Every now and then I stumble across something on reddit that I think deserves a wider audience; there are a lot of folks out there who don’t have any idea what reddit is, or what to do with it.
In the CMV (Change My View) subreddit, people post viewpoints and ask others to convince them that they’re right or not. A recent position: “Any fat person can lose weight by simply adjusting their diet and exercise.”
It is true that any person will lose weight if diet and exercise are properly adjusted. The important part of your question is whether any person can actually make the adjustments to diet and exercise to produce (and sustain) weight loss.
People are not robots. We are subject to forces of emotion, motivation, willpower, bias, and so on.
That which seems objectively simple to accomplish in isolation can be exceedingly difficult in practice. I believe that everyone can directly observe this to be true with a moment’s reflection on their own shortcomings and struggles.
- “I’m not going to procrastinate anymore.”
- “I won’t yell at him anymore.”
- “I’m going to go running every day.”
- “I’ll never again drink until I throw up.”
- “I’m going to stop spending so much money.”
- “I won’t let sports make me this angry again.”
- “It’s irrational for me to be so jealous.”
- “Why should I care if I’m not invited to some party?”
Pain, sadness, boredom, loneliness, routine, socially embedded temptation, fatigue, stress, cognitive biases, competing demands, family crisis, fear, money issues, disease, social learning, etc. — all of these are capable of derailing sincere efforts at personal change.
If there anything in your life you have decided to change and yet have not been able to change, then this argument should ring true.
A person has become fat because they are not good at regulating diet and exercise for whatever reason (biological, psychological, social-cultural, environmental/circumstantial, etc.). Almost by definition, these are people who struggle to adjust diet and exercise. It is therefore like saying “Any depressed person can be happier by simply adjusting their thoughts and feelings” or “Any anxious person … by caring less about the future” or “Sex addict … by choosing not to engage in sexual acts” or “debtor … by earning more and spending less” or “smoker .. by not smoking.” These are true but useless statements, because the person in question practically lacks the abilities required given their current set of circumstances. Advice for all of these kinds of problems centers on how to change psychology or circumstances rather than on the simple idea of the end goal (eat less, smoke less, yell less).
That is why there are books and communities and medicines and science and billions of dollars centered on these kinds of personal change efforts. What’s required is a change in the environment/circumstances or in the psychology – and that’s not easy to do at all.
Let me flip this around. Can you imagine a scenario where a person cannot successfully accomplish the needed adjustment to diet and exercise?
Go over to a place like /r/progresspics and read comments on how people were able to accomplish their transformation. Generally, you’ll hear about some fairly specific set of factors that helped them start and then persist in their journey. New ideas, supportive friends, emotional growth, frightening experiences, a definite system, a change in life situation, regular efforts to stay motivated, and so on.
Now while reading something like that, start mentally deleting the factors that they are crediting. “I couldn’t have done it without the help of my wife” – take away the wife. “I found boxing and that was what clicked after years of nothing clicking” – boxing was never a sport. “I finally decided to prioritize my self and take care of myself” – they were struggling to make it day to day due to environmental stressors (small kids, money problems, work stress, emotionally abusive person in life) and couldn’t focus on personal growth. “The doctor said I would die before I was 50” – the complications of overweight not being as present for them and the doc never delivering that warning.
Then, there’s the reality that most of us are flawed or face challenge in many ways at once. It’s not just being overweight – it’s being overweight and poor. It’s not just being fat – it’s being fat and depressed. Fat and short-tempered. Fat and failing some classes. Fat and an emotionally absent father. Fat and financially irresponsible. Overweight and socially anxious. And generally the list is much longer than just two problems. Many people who want to be better people are pouring a lot of energy into working on something other than being overweight, and it leaves little for the other problem. Conversely, many who successfully lose a lot of weight do so by streamlining and focusing their attention on that specific problem at the expense of other things they could have focused on instead.
All this to say, personal change requires work, and some forms of personal change require so much work as to be practically impossible given the resources and energy available to accomplish that work. That’s why successful weight loss often requires much much more than just the idea of eating less and exercising more. And until the person finds that other thing that is required for their situational factors to shift enough to change the behavior, they are unlikely to be successful in adjusting diet and exercise over the long run.
EDIT: I want to add something to speak to the other side of the coin because some comments have rightly pointed out that this may come across as fatalistic. I’m a big proponent of personal responsibility and personal growth.
If you have something in your life causing problems or holding you back, I would encourage you to look for solutions and – if it’s important enough of a thing – to not give up. I have worked with a lot of people with mental health issues, for example, who say, “I can’t” to things that they absolutely are capable of doing and do go on to do. An attitude of pessimism is often a self-fulfilling prophecy and certainly limits the chances we have to get lucky with the solution to the puzzle or simply to break through due to persistence. The synthesis of my views would be this: we are shaped by many forces but are also capable of ingenuity, resiliency, and change. If you attempt something critically important and fail, either try again, try a new approach, or try something else.
Change is not as simple as ‘eat less’ because behavior is largely the product of a network of causal factors. And for the exact same reason, change is also rarely impossible – there are many factors that can be tweaked up and down the causal chain, though it can take A LOT of effort and probably resources and external support as well. The right small shift can alter the overall set of circumstances and tip the outcome in another direction. And sometimes, it’s something as simple as time or trying again.