In a given year, the average obese woman has roughly a 1 in 124 chance of returning to a normal weight. And for obese men, the odds are even worse: 1 in 210. As if that weren't bad enough, obese men and women have very low odds attaining even a 5 percent weight loss in a given year: 1 in 10 for women, and 1 in 12 for men.
Those are the main findings of a new study out today in the American Journal of Public Health, which analyzed electronic health records of over 278,000 people living in England over a nine-year period. "For patients with a BMI of 30 or greater kilograms per meters squared, maintaining weight loss was rare and the probability of achieving normal weight was extremely low," the study's authors conclude. "Research to develop new and more effective approaches to obesity management is urgently required."
Among the people who lost five percent of their weight or more, more than half had gained it back within two years' time. In a statement, Professor Martin Gulliford, a study author from King's College London, said: "Current strategies to tackle obesity, which mainly focus on cutting calories and boosting physical activity, are failing to help the majority of obese patients to shed weight and maintain that weight loss."
Indeed, other recent research has shown that in the U.S., many overweight teenagers don't even realize they're overweight. This presents a problem for public health professionals looking to spread messages about healthy weight: if the people you're trying to reach don't even realize you're speaking to them, how are you going to help them?
Among the obese group in the U.K., the researchers weren't able to determine how many were trying to lose weight. There may be a small silver lining there, as it seems likely that obese men and women who are actively pursuing weight loss may see better odds than the ones shown above. That said, "previous studies have reported that the majority of obese individuals would like to lose weight and that a large proportion is actively attempting to reduce their weight, so a relatively high level of intentionality among obese participants may be assumed," the researchers write.
But the big picture finding remains. Wealthy western nations, like the U.S. and U.K., have been weight and body image-obsessed for decades now. But all that obsession, all those public health guidelines, all those exercise and dietary health standards issued by well-intentioned public agencies -- none of it has seemed to make a dent in the trend toward gaining weight.
It may be time for a radically different approach to public health, but what might look like is well beyond the scope of the current research.