An increasing number of overweight Americans have lost the motivation to diet, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Back in 1990, when researchers asked overweight Americans if they were trying to lose weight, 56 percent said yes.
But this has changed. According to the latest data, just 49 percent say they’re trying.
This may not seem like a big decline. But given that about 2 out of every 3 Americans is either overweight or obese, a decline of 7 percent means millions of more people may have given up on dieting.
“The trend is particularly evident among black women,” says study author Jian Zhang, an epidemiologist at Georgia Southern University — though the trend is seen across the population.
So, what gives? It seems our perceptions about dieting and our attitudes about overweight people are shifting.
“Women are leading the decline in dieting,” the NPD Group told us back in 2013, when the group’s survey data picked up on this trend.
There seems to be a growing acceptance of bigger body sizes. And women we spoke with helped illuminate this shift.
“My family still loves me and my friends do, too, so it’s not like I feel bad about how I look,” Cynthia Rodriguez told us.
I met Rodriguez and her family at a food court where they like to go for dinner. Rodriguez told me she weighs more than she should, but she doesn’t feel the pressure to diet.
She says she tried dieting in the past, but she didn’t lose weight. “It’s a negative thing … like a punishment,” Rodriguez says.
These days, Rodriguez says she’s trying to exercise more and be healthy — but that doesn’t mean she’s aiming for skinny. She says not everyone needs to be a size 2.
And her sister Rosa Rodriguez says with more overweight people around, there’s a new norm. “Everyone’s more comfortable with themselves,” Rosa says. “If you feel [good] with the body you have, [whether it’s] being size 2, size 10, or size 16, it’s just [about] being comfortable.”
The authors of the new study point to other reasons overweight people may have given up on trying to lose weight — “primary care doctors not discussing weight issues with patients,” for instance.
The paper lays out another factor, too: “The longer adults live with obesity, the less they may be willing to attempt weight loss.”
“It’s a big concern,” study author Jian Zhang told us. Obesity increases the risk of a whole range of diseases, and there’s a concern that people who are overweight and obese may be ignoring or overlooking the risks.
Not everyone is convinced that the dip in dieting is bad. “There’s a possible good news story in this,” says Janet Tomiyama, a psychologist at UCLA who studies eating behavior and weight stigma.
“We’re not going to shame people into health,” Tomiyama says. Crash diets — focused on weight loss — often fail. But “a lot of research shows that having a healthy body image is what leads to better health outcomes.”
She says that the women I met at the mall, including Cynthia Rodriguez, were onto something: focusing on health more broadly instead of just weight.
“Maybe people are taking the focus off the number on the scale, and going more towards focusing on their health,” she says, such as sleeping habits and exercise habits and strategies to de-stress.
Tomiyama says there are signs that the strong anti-fat bias in our culture may be shifting.
“There may be a sea change toward pushing back against body shaming and fat shaming,” says Tomiyama. And it goes beyond just the shift in perceptions in the U.S.
This month, Vogue magazine put a plus-size model on its cover and the fashion world has begun putting curvier models on the runway. “Even in Paris, a city known for its razor-thin models, signs of hope came via the appearance of Katy Syme and Stella Duval at H&M’s vibrant see-now-buy-now show,” wrote Janelle Okwodu in a Vogue.com story this week about the fashion world’s new focus on inclusivity.