Most of us were taught Aesop’s fables as children. And when someone today asks about the proper pace for “healthy” weight loss, they’ll inevitably hear a response that echoes the famous line from Aesop’s The Hare and the Tortoise – “Slow and steady wins the race.” Everyone then nods their head in agreement, of course, as who would argue with that old chestnut.
I’m guessing that there was not much obesity in the period from 620 to 560 B.C. when Aesop lived, at least not among the Greek slaves of that time (of which Aesop was one). I’m also willing to bet that Aesop was not medically trained even by the standards of his time, nor did he intend his fables to apply to medical or nutritional issues. Perhaps most importantly, earliest interpretations of Aesop’s fable indicate that the story was meant to be a commentary on qualities such as arrogance and overconfidence (the hare gets out ahead and takes a nap), the use of brain over brawn, and persistence – but not on the virtue of one’s relative pace in anything, which was purely a storytelling device.
So 2,572 years after Aesop’s death, why does his adage persist as conventional wisdom when it comes to weight loss?
Let’s have Aesop himself give us the answer.
“Once bitten twice shy” (Aesop, The Cat and the Mice)
There is no doubt that the history of fad or crash diets that have been serially popular across many decades is one of the reasons that the slow and steady advice is given so much credence. The parade of unhealthy weight loss approaches with at best fleeting and at worst dangerous results has been long and seemingly never ending – from cabbage soup diets to lemon juice and maple syrup cleanses. So it is not surprising, and even expected, that anything associated with rapid weight loss is so quickly dismissed by those previously trying or observing such methods.
“There is no believing a liar, even when telling the truth” (Aesop, The Boy Who Cried Wolf)
More broadly, the diet industry is without much credibility. Beyond the fad diets noted above, even established brands do not have reputations for delivering meaningful or sustainable results, with far more failure stories than successes. Given this, virtually anything that is represented by the industry, particularly as to results, suffers greatly from this response of skepticism – whether true or not.
“I am sure the grapes are sour” (Aesop, The Fox and the Grapes)
Dissonance and envy are powerful forces in our personal and corporate psyches. If you are a consumer on a diet program that is not working for you, you may be more likely to attribute the greater success of another approach to something unhealthy – this is a common and normal ego-protection mechanism. For companies that offer weight loss programs with weak or inconsistent results, it makes sense to try to position more effective alternatives as unsafe, as a means of camouflaging the fact that the value proposition of your offering is lacking – while also capitalizing on the fears of consumers. (Note also that the business models of the major diet companies are predicated on your long term dependence on their packaged food products, therefore making speed anathema, and creating the ulterior motive for ignoring the benefits of speed in weight loss – a topic for a future post).
So, why do I say that the slow and steady aphorism is bad advice in the case of weight loss?
“Appearances are Often Deceiving” (Aesop, The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing)
While the slow and steady lesson rings true and seems perhaps unquestionable to us due to our early childhood associations and the factors just described, this saying turns out to be WRONG when it comes to weight loss. In fact, a recent (2010) study – aptly named “The Association Between Rate of Initial Weight Loss and Long-Term Success in Obesity Treatment: Does Slow and Steady Win the Race?” - confirmed the findings of a long line of previous studies, demonstrating that FASTER IS BETTER, at least when weight loss is done properly through a “lifestyle intervention”. Those who lose weight faster are not only more likely to retain their weight loss, but also ARE AT NO GREATER RISK FOR WEIGHT REGAIN. It is worth including the findings of this study here –
“There were three key findings with regards to weight outcomes. First, women who lost weight at a FAST rate during the first 4 weeks of treatment achieved significantly greater weight reductions at 6 months than those who lost at MODERATE and SLOW rates, and those who lost at a MODERATE rate during the first 4 weeks of treatment lost significantly more weight than those who lost at a SLOW rate. At 18 months, the FAST group maintained a significantly greater weight loss than the SLOW group. These findings are consistent with previous research demonstrating that larger initial weight losses are associated with greater long-term weight loss success.
Second, no significant differences between groups were observed in terms of weight regain. Contrary to previous research, participants in the present study who lost at a greater initial rate did not experience greater amounts of weight regain post-treatment than those who lost at a slower initial rate.
Third, the FAST and MODERATE group were 5.1 and 2.7 times, respectively, more likely to achieve successful and beneficial weight loss maintenance of 10% body weight reduction at 18-months follow-up than the SLOW group. Only 16.9% of the SLOW group attained this successful 10% weight loss in the year following active behavioral treatment compared to 35.6% of the MODERATE group and 50.7% of the FAST group.”
Note that the lifestyle intervention approach used in this study is in keeping with the WeightNot philosophy, though our program is more comprehensive or multi-faceted.
So, when you’re listening to conventional wisdom about the superiority of slow weight loss, be sure to remember Aesop’s other advice – “Every truth has two sides; it is as well to look at both, before we commit ourselves to either.”
Paul Amoruso, CEO