Nov. 1, 2006

Fighting the body's natural weight is a lifelong battle, say experts at women's health symposium

For generations we have been bombarded with the message that "thin is in."

The efficacy of this mantra was just one of the topics discussed at the 24th Annual Women's Health Symposium, Oct. 11 at Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Headlined "The Real Skinny: Dispelling the Myths About Weight Control," the symposium tackled the questions: Why is it so difficult to keep weight off, and why have we become so obsessed with it?

"In this country we have a good deal of information about weight and obesity, but many choose not to use it, even though obesity is clearly a problem," said Dr. Herbert Pardes, CEO of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. According to Dr. Michael Rosenbaum, associate program director of the General Clinical Research Center and associate professor of pediatrics and medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, body weight is highly regulated, and evolution has hard-wired our bodies to maintain a specific weight. Although we consume hundreds of thousands of calories a year, a person burns on average 99.8 percent of these calories, gaining roughly one pound per year.

"Our bodies are designed to defend fatness, and traits that we've adapted over millennia are now maladaptive in modern society," Rosenbaum said. As a result, our metabolism makes it extremely difficult to keep weight off, even though the potential health benefits may be enormous.

"Obesity and drug addiction are the only two diseases I know where the body fights the cure," he said. "We can gain fat cells easily, but they are very hard to get rid of."

Dr. Scott Goldsmith, associate dean for continuing medical education at Weill Cornell, explored how the psychiatry of weight loss affects women, pointing out that research has shown that a woman's mood can be affected for several days by a scale reading in the morning.

Commercial interests, rather than medical ones, tend to dominate the issue of weight loss, Goldsmith said, and they play on women's insecurities in an effort to generate revenue via glossy magazine advertisements, misleading marketing campaigns and quick-loss diets.

"Everybody is trying to lose weight and keep it off, and sadly, it's not all driven by health concerns," Goldsmith said. Often depression plays a role in how women are affected by these commercial ploys.

"If you are obese and depressed, you may think weight loss will ease depression, but this is not so," said Goldsmith. "Women in weight-loss programs tend to leave these programs depressed and with distorted ideas about their bodies and weight loss."

Both Rosenbaum and Goldsmith emphasized that exercise and a restricted diet will always be the cornerstone of any successful weight-loss program. But with the body under both a metabolic and cultural assault, maintaining weight loss is extremely difficult.

"Any diet or exercise changes will probably have to be done for life to maintain weight loss," said Rosenbaum. "But the benefits of weight loss for the body are enormous."

Hosted by Citigroup, the event was organized by the Women's Health Symposium Committee and benefits the Educational Resource Center at the Iris Cantor Women's Health Center at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Gabriel Miller is a writer with Weill Cornell Medical College's Office of Public Affairs.