In the research letter, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers looked at about 27,000 overweight or obese Americans who reported trying to lose weight in the last year. The report looked at responses from three different time periods: 1988-1994, 1999-2004 and 2009-2014.
More adults were obese or overweight in the later years of the study. But the number of people who said they were trying to lose weight actually dropped: from 56% in the earliest years to 49% in the latest.
The biggest decline in weight loss striving was among black women, the group with the highest rates of obesity in the study. More research is needed to understand if there are biological or cultural differences among different groups when it comes to weight gain and weight loss, researchers say.
The researchers did not ask people why they did (or did not) try to lose weight, and their study wasn’t designed to determine why there’s been a drop in interest over the years. But the researchers have a few ideas. Study author Dr. Jian Zhang of Georgia Southern University says he believes the number-one reason for the drop is that so many people struggle to lose weight and keep it off, a process that discourages them. “It’s painful and hard to drop pounds,” says Zhang in an email to TIME. “Many of us try and fail, try and fail, and then fail to try again.”
Several studies have shown that people who are overweight often live as long as people of a normal weight, and the headlines that follow may make the problem seem less urgent if a person is otherwise healthy, adds Zhang. Being overweight or obese is also becoming the norm, so people may feel less pressure to lose weight, he says. In a more optimistic view, it’s possible that people are engaging in healthy activities without doing them to try to lose weight—something the study couldn’t capture. “Hopefully this is the case,” Zhang says.
Still, people should be more concerned than they are, says Zhang. Higher rates of overweight and obesity are linked to a greater risk of health issues like heart disease, diabetes and cancer, and not doing anything about it could be detrimental to health.
“Diabetes follows obesity as a night follows a day,” says Zhang. “We are stuck in a vicious cycle.”
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