Body vs. Behavior: A Weight Loss Information Paradox

Body v Behavior

Human ingenuity is endless, and there’s always a new weight loss product just around the corner. Given that we’re now living in the information age, it’s only fitting that the new weight loss product is information!

The pitch on information

The pitch is simple: everyone is different and has different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to eating and exercise habits. Find out what makes you unique and then capitalize on it to achieve weight loss success!

Often these products promise to shed light on some way in which our bodies work differently than other people’s. Consumer genetic testing, for example, promises to tell you about your ancestry, your risk for certain health conditions, and how well certain medications may work for you. Some companies even claim to tell you which foods are better or worse to eat for weight loss, based entirely on your genetic code!

For patients with diabetes, continuous blood glucose monitors (CGMs) can often automate the tedious and uncomfortable process of monitoring blood sugar, which otherwise involves frequent finger sticks. But more recently, some companies have repurposed this life-saving technology, again with the promise of revealing how your body responds to certain foods. The story goes that if you see a spike in blood sugar, that might be a food that you should avoid for better weight management.

What’s wrong with more information?

The new generation of weight loss products based on teaching us about ourselves plays on a few fundamental human needs. We all want to feel that we’re unique and that there’s something special or different about us. We also want to believe that if we could just figure out why our bodies are so prone to gaining weight, there’d be some secret key that, without too much effort, would unlock weight loss success and a lifetime of good health. The difficult reality is that even if the new information supplied by these products is accurate, it’s unlikely to make much difference in weight control.

Even though humans have a basic need to feel special and unique, the truth is that our bodies are all more similar than different, barring serious illness or disease. Sure, some of us may have gotten a better roll of the genetic dice than others. Some people have a baseline metabolism that’s a little faster, some people convert balsamic salad dressing to glucose more quickly than others, and some folk’s brains may be wired to find sweet or fatty foods more rewarding than others. Knowing that might be interesting, but it’s not something that’s easily changed. It’s also unlikely to change what it takes to lose weight.

The fundamentals of weight loss remain the same

Though decades, products have come and gone, but the fundamentals of weight loss remain the same. Success boils down to consuming fewer calories and increasing calories burned through physical activity. Improving the quality of the diet (e.g., eating more fruits and vegetables and avoiding high-calorie junk food, fatty meats, etc.) can also help. In addition, the changes have to be sustainable or the weight comes back. If a product makes those changes possible, then so much the better. But so far, very few of the information-based products seem to have this potential.

Most people seeking to lose weight to improve their health have more than just a few pounds to lose. Often, significant behavior change will be required to achieve a large weight loss. This change can happen gradually and is often preferable to trying to overhaul a lifetime of habits all at once. However, when considered in the context of the overall effort required, the small adjustments that one might make in response to genetic or CGM information may hardly have any effect. Though there are certainly small differences from one body to the next, what most of us need to do to lose weight is generally the same.

There are hidden costs tied to the wrong information

You might ask, even if it doesn’t help that much, what’s the harm in more information if people are willing to pay for it? The answer is that our brains respond to information in ways that are sometimes counterintuitive.

One consideration is the opportunity cost. If someone puts time, energy, and money into obtaining information that doesn’t help, might they have had better results if they put those resources into something that is helpful? Sometimes we forget that our resources are limited, and spending them on something that doesn’t help can actually cost us success.

There’s also a phenomenon known as “vicarious goal fulfillment” that can lead to information doing more harm than good. For example, adding salads to a fast-food menu may lead to less healthy choices, and advertising a physical activity program on a billboard may lead people who see it to exercise less. The reason is that merely thinking about how they could have made a healthy change in behaviors may lead people to feel that they actually did something healthy and therefore have “earned” unhealthy food or a break from exercise.

It’s easy to see how these and other tricks of our brain could unintentionally interfere with weight loss success when we spend time and resources focusing on information that’s not clearly useful.

The quest for more useful information

What sort of information is worth our time? Behavioral science tells us what to look for. First and foremost, the most useful information for losing weight relates not to who we are, but what we’re doing. Weight loss requires changing our eating and physical activity behaviors.

Thus, the best information:

  • helps us to understand our current habits,
  • our progress toward changing our habits,
  • what’s working well, and
  • where additional change may be required
  • accurate as possible
  • timely – as soon as possible after behavior occurs

The search for more useful information

Two new technologies are providing more useful information in ways not previously imagined.

First, sensor devices are helping us to measure weight-related behaviors more accurately and with a lot less effort. We’re all familiar with fitness trackers, and now the same wrist-worn technology can be used to measure eating behavior and even estimate calories consumed.

For decades, food journaling and calorie counting have been one of the most essential and useful strategies for weight loss, but it’s hard to do accurately, and it’s hard to do for an extended period. Sensors can now do much of the work for us!

The other major development is predictive analytics. Information does little good unless it’s clear how we can act on it to change our behavior for the better. New machine learning technology can pinpoint our problem behaviors and even predict when they’re going to occur so that we know exactly when and how to spend our limited time and effort to get the best results.

As an added bonus, these new technologies still meet our basic human need to believe that we’re unique, and they meet it in a more authentic way. Instead of telling us about our bodies, they tell us about ourselves. It may be interesting to find out that you have a predisposition to metabolize carbohydrates in a certain way, but it’s more personal and actionable to find out that the stress from your occasional Tuesday meeting with your boss leads to a pattern of eating that puts your weight loss goals at risk.

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