Welcome to another episode of “10 Words or Less,” in which I ask brief questions of interesting people and request brief answers in return. Today’s participant is a professor at Tufts University in the subjects of nutrition and psychiatry, and director of the university’s Energy Metabolism Laboratory. She also provides the intellectual backbone for the iDiet, which NYT health writer Jane Brody called “Perhaps the most comprehensive approach to eating for effective weight loss control.” Before we get started, a note to all of you playing at home: “10 words” is an target, not a limit, so please, no counting. If you think it’s so easy, let’s see you do it, especially on the fly.
Name Susan Roberts
Born "I’m an interloper. I was born in Canada, grew up in England, and worked in Africa a bit before landing in Boston."
Anything unusual about your birth circumstances? "I was an accident. My mother was very happy having an only child, and then she had me."
Reside now "Boston."
Describe what you do "I’m a nutritional researcher specializing in how to make weight management easier and more successful."
What did you want to be when you grew up? "Originally, I wanted to be a chef, but I couldn’t take the hours. Then I tried nutrition in graduate school and I fell in love with it."
An early influence outside your family "When I was in college, my obesity research lecturer was the most amazing. He was totally fascinating, every lecture was completely compelling, we all walked out of there really excited. It was really him who made me realize this would be a great career."
What’s his name? "Dereck Miller. He died quite a while ago, unfortunately."
A way in which England and the US are different "Americans are exciting, dynamic, determined, pushy people, and I love that."
An annoyance of academia? "The funding moves too slow. There are so many important things to be done to make weight control easier, and it takes three to four years to get funding for every project."
Ever have weight issues yourself? "I was the fattest kid in my school. I was clinically obese 20 years ago. I’m an obese person today in a thin skin. It was a blessing to be overweight because it’s given me an amazing job helping many people today."
An unsung/counterintuitive facet of the iDiet approach “We make people love healthy food. Most people who struggle with their weight say that healthy food just doesn’t taste that good, and we flip that around so that’s the food they really love."
Wow! Where’s the body’s secret switch to do that? “It’s called your brain. It’s not hard as hard as it seems to change your food preferences. You just need a road map. Many of our people are extremely successful at that."
Does the word “diet” have any value anymore? "I’m not sure it does. I wonder all the time if we should take ‘diet" out of the name. It’s come to be seen as associated with deprivation. Our people losing weight don’t feel deprived. They feel fuller and better than they did before. “Diet” is the right word in the old sense, but the way people understand it today, it’s not a diet, it’s an easier way of life that helps you lose weight."
Can the globesity pandemic be solved? "Yes. I think that we’ve been going about it the wrong way. There was a generation of research that was really poor and led people in the wrong direction. We’re having to undo some of that now. I absolutely think it can be solved, but it can’t be solved by the same old strategies, like telling people to be tough and have more willpower and to count calories, because that doesn’t work. We’ve proved that over 20 years."
Does government have a role? "Absolutely, but not necessarily the roles we think. For example, restaurants are completely unregulated. Restaurants can provide any old food. It can be a portion that has 3,000 calories and no one says anything about that. It’s very unhelpful for people to walk into restaurants and find so few choices, and be unable to get half portions of things. There are all kinds of things that would be helpful if the government would be more proactive."
What would you say to people who say that’s nanny-state-ism? "I don’t think we should be creating a nanny state. I think we should be introducing legislation that allows people more choices, and encourages restaurants to offer healthier options without restricting how many ounces of soda your can buy at one time. I think there are more creative ways to do that without being dictatorial."
So you think there’s a middle ground? "In my work with iDiet, we focus on helping individuals to manage their own weight without relying on government. But in the ideal world, there would be some creative government solutions that would make it easier, too."
Health and obesity. How much of an overlap? "Very tight. A few obese people don’t have health issues, but most physicians would say there are obese people who don’t ‘yet' have health issues. Some people, it takes 10 or 15 years after you’ve gathered these excess pounds to start having the clinical consequences — the diabetes, the heart attacks, the arthritis, the sleep apnea, there’s all kinds of problems. By the time you’re 40-60 and you’ve been obese 10 years, the correlation is really close. [pause] But I have to stress, it’s not the fault of the people. I think that the environment creates obesity. I don’t think it’s the lack of willpower."
But don't people do make choices that aren’t good for themselves? "The choices that we make undoubtedly have a big impact on our weight. But the fact that only 33 percent of our population is not overweight or obese today says it’s normal to not be able to make the right choices. 50 percent of Americans try to lose weight each year and most of them fail. So the problem isn’t with the person. The problem is with the medical and the academic communities that have not yet given people effective strategies that would reliably help them."
Do you have an opinion about the HAES approach? “Fine as far as it goes, But at some level, excess body fat is a problem. Forget about appearance, it has nothing to do with it. But you can’t just think away diabetes or arthritis because you’re putting too much weight on your knees. The general principle that people should not feel blamed for this is absolutely right, but that should not stop us helping people to get rid of those excess pounds so they can lead a life that they want."
"Everything in moderation.” Good advice? "That’s a recipe for weight gain. We need to show people how to retrain their brains so that what they enjoy eating is good for their weight, and they don’t get triggered by the unhealthy fare that food manufacturers have encouraged us to think is normal."
Are there bad foods? “Of course. When I think about white bread, potato chips, cheesecake, heavy cream, there are lots of things that encourage weight gain that don’t do any good for your arteries or for your metabolic health. But we’ve become used to eating them and learned to like them. You can learn to not care about them too, but it’s a process."
Do you believe food addiction exists? "I do, completely. We see a number of people who come into our iDiet program who feel just uncontrollable about certain foods. We have two ways to help them. Some people find they have control over those foods again when they get back to a healthy weight. Other people find they’re just more susceptible. and we show them ways to enjoy foods that taste similar but don’t have the same triggering effect."
Someone who deserves more attention for their work "Dr. Ben Hoffman, chief medical officer at General Electric Energy. He a strong proponent of worksite weight-control programs. It would have a transformational effect on America’s waistline if every company listened to him. He’s persuasive, he’s totally passionate. I think his messages are really important, and I hope they’re going to receive greater attention."
Something people don’t understand "Many people feel helpless about their weight, because they’ve tried a bunch of things that didn’t work, or didn’t work for long enough. They believe it’s their own fault — their genes, their willpower, their love of food — but they’ve been using strategies that aren’t really effective. I encourage everybody who would like to lose weight to give it another try, because it doesn’t have to be a hopeless effort."
A change you’ll probably see in your lifetime "I think we’ll all be using an Apple watch for everything."
At the iDiet website, you can sign up for Roberts's blog and see recipes and tips for healthy weight control.