Society, Health, and the Politics of Being Fat

First, let me state clearly and loudly: this is a reflective essay. If you disagree, fine, tweet at me, but nothing on this blog has ever been anything more than my opinion.

# A Loaded Term

I hate the term “overweight” because it implies that my weight, as a fat person, is abnormal; it implies that my weight is over the weight I should have, and that is not true. Every month or two, I see a new study that demonstrates that the Body-Mass Index, the primary measure by which fat people are labeled “overweight” is full of shit. We’re discovering that a measurement that reduces an entire person’s body down to a  single number might not be accurate for all 7 billion on the entire earth. Huh.

Did you know that most general practitioners receive fewer than 10 hours of education about nutrition in their 4 years of medical school? This might explain why the use of such a hopeless scale as the BMI is perpetuated by doctors who ought to know better.

# Eating Less Does Not Make You Thin

Every once in a while, I’ll participate in a conversation about nutrition. I love food and I’m a geek so I’m naturally insatiably curious. This leads me to knowing a lot about exercise, nutrition, and health. Every so often, I’ll contribute to a conversation about health or nutrition, and I’ll get surprised looks. No one really expects a fat guy to know what the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats.

Your body wants you to stay at what’s called its homeostasis. You can vary your weight a little bit, and usually only temporarily, before your body returns to its starting, neutral point. Fat people are fat and thin people are thin.

Your body is programmed to keep you exactly the way you are. Why you diet (a synonym for “starving yourself”) to lose weight, you may get initial results, but there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to suggest that dieting doesn’t work in the long run. In the end, almost every single diet anyone has ever started will leave them at least as heavy as they started.

You’d think that, from high school chemistry, this wouldn’t be the case. After all, our bodies are a closed system, right? And closed systems are governed by the laws of thermodynamics, which state:

Energy Input - Energy Spent = Energy Stored

In other words,

Food - Exercise = Weight Loss (or Gain)

So to lose weight, the naive approach would simply be to exercise more or eat less or both.

However, our bodies are not closed systems. When we digest food, we don’t typically extract every calorie from the food we eat. Only when we start dieting do our bodies react by going into “starvation mode”; about two weeks after starting a diet, your body starts extracting way more calories out of the food you eat than when you were eating a healthy diet. This is why diets don’t work - the chemistry doesn’t add up.

# Dieting is Unhealthy and Doesn’t Work

First let’s make an important distinction: going on a diet is not the same as modifying your diet. Going on a diet is when you eat less in order to lose weight; modifying your diet is when you make changes to your eating habits, like introducing more green vegetables or reducing processed grains.

After you quit your diet because your body was sending you chemical signals that you need to stop abusing yourself by volunteering for starvation, your body weight will “bounce back” and you will regain any temporarily lost weight, and then usually some.

Dieting is a very stressful activity for your body. You are what you eat, and when you don’t eat enough, your brain will start to try to convince you to eat more. Headaches, pains, a lack of energy and motivation: your body is trying to protect you until the famine that you’re educing is over. Dieting is actually a very unhealthy activity, and it doesn’t even work.

Statistically, it is almost impossible that any diet will help you lose weight over the long-term. No scientific study has ever shown that dieting leads to weight loss except for an incredibly small number of individuals. Ever.

Besides, if shaming people into dieting to lose weight worked, then why are all these fat people still around?

# Thin is not the same as Healthy

Most people recognize that it’s possible, even plausible, for a thin person to be unhealthy. In extreme cases of being too thin, it’s even likely that incredibly thin people are unhealthy. So why do people have such a hard time accepting that fat people can be healthy?

It’s a tricky concept, so I’ve made a little chart to describe how society relates healthiness to weight:

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Most people would consider the bottom-right condition, a healthy fat person, to be impossible. Why?

# Being Fat is Not Necessarily Unhealthy

The fact of the matter is that there has never been a single scientific, peer-reviewed research study not paid for by a drug company that has shown a causal relationship between weight and health. Those are two very important terms, so let’s get this straight: there is no research to suggest a causal relationship between weight and health.

Never, ever, ever, ever, ever has anyone not on a diet pill manufacturer’s payroll found evidence to suggest that being fat causes illness. There have been studies to show that high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or other pathologies can cause illness, and in fact these pathologies are often linked to “being overweight”, but if you divorce “health” from “weight” for a moment, you’ll see that the existing research only shows that unhealthy people get sick.

Go fucking figure.

What evidence is there to suggest that being fat is unhealthy in and of itself? None whatsoever.

If fat people are unhealthy, it’s likely that their their weight is incidental to their health. Yes, illness is correlated to weight, but it isn’t caused by weight itself.

# Society Cares About Looks, not Health

If I showed you a picture of a fat person and told you that this person had very good blood sugar and cholesterol levels, that they exercised regularly, and they ate a healthy diet consisting mostly of vegetables, would you recommend they go on a diet to lose weight? Most people would. Why? Just because they’re fat.

Society values the appearance of health over health itself. Media, gyms, drug companies, food industry lobby groups, and government organizations exist to profit by telling people that they need to lose weight. There is no money in telling people that they should concentrate on a healthy diet and enjoying moving their body. There is no money in telling people that how they look now is fine as long as they’re healthy. There is hella money in telling people to buy a pill to lose weight, to eat low-fat chemical additives, or to drink another animal’s breast milk because dairy farmers have a lobby organization. The cards are stacked against you.

So if you take that person I mentioned earlier, the healthy, fat one in the photo, and insisted they diet to lose weight, do you know what happens? You make them unhealthy by forcing them to starve themselves. You give them eating disorders. You induce mental health issues such as low self-esteem, depression, or other anxiety disorders that often lead to over-eating or, in rarer cases, suicide.

You’ve taken a healthy person and done what, exactly?

If society cared about health, it would encourage fat people to lead healthy, active lifestyles and to eat well-balanced, low-meat diets. But then again, society doesn’t care about health, they care about appearance and money.

# Fat-Shaming: The New Homophobia

I’m often at odds with the politicians that govern my life. Lately, Rob “Fucking” Ford has been wreaking havoc on the City of Toronto. I love to criticize his short-sighted policies, but often times the people I’m conversing with make fun of his weight.

Hold on. Are we still in the third grade?

Ad Hominem attacks are a logical fallacy, so I usually expect people to take their comment back once I point out how stupid they sound. Lo, they point out the fact that Rob Ford, indeed, is fat.

So what?

That would be like calling a politician inept for having a large nose, being red-headed, or short. Someone’s physical appearance bears no appearance on their ability to govern.

Conflating fat with health, and further conflating health with the ability to govern, is stupid. As a society, we’ve reached the point that, outside of frat houses, calling something “gay” as an insult is becoming socially unacceptable. I think that, in the next few decades, the same thing is going to happen to making fun of fat people.

# What About Rising Obesity Rates?

Why do you think comparing a population’s average weight to another populations’ average from a hundred years ago, when people literally ate different food, is at all meaningful? And again, being fat is not necessarily unhealthy, so who cares? Focus on health, not weight!

# Conclusion

If you’ve followed along, you’ll know that health is not correlated with weight. You’ll understand that society claims to care about health, but only really cares about the appearance of health. Finally, you’ll appreciate why using someone’s weight as an attack on their character is flawed and why you should stop.

Yes, there are unhealthy fat people. Just like there are unhealthy skinny people. So why don’t we start focusing on health?

You may still have some questions. I’d recommend reading Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight to learn about the research behind the divorce of health from weight. It serves as a guide to change your own mentality from trying to become thin to working to become healthy. The book also describes a controlled study performed by the author as part of her doctoral dissertation that showed two things:

  1. Dieting doesn’t make you healthy.
  2. Forgetting about your weight and concentrating on a healthy lifestyle does make you healthy.

The next time you think “that person is so fat - why don’t they just exercise more?”, remember that the reality of life is not that simple and it’s wrong to judge and make assumptions about a person’s appearances.


Posted on March 24, 2012