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And the Research Says…

By Rebecca Johnson

large stack of papersI joined Am I Hungry? as the Director of Workplace Wellness because I have personally and professionally experienced the power of mindful eating to shift one’s approach to eating and physical activity. This was the perfect job because I am passionate about bringing mindful eating to corporate wellness. One of my first tasks has been to answer the question: What does the research say?

Although my gut told me that diets don’t work and that weight loss programs are not the answer, I went into my literature review uncertain about how much evidence I would find to empirically support that.

My experience has been eye-opening to say the least. Not only is there significant evidence supporting the ineffectiveness of diets and weight loss programs, there is also an abundance of evidence supporting the effectiveness of non-diet approaches, weight-neutral interventions, and the use of mindfulness-based training to improve well-being. (We’ve provided a partial list of references here and we’re developing a series of white papers to summarize it for you.)

After this discovery and a bit of reflection on the workplace industry today, I asked Am I Hungry? founder Dr. Michelle May, “If there’s all this empiric evidence, and so few people actually experience the long term success they hope for with weight loss programs and dieting, why are we still having the same conversation about food and weight?” Her answer? Paradigm blindness.

What is paradigm blindness?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a paradigm is “a model or pattern for something that can be copied; a theory or a group of ideas about how something should be done, made, or thought about.”

In workplace wellness, there’s a distinct paradigm about weight that can be summarized this way:

  1. Your weight (best evaluated by BMI) is very important to your overall health status. Falling outside the BMI range between 18.5-24.9 is unhealthy.
  2. Weight loss is an important outcome. One of the most important things you can do for yourself is strive to be at a “healthier” weight.
  3. The best way to get to a healthier weight is to eat less and exercise more.
  4. Everyone can achieve a healthy BMI if they have enough information and self-discipline.
  5. People who aren’t successful at losing weight or keeping it off aren’t ready for change, aren’t motivated enough, are uninformed, or just haven’t tried hard enough. They just need to keep trying.

Paradigm blindness describes the phenomenon that occurs when individuals or groups are unable or unwilling to change their thinking on an existing theory or idea, even when the evidence does not support it.

Why do we remain trapped in old paradigms?

Ah ha! Now it makes perfect sense to me. In this country, we’ve been doing it the same way, with myriad iterations, for a really long time. We’ve invested a tremendous amount of energy, money, time, research—even entire careers—trying to get people to change their behaviors with food and exercise in order to lose weight. With so much invested in the current paradigm, of course it will be challenging to shift.

But that has been true for virtually every major paradigm that has existed to date. The prevailing beliefs only change when we reach a tipping point; when enough people become frustrated with the old paradigm, see enough evidence, and recognize that there is an alternate way to view the world.

We are reaching a tipping point

My sense is that we’re close to that point. A Google search today for “mindful eating” turned up over 1,770,000 entries. Mindful eating wasn’t even part of our cultural lexicon early in my career! An increasing number of health and wellness professionals—and their patients, clients, and employees—understand that what they’ve tried so far has not and will not ever work, not because there is a lack information or willpower, but simply because it has not and will not ever work. And more and more organizations are open to the idea that focusing heavily on BMI as a “marker of success” is a mistake. The most forward-thinking employers we work with embrace the idea that true well-being cannot be measured on a scale.

It is an exciting time to be in the health promotion industry as we turn away from the old model and willingly, not sheepishly, acknowledge that is ineffective and even harmful. I look forward to a time when more organizations are willing to drop the old paradigm and deliver programs that truly help their employees build a healthy relationships with food and their bodies.

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About the author

Rebecca Johnson is a leader in the health promotion industry with more than 20 years of experience in diverse roles. She is a licensed Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Program Facilitator and Coach and advocates for the use of mindfulness-based and weight-neutral programs in the workplace. Rebecca also serves as a consultant for organizations ready to leverage the power of organizational development and employee wellbeing to create truly thriving cultures.

2 Comments

  1. […] loss programs are and the dangers of a weight-focused approach to health. Even without that empirical knowledge, I felt uneasy about my role in that program, and about all of the similar weight loss contests […]

  2. […] loss programs are and the dangers of a weight-focused approach to health. Even without that empirical knowledge, I felt uneasy about my role in that program, and about all of the similar weight loss contests […]

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