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Very few topics generate as strong opinions as weight loss. If you’ve gotten into any arguments lately about this, you’ll understand what we mean. Many Wellspring families find that they do get into some of these arguments after they adopt the Wellspring approach and begin returning to much healthier weights.

One important reason for this is that we are inundated with magazine articles, self-help books, infomercials, and plenty of “conventional wisdom” about what works for weight loss. This leads to the formation of what psychologists call implicit theories. Implicit theories are elaborate beliefs about causes and consequences of behavior that are implied, not explicitly stated or realized. To reveal your and your associates’ implicit theories about weight loss, try answering the following questions (and then ask these questions of some friends):

  • Why do people gain excess amounts of weight?
  • Is losing weight easy?
  • Is maintaining weight losses difficult?
  • Is food control more important than activity control for weight loss?
  • Are there many different effective ways to lose weight?
  • Do some diets work?

Several studies have provided insight about the accuracy of most people’s views about eating. The headline is that they’re not too accurate.

In one study, three researchers, including Dr. Brian Wansink of Cornell University, had 122 college students watch TV together and provided them with large portions of mini-pizzas. Then, they asked them to identify factors that contributed to the amount of food they consumed. The students rated taste, fullness, and time since their last meal as the major causes of their eating. Only 2.5% even mentioned the impact of how much the other student ate as a factor that influenced their own eating. Yet, analyses showed that consumption by each member of the pair strongly impacted how much they ate, playing a far greater role than the time since their last meal.

A second study showed again that students believed they understood the causes of their eating behaviors – and that mostly it had to do with such internal factors as taste and fullness. However, when their beliefs were compared to actual eating, the consumption of their partners strongly affected their eating but their own ratings of taste and fullness did not. Their implicit theories of the causes of eating focused on internal determinants, but those beliefs were not supported by the actual data.

The table below shows common beliefs about methods to lose weight versus the reality, according to Wellspring researchers. You can see that common views espouse messages you may have heard in commercials about various weight loss approaches (e.g., weight loss is easy; diets can work; food matters more than activity).

But the implicit theories simply are not substantiated by the data. Weight loss is challenging and diets do not work. Only major changes in lifestyle and attitude get the job done. Personality factors also do not determine who develops weight problems. Excess weight comes from genetic tendencies to gain weight easily and other biological forces that resist weight loss. Certain approaches, like a very low-fat, low-density diet and consistent self-monitoring employed in Wellspring programs, can help overcome these challenges most comfortably. Other approaches, like low carb or low glycemic diets, have very little chance of assisting weight controllers, particularly children who will find such regimens complex, confusing and impossible to follow on their own.

Most people find it quite difficult to abandon implicit theories, including about weight loss. That’s the beauty of science. Science takes an objective look at the evidence and tries to show, rather than argue, what really works. Scientists scrutinize each others work carefully. If research papers get published in peer reviewed journals, you can trust that the work may prove helpful. Some published papers certainly draw different conclusions than others. But, over time, consensus is built, painting a fairly clear picture of the truth. Very low-fat, low-density diets, targeting 10,000 steps on a pedometer, consistent self-monitoring and the use of cognitive-behavior therapy all have substantial science behind them – showing their value in helping people make the major changes in their lifestyles that can produce and sustain effective weight control.

Components of a Common Implicit Theory of Weight Loss vs. Scientifically Based Information
Implicit Theory Scientifically Based Information
1. Losing weight is easy. 1. Losing weight is difficult.
2. Losing weight simply requires mind over matter – mind over food, in particular. 2. Losing weight requires considerable knowledge and skill to overcome the formidable biological barriers against effective weight control.
3. Many different approaches can help people lose weight effectively. 3. Only a few approaches have demonstrated real promise as effective means of helping people lose weight in the long-term.
4. Diets do work. 4. Diets don’t work.
5. Obese people are generally weaker, dumber, and more neurotic than non-overweight people. 5. Obese people are not significantly different than non-overweight people on these and related dimensions.
6. Changing activity patterns is much less important than changing eating habits for those who wish to lose weight and keep it off. 6. Changing activity patterns is at least as important as changing eating habits for permanent weight control.