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Trying to lose weight? Your environment, mindset may need work first

January 15, 2015

This January, either you or someone you know is probably trying to lose some weight. Either you or that person probably will fail. In fact, only 77 percent of people maintain their resolutions for a single week, and only 19 percent last two years (some claim the success rate might be as low as 8 percent).

Why is it so 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 when there are many biological reasons people get heavy, from genetics to evolution to chemical exposures.

“Bruce Blumberg, a biology professor at the University of California, Irvine, coined the term ‘obesogen’ in 2006 when he discovered that tin-based compounds known as organotins predisposed laboratory mice to gain weight. ‘If you give tributyltin to pregnant mice, their offspring are heavier than those not exposed,’ he says. ‘We’ve altered the physiology of these offspring, so even if they eat normal food, they get slightly fatter.’ “

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.

“Exposure to weight-stigmatizing news articles caused self-perceived overweight women, but not women who did not perceive themselves as overweight, to consume more calories and feel less capable of controlling their eating than exposure to non-stigmatizing articles. Weight-stigmatizing articles also increased concerns about being a target of stigma among both self-perceived overweight and non-overweight women.”

There are more than enough studies on what causes weight gain that it can to bore you to tears. (By the way, boredom causes weight gain, too.)

But there’s another way to think about it.

Take, as a case study, the way public health policy has addressed another common New Year’s 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.

“Readiness to change and self-efficacy, but not social support or behavioral skills, prospectively predicted successful outcome at both one week and one month. Successful resolvers were also found to report employing significantly more behavioral strategies and less self-blame and wishful thinking than unsuccessful resolvers.”

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. New Year’s might be a good time to remember to stop putting all the blame for stretched health systems on unhealthy people, and to start looking at how society undermines its citizens’ health.

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