are just a few of many examples of how genetic and environmental inequities can influence weight and health; however, these few examples begin to highlight the sheer complexity of how weight can be determined by factors largely out of our control. Briefly, other important factors include
The media, gyms, and diet companies will continue to push the narrative that your weight is a direct consequence of your behaviors related to food and exercise. However, science supports that although a balanced diet and physical activity can improve health, they will not drastically change your weight from its intended set point. There are also numerous systemic and medical factors out of our control that prevent people from engaging in different health behaviors. Thus, it is important to practice compassion for yourself and others around weight. Even now, equipped with this information, you will likely continue to notice automatic judgment towards yourself and others, which is understandable given how engrained these messages are. AND we can do better. I encourage you to try to actively challenge these biases and false beliefs and to show acceptance and kindness to others, regardless of weight, to help dismantle the harm that weight misinformation and stigma can have.
If you are interested in reading more about weight and health, I encourage you to explore the following resources.
Bacon, L. (2011). Health at Every Size Revised and Updated. ReadHowYouWant.com.
Carels, R. A., Burmeister, J., Oehlhof, M. W., Hinman, N., LeRoy, M., Bannon, E., Koball, A., & Ashrafloun, L. (2013). Internalized weight bias: Ratings of the self, normal weight, and obese individuals and psychological maladjustment. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 36(1), 86–94. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10865-012-9402-8
Franklin, B., Jones, A., Love, D., Puckett, S., Macklin, J., & White-Means, S. (2012). Exploring Mediators of Food Insecurity and Obesity: A Review of Recent Literature. Journal of Community Health, 37(1), 253–264. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10900-011-9420-4
Goodarzi, M. O. (2018). Genetics of obesity: What genetic association studies have taught us about the biology of obesity and its complications. The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, 6(3), 223–236. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-8587(17)30200-0
Hayward, L. E., Vartanian, L. R., & Pinkus, R. T. (2018). Weight Stigma Predicts Poorer Psychological Well-Being Through Internalized Weight Bias and Maladaptive Coping Responses. Obesity, 26(4), 755–761. https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.22126
Hewagalamulage, S. D., Lee, T. K., Clarke, I. J., & Henry, B. A. (2016). Stress, cortisol, and obesity: A role for cortisol responsiveness in identifying individuals prone to obesity. Domestic Animal Endocrinology, 56, S112–S120. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.domaniend.2016.03.004
Katsu, Y., & Baker, M. E. (2021). Cortisol. In Handbook of Hormones (pp. 947–949). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-820649-2.00261-8
Lowe, M. R., Doshi, S. D., Katterman, S. N., & Feig, E. H. (2013). Dieting and restrained eating as prospective predictors of weight gain. Frontiers in Psychology, 4. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00577
Meyer, J. M., & Stunkard, A. J. (2020). Twin Studies of Human Obesity. In The Genetics of Obesity. CRC Press.
Nadler, J. T., & Voyles, E. C. (2020). Stereotypes: The Incidence and Impacts of Bias. ABC-CLIO.
Pickett, K. E. (2005). Wider income gaps, wider waistbands? An ecological study of obesity and income inequality. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 59(8), 670–674. https://doi.org/10.1136/jech.2004.028795
Rose, K. L., Evans, E. W., Sonneville, K. R., & Richmond, T. (2021). The set point: Weight destiny established before adulthood? Current Opinion in Pediatrics, 33(4), 368–372. https://doi.org/10.1097/MOP.0000000000001024
Roybal, D. (2005). Is “Yo-Yo” Dieting or Weight Cycling Harmful to One’s Health? Nutrition Noteworthy, 7(1). https://escholarship.org/uc/item/1zz4r4qk
Sikorski, C., Spahlholz, J., Hartlev, M., & Riedel-Heller, S. G. (2016). Weight-based discrimination: An ubiquitary phenomenon? International Journal of Obesity, 40(2), 333–337. https://doi.org/10.1038/ijo.2015.165
Staiano, A. E., Marker, A. M., Martin, C. K., & Katzmarzyk, P. T. (2016). Physical activity, mental health, and weight gain in a longitudinal observational cohort of nonobese young adults. Obesity, 24(9), 1969–1975. https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.21567
Wurtman, J., & Wurtman, R. (2018). The Trajectory from Mood to Obesity. Current Obesity Reports, 7(1), 1–5. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13679-017-0291-6