Getting skinny will solve all our problems, right? We will be unconditionally loved by all, be able to run marathons in under three hours and, of course, be able to wear bikinis and heels to any occasion, including black tie events. As one does. At least that’s what all the diet ads say. But a new study says that not only does losing weight not make people happier, it can actually increase their risk of depression two fold.
Well this is uncomfortable. Confession: Even though I no longer diet or exercise with weight loss as a goal and I eat intuitively and exercise gently and I love and accept my body way more than I ever have in my entire life — even with all that, I still believe with all my heart that if I weighed 15 pounds less I’d be happier. I hate that thought still lives in my brain. I don’t act on it but it’s still definitely there.
But the worst part is that both intuitively and from past experience I know this this isn’t true. Losing weight has never made happier. Did I feel prettier, more confident, successful, relieved, or even more popular? Yes. Happier? Not really. It doesn’t seem like that would compute. I mean, doesn’t feeling prettier, more confident and popular automatically make you feel happier? It didn’t for me and I think it boiled down to two reasons. First, I was never skinny enough. No matter how much weight I lost it wasn’t ever going to be enough. I started out just wanting to be my “happy weight” but then I decided I couldn’t be happy there unless I had a “buffer” and then… a death spiral of insanity ensued. Part of that was all the eating disorder voices in my head but part of that was also the very loud segment of our society that equates thinness with perfection and sees the new 000 size as a goal instead of a number that you will find nowhere in math. Second, I was terrified that if I regained the weight I’d lost (and I always did eventually) then I would no longer be pretty, successful or loved. All things that aren’t true but nevertheless thwarted any happy-skinny frolicking.
And I’m not alone in my experience. Researchers at University College of London followed 2,000 individuals who were overweight or obese but otherwise healthy for four years. All participants had been instructed to lose weight to improve their health and at the end of the four years 14% had lost 5% or more of their body weight while 15% gained more than 5% of their body weight and the remaining 71% remained at their original weight. (The fact that 71% remained at their original weight even though they were trying to actively lose weight is a topic for another day.)
The researchers then measured the participants’ depression, overall well-being, blood pressure and triglycerides to get a picture of both their psychological and physiological health. The results were surprising to say the least. As one would expect, losing weight lowered subjects’ blood pressure and triglycerides. Yet even though most people report thinking that losing weight will increase their happiness, the people who lost weight were twice as likely to be depressed as those who gained weight or remained stable. They also reported lower well-being. This held true even after they accounted for demographics (like race and income), health conditions (like a cancer diagnosis which would make anyone depressed) and psychological variables (like a recent traumatic life event).
So why would someone be sad if they were healthier? I got to interview Sarah Jackson, PhD, the lead author of the study, for an article for Shape and she says that while they can’t determine cause, they can look at correlation and it appears that something about the act of losing weight makes people unhappy. She speculates that the people became depressed because of how notoriously hard it is to maintain a weight loss. We might feel happier when we’re losing weight but the thought of living with that level of deprivation forever is, well, depressing.
But the researchers had several other theories as well:
– Perhaps the subjects were exhausting their self control resisting tasty food and so other areas of their lives were suffering – i.e. their social lives and becoming more isolated can definitely be depressing.
– There’s also the idea of unfulfilled expectations – perhaps the people became depressed after realizing that losing weight hadn’t had the effect on their lives that they’d hoped it would. They weren’t happier because… they weren’t happier.
– And all the biological factors. Maybe their bodies wanted to replace the lost fat and therefore made them feel hungrier which made controlling their weight increasingly difficult. Or perhaps the drop in carbohydrates dropped their serotonin levels. Also, when you diet you alter your microbiome in your gut and as I was very surprised to learn before, over 80% of our serotonin is produced in the gut, meaning that those gut bugs can have a powerful effect on our mood.
For me, the interesting part was that not only did the subjects not feel happier but they felt more depressed than they had at baseline. So while their physiological health markers improved, depression and stress are known to have a very negative effect on health. And I don’t think this dissonance will be resolved until we can remove the cultural assumption that thin=good, pretty, righteous and fat = bad, ugly, sinful.
Of course there are plenty of people who do say they are much happier after losing weight. But from my experience, the ones who seem to be the happiest with their weight loss are those who feel like it enabled them to better do things that they love, like playing with their kids or riding their bike along the beach or travelling. The people who diet as a punishment and try to ratchet themselves into too-small pants every week don’t seem to be as happy because we will all eventually “fail” and eat the cupcake and there are always going to be smaller pants.
And then there’s the fact that giving weight loss the power to make us happy means that we’re giving weight gain the power to make us sad. I’ve had to learn the hard way that the things that make me happiest in life have absolutely nothing to do with my weight: My family, my work, helping other people, petting my cat, talking to my sisters, hiking – and as long as I’m healthy enough to do those things well then the actual number on the scale is irrelevant.
Jackson stops short of saying we should stop telling people to lose weight as the subjects did show marked improvements in their health but rather she hopes that doctors will take this information and use it to offer more resources like support groups and counseling along with their healthy diet and exercise advice. Which I think is a great idea – anything that helps people increase their physical and mental health is a good plan and I don’t think they have to be an either/or proposition.
I’m curious about your experience though – Heaven knows I have enough dieting baggage to make me unhappy no matter what my weight does (sigh) so I’m wondering if this rings true for anyone else? Or did it make you very happy? Why do you think losing weight contributed to these people’s depression?