Ellen Granberg

Ellen Granberg

Weight loss is an aspect of American life that is often thrown at people full force through the media, marketers and health enthusiasts. The idea of reaching and maintaining that perfect body weight is often what propels people to choose that low-fat Greek yogurt over the cream cheese bagel every morning. However, weight loss is often a lot more than just reaching that perfect pants size in time for summer. Even after hitting goal weight, the most dedicated dieters can find themselves discouraged and disappointed; but the question is why?

Ellen Granberg, an associate professor and a department chair at Clemson’s department of sociology and anthropology, is researching the relationship between social context and health. Her focus is on both the ramifications of weighing too much, and the consequences of losing weight.

Cultural backgrounds, depression, and weight gain among African-American girls

Granberg’s research encompasses two very distinct areas. The first is concentrated on obesity and depression. Her research is derived from the Family and Community Health Study (FACHS), one of the largest longitudinal studies of African American children and their parents. Granberg’s research with the 900 families that make up FACHS helped her analyze connections between weight and mental health in African-American girls.

Evidence suggests that African-American girls are often more comfortable with a higher body mass index (BMI) than their European-American counterparts. Because of that, many assumed that larger African-American girls were immune from weight-based distress. However, Granberg discovered that African-American females who are overweight actually do tend to suffer more from depression than African-American girls who are considered a healthy weight — although to a lesser extent than Caucasian girls of the same age and weight status.

Of the females who were overweight, Granberg discovered that African-American girls who did not benefit from a household that ingrained cultural acceptance and pride were more likely to be depressed than girls raised in a family atmosphere that centered around cultural education and a maintained sense of pride in their heritage.

What this caused her to conclude was that social context is an important factor in determining precisely how overweight was associated with mental health outcomes such as depression.

Experience across the board from substantial, maintained weight loss

Granberg’s other research focuses on the expectations of people who have experienced and maintained substantial weight loss over time. After having lost significant weight herself, she was curious if her experiences were common among other people. One particular study centered on the expectations and coping mechanisms of subjects who erroneously believed that successful weight loss would help them achieve success in other, non-weight related, aspects of their lives. What she found was somewhat surprising.

Her study illustrated two particular groups that seemed to have very different experiences – those who gained weight later in life often had very realistic expectations for what weight loss would do for them. They wanted to lose weight in order to gain control of things like blood pressure or health issues. Granberg even talked to one person who just wanted to get back into shape so that he wouldn’t fall behind in biking events.

On the other hand, people who had been heavier throughout their lives, had a very different expectation. Instead of enhancing health issues or even getting physically in shape, she observed that people who had been overweight throughout their lives often had believed that becoming a thinner person would radically change their everyday life in unrealistic ways.

Granberg quoted one respondent who had been heavy since early childhood and who lost weight while in high school and college.  In describing her expectations for the results of weight loss, that respondents said: “I assumed my life would be perfect when I lost the weight, I would go from very unpopular person to a very popular, happy person, a person that dated, and would get married, and be in a wonderful relationship. Because, of course, I blamed everything wrong in my life on my weight. And I thought that weight loss would fix it.” Granberg said this kind of expectation was common among people who had been overweight the majority of their lives.

The respondent continued, “And of course that didn’t happen. If anything, it made me a person who dealt with the problems in my life. It caused me to confront some of the issues that I had been hiding from.”

The elephant in the room for weight loss

Weight loss doesn’t cure all, Granberg found. “People who lost weight after having been overweight for a substantial part of their life tended to have a much harder time after weight loss because it didn’t do what they thought it would do for them. Instead, they had to deal with underlying problems that many previous blamed on weight,” she said. What the researcher found was that people who were able to lose weight and keep it off, were often still disappointed at some of the results. Many of her research subjects emphasized the importance of finding new meaning and satisfaction in the everyday benefits of maintaining weight loss over time.  They often talked about having to derive a deeper meaning, saying things like, “I’ve become a better person, or a stronger person from this experience.” Some compared it to having to grow up, to leave behind a childish fantasy and to embrace reality.

What Granberg has learned from personal experience and believes could be useful to everybody is that people need to form realistic expectations about weight loss and the impact it has—and doesn’t have—on their lives.

“We are so strongly encouraged to think that to lose weight is going to miraculously change our lives,” she said. “If you look at the advertisements, saying ‘I’ve never felt so sexy’ or ‘this is living,’ it’s easy to be misled. But the reality of it is that some things change and some things don’t. Some parts of your body you are going to think are more attractive, and other parts you are going to think are less attractive. And what is useful for people to know is that the experience of weight loss is going to be a mixed bag, and that is totally normal. Everybody thinks that it is going to improve them and that there is going to be no price to pay, but, in reality, to be a little disappointed is really, really normal. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong.”

Granberg acknowledges that the media does not publicize this aspect of weight loss, but emphasizes what people need to understand is that some disappointment is really a common experience, but it is one that can be overcome.

“I don’t think it’s bad to say weight loss is great, because it is great. The thing is that people don’t expect to feel disappointed, and so they think they are doing something wrong and blame themselves when they do. And the most common response to this is to say something like, ‘well, it’s because I haven’t lost enough weight, so I should keep dieting.’ This can be a dangerous slope, as it can cause people to try to maintain unrealistically low body weights and might put them at risk for an eating disorder.  On the other hand, there is the risk of losing hope, just giving up,  and gaining the weight right back.”

“The trick is to stick with it, because, over time, people find more and more to like about it. Even though what they initially wished for doesn’t exactly happen,” Granberg said, encouraging all who have struggled with weight loss to continue at it, and understand that disappointment comes from the nature of the beast, not from doing anything wrong. After time, if weight loss is made into a positive, realistic part of a person’s life, it can help anyone achieve a happy, fulfilled life.


— Julia Turner, Class of 2014