The Paper Database is a categorized library of over 5000 scientific research papers on 1000 topics related to obesity! It is really impressive and if you’re at all interested in weight loss, I recommend you check it out. Here is the story of how it was created and what I want to see happen with it.
You all know the cliches. The weight loss industry is full of misinformation. People hawk weight loss cures on social media with no training. Those with training lack the cross-disciplinary knowledge of nutrition, exercise, metabolism, psychology, behavioral economics, or medicine to treat people with obesity. People bemoan misinformation but what can you really do about it? It is extremely difficult to change someone’s mind once the seeds of misinformation have been planted and for every fire that you’re able to suppress (not put out entirely, suppress), 100 more spring up hotter than ever. Writing a few rebuttals (the lie already has a massive head start; roots firmly planted) is futile. The answer isn’t more education or certificate programs. What we need is a new language, a new set of standards, and a comprehensive strategy.
Treating obesity by training more people to specialize in nutrition, exercise, metabolism, psychology, behavioral economics, or medicine is inadequate. The experts in these fields are only familiar with their discipline’s methods for weight loss. People will never lose weight and keep it off with such hyper-focused solutions. Weight management is far too complex to be an expert in only one topical area. Industry, for the most part, is also dominated by companies selling singular (generic, cookie cutter) solutions of meal plans, meal kits, exercise, medications, or diet plans.
For my PhD I had trouble keeping track of all the scientific papers and references that I needed. I printed them out, put them in binders, and organized digital folders. But nothing seemed to work. Eventually I built a categorized library (database) in Microsoft Excel that turned out to be invaluable. If you’ve ever been down the rabbit hole, you dig deeper and deeper, into adjacent fields, eventually forgetting how you got there or what you were looking for in the first place. If you’ve got the time to explore, it’s intoxicating.
This wandering through the scientific literature on weight management made me realize how worthless my dissertation on fat metabolism was in terms of applicability to “real world” weight loss but also opened my eyes to other worlds that I knew mattered but was beyond the scope of my project. Post PhD, I dug deeper and deeper and deeper into these adjacent fields and for anyone who has an advanced degree knows, the more you know, the less you know. I expanded my library (database) into these adjacent fields on anything and everything related to weight management culminating into a resource that I have come to call The Paper Database.
The Paper Database is a categorized library of over 5000 scientific research papers on 1000 topics related to obesity. I started The Paper Database as part of my dissertation, expanded it for my own understanding, and like Larry David of season 10 of Curb Your Enthusiasm, am sharing it with the world FOR SPITE (half-jokingly, yet serious)!
I was and am sick and tired of professionals, non-professionals, brands, and influencers making claims about diets and weight loss that are unrealistic, exaggerated, myopic or otherwise inconsequential to weight loss success. So much of the “information” in the weight loss industry is more of a distraction than a help and prevents us from having the tough conversations that we need to have to help people set realistic expectations and establish the type of comprehensive plan that it takes to successfully lose weight and keep it off.
In the health and wellness industry (and weight loss) cherry picking literature and testimonials are the exception, not the norm. One of the objectives of The Paper Database was for me to do all the research to create a common language to prevent individuals and companies from cherry picking their facts. With all the research in hand, I could say, here you go, you can’t just pick your supporting favorites. You need to consider the entire body of literature including those outside your field and those that do not support your premise.
What I Learned From Creating The Paper Database
All Diets are Created Equally Bad: By enlarge, no diet is better than another and all diets provide disappointing results. There is FAR TOO MUCH focus on the diet type and not enough on the implementation and relentless execution of the plan. Some diets work better than others because of the execution of the diet, not because of the diet type.
There is a Lack of an Appreciation for History and What Has Been Done/Tried: Every conceivable macronutrient combination, meal timing, food provision, and behavior modification has been studied. It was truly amazing for me to learn about the studies that were done in the 80’s and 90’s. Every “new” diet that you see has already been tried and is simply being rebranded or recycled. Researchers have finite careers and lifespans. Science is about novelty and not enough attention is paid to research performed 20, 30, and 40+ years ago.
There is an Absurd Amount of Literature on Most Diet Topics and Primary Interventions: I find it incredibly difficult to understand why people brand themselves as a “Paleo Doctor” or a “Keto Guy”. The results of any given study’s weight loss are far less than the public desires and not meaningfully more than other diet types (despite what some of the statistics may say). How one “picks” a particular diet to be an evangelist for doesn’t make sense to me. While I understand the practicality of offering simplistic, translatable, streamlined advice, the promotion of a singular way of dieting (eating) in the context of the scientific literature leaves me shaking my head.
The Amount of Pertinent Literature Cannot Fit into a Textbook: Textbooks are truly incredible summations of topic areas but even encyclopedias cannot contain the depth, breadth, and rich history of weight management research. It is kind of like trying to summarize the complexities of someone’s life and all of their relationships and interactions into a singular text. It’s just not going to happen.
The Paper Database (or a Resource Like It) Should Be in Every Clinician’s Toolbox: Google Scholar and PubMed are great for finding papers on individual topic areas but provides you no feel for the entirety of the body of literature on weight management. You can only search one topic area at a time and it is difficult to see how the parts interconnect. These resources also provide no means to store and access graphs, figures, and other information required for weight management education.
What I Would Like to See Moving Forward
Someone with the Time, Money, and Resources to Build Upon What I have Started: and distribute it to nutritionists, personal trainers, doctors, and other medical professionals who treat people with obesity.
Less Focus on Individual Studies and a More Thorough Understanding of the Collective Whole: Individual studies add to, but do not define a topic area. There should be less focus on an individual study in an isolated topic area and more attention should be paid to the comprehensive whole. Professionals and the media are obsessed with sharing “the newest study” as a factoid/tidbit that is taken out of context and provides little more than a party fodder conversation piece. These “new findings” may make you feel like you’re learning something new, but you will have no ability to translate it into real world action.
Statistical Significance versus Meaningfulness: has been preached to me throughout my academic career and I paid lip service to it, but they are so right! Who cares if a 1% additional weight loss is statistically significant. Is it meaningful to the individual? Is there a difference between being disappointed and disappointed? Claiming that one diet is superior to the other due to statistics does not capture the emotions of being let down by both diets. We simply need to do better.
What I am Personally Doing
I’m Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is: too many people have “all the answers” but no accountability. We need to do better. I have started two weight loss programs, The Science of Dieting and Lifestyle Reboot. If you don’t lose at least 10% of your body weight after one year, I will give you your money back. Too many people and practitioners are willing to settle for a few short-term wins at the expense of long-term success. I will help some people and fail brilliantly with others but I’m humble enough to try my hardest and live with the results.
I Am No Longer Updating The Paper Database: The Paper Database is a prototype for what we should be doing as weight management professionals and an example of what is possible. I worked on putting together the database for multiple years but I have not updated it since 2020. I hope someone will pick up and expand upon the work that I have done but at the very least the database can be a jumping off place for finding the paper you’re looking for to help the people you’re working with.