So says super(thin)model Kate Moss. While these words resonate with us in January when we’re ready to turn a new leaf, their power seems to fade with time. That’s why weight loss keeps returning to the top of New Year’s resolution lists year after year – because many of us try and fail. And while January’s no different than any other month when it comes to striking out on a different path, it is the time we’re most willing to give new things a try. We re-examine ourselves, join the gym, and try to improve.
No matter how good our January intentions may be, we are getting fatter as a whole. Depending on the study you read, about 30% of us are overweight or obese. And while talking about obesity can be divisive, it is looking more like a global crisis – not just a U.S. one. A recent study by McKinsey Global Institute says that 2.1 billion people around the world are overweight or obese – two and a half times the number of people that are undernourished. Obesity is now in the top three of the globe’s most costly social burdens along with smoking and armed conflict. Barron’s noted recently that U.S. generals see obesity as one of the biggest U.S. security threats because not enough recruits can pass fitness requirements. And Bank of America/ Merrill Lynch’s recent study “Globesity” featured obesity as a “global sustainability megatrend” with implications as serious as water security and energy efficiency. That report interestingly includes a “global fighting obesity exposure stock list” that highlights companies in pharmaceutical and health care, food, weight loss, and sports apparel and equipment.
What is it about weight loss that makes it hard? Study after study tells us that losing weight requires two things at the core: reducing food intake and increasing physical activity. But as Warren Buffett once said about investing, weight loss is simple but not easy.
We know there are some behaviors we just find extremely difficult to change. We don’t do very well when it comes to thinking long term, looking past the next quarter, or being patient. Buying low and selling high seems simple, but in the end it is pretty difficult to step up and invest when times are darkest and prices are low. And as far as eating less goes, Ben Franklin noted that, “In general, mankind, since the improvement of cookery, eats twice as much as nature requires.”
The tips that get thrown around this time of year sound very familiar. One is to make your goals realistic and achievable (just as in investing). Another is to be smart about how you measure and evaluate your success (again, not so different from investment). Gradual and incremental success should be valued. For example, aiming for a 1% improvement makes far more sense than trying to lose all the weight gained over 20 years in a few weeks. Regular feedback on results versus goals helps. And perhaps most interestingly, you need to understand the “why” behind your resolution. Transformational change happens when you’re in touch with what is important to you in life, so that you can accord your lifestyle with your purpose.
As far as the bigger global weight crisis goes, there is much work to be done. The McKinsey study looked at multiple interventions in behavior, education, policy, and science -- everything from taxes on sugary drinks to food reformulation, pharmaceutical solutions, and public health campaigns. It concluded that no single intervention alone will reduce the crisis. But interestingly, the most cost-effective intervention with the highest impact remains portion control. It doesn’t get much simpler than this, does it? And sometimes simplicity is a thing of beauty.