It’s Not An Obesity Epidemic

DefendAh the obesity epidemic.  The media can’t get enough of talking about it. But what are we fighting against? Trumped up charges of fat people causing additional health care costs, or how much we cost the workplace?  People who decided that we’ve have strayed too far from the stereotypical beauty standard?

And what are we fighting for?  A world without people whose weight in pounds times 703 divided by their height in inches squared is greater than 30?  A world where we find a group of people who we can identify by sight, decide that they are too expensive, and systematically attempt to eradicate them through means that hardly ever work but generate tremendous profits across multiple industries?

What weapons do we have?  The first study that showed that weight loss fails 95% of the time happened in 1959.  Since then the same result has been repeated in hundreds of studies and has never been disproved by any study.  We have no idea how to make fat people thin, the thing that we suggest fails 95% of the time, and up to 2/3 of the time actually has the OPPOSITE result when people gain more weight than they lost.  Yet the war on obesity encourages us to throw good money after bad on odds that I wouldn’t take on a hand of dollar blackjack.

Weight loss has been failing for 50 years and we’re still blaming fat people?  The tool that is most often wielded is shame.  Doctors, teachers, family and friends are encouraged to shame fat people, to make them feel horrible about themselves, hate the body they live in 100% of the time.

What we are really experiencing is not an obesity epidemic.  It’s an size bigotry and shaming epidemic.

We know that shame/stigma is correlated with the same diseases as obesity.  We know that concern about body weight was a stronger predictor of mental and physical illnesses than BMI (said another way, women who were concerned about their weight had more mental and physical illness than women who were fine with their size – regardless of their weight.  We also know that, while there are no obligations or guarantees,  healthy habits have been shown to increase of chances of health much more successfully than trying to manipulate our body size.

It’s not just that shame doesn’t work. The problem is that shame, like weight loss, often results in the opposite of the intended effect. We know that movement can be an option to support our health for people of all sizes.  However, in addition to the negative effects of shame mentioned above, the fat shame and weight bullying that are encouraged in our society mean that many fat people don’t engage in sports/fitness/movement that they want to try because of a well-justified fear of being mistreated. Fat kids grow up hating their bodies and feeling like they aren’t worthy of care because they are shamed by family, teachers, students and sometimes the First Lady of the United States.

There is a possibility that all of the “negative” health effects that are correlated with obesity will end if we simply stop shaming fat people, if we create a world that respects a diversity of body sizes and provides access to the foods that people would choose, movement options that are enjoyable and safe (which includes physical safety and also psychological safety – like the ability to go to the gym, pool, beach, ride a bike etc. without even the idea that we might face shame, stigma, and bullying), and affordable, accessible, evidence-based healthcare.

Instead, we have government-sanctioned shame, stigma and bullying. The government encourages people to look at fat people as scapegoats for the Nation’s ills.  Which is pretty convenient for the government – as long as we’re shaming and blaming fat people they don’t have to address real issues like a lack of access to healthy foods, safe stigma-free movement options and affordable evidence-based healthcare or the fact that the dieting that they’ve been pushing doesn’t work.

We’ve been trying weight loss for more than half a century and the best we have been able to do is 5% success. Which is exactly what all the evidence in those 50 years said would happen. I don’t believe that obesity is a disease, but since weight loss is considered a medical intervention, ask yourself this:  If we were having a “war on cancer” and were trying the same treatment protocol and 95% of the time all the Cancer came back and 2/3 of the time the cancer got worse; on year 53 would the government declare a war on cancer using that same treatment?

It’s obviously time to try something different.

If we really feel the need to have a war as it relates to fat people, let’s wage war against shame. Against stigma.  Against bullying. Against the suggestion that everyone who looks like us should be eradicated from the Earth and prevented from existing in the future.

I think a world free from shame, stigma and size bullying is a world worth fighting for.

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25 thoughts on “It’s Not An Obesity Epidemic

  1. Every time I get in a discussion about this with anyone and I say there’s not an obesity epidemic, and that even if there were, being fat is not in itself a health problem, or words to that effect, they say, “But I see so many more fat people now!” or “But there sure are a lot of fat kids now!” or “But diabetes! Heart disease! Joint problems!” Also, they give me that look and I can tell they’re thinking I’m justifying my own slothful habits (which I do not have — fwiw, I’m probably more thoughtful, mindful, careful, and disciplined about what I eat and how much I move than they are). What would you say in response? In other words, what’s the elevator speech* on this?

    *Something you can say in the time limit of an elevator ride to get your point across.

    1. Unless I have time for an extended conversation and am talking with someone who I think would be interested in and receptive to a lot of information about this, I usually try to tackle one logical fallacy per conversation at most. Since for many people, hearing that fat is not the scourge of our country or a one-way ticket to an early grave is the equivalent of hearing someone try to explain to you that the sky is green, I figure too much information right off the bat would probably be overwhelming. I try to go with a short statement and then recommend a resource so they can learn more if they want. Examples:

      Person: “blah blah blah obesity epidemic blah blah blah.”
      Me: “Actually, there’s no solid statistical evidence for an ‘obesity epidemic.’ The average weights for men, women, and kids in this country have been steady for over a decade. There’s a book by Paul Campos called The Obesity Myth that has a lot of great information on this if you’re interested.”

      Person: “blah blah blah deathfat health problems blah blah blah”
      Me: “Actually, multiple studies show that healthy habits are a far better predictor of overall mortality rates than weight. There’s a 2012 JAMA article that summarizes this really well; I’d be happy to send it to you if you’re interested.”

      Person: “Well obviously all you need to do to lose weight is blah blah blah calories in calories out blah blah blah.”
      Me: “Actually, it’s a lot more complicated than that. There’s a wonderful book called Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon that talks about some of the biology behind weight loss and dieting, I highly recommend it.”

      As Ragen often says, your mileage may vary, but this is my personal “elevator-ride-length” strategy for handling conversations like this :).

    2. My tactic is to say “Well according to science, everything can kill me. Time to say ‘screw it’ and live life the way I want to.”

      That normally leaves them speechless.

    3. I haven’t tried it yet, but sometimes I wonder about how to battle the “my tax money” argument. Just imaginary:

      Person: “But fat people cost me my tax dollars!”
      Me: Handing him/her a couple of bucks saying: “Here. When my pesonal credit in your tax money account is exceeded, please prepare my invoice and I will pay you the whole sum. Until that, please shut up”.

  2. That is a great idea. The shaming has to stop.
    Shaming is so entwined into our society that everybody seems to think that they need to shame you out of “tough love” almost. As if it’s for your own good to be ashamed so that you will shame yourself thin.

    I have been fat a lot of my life, and the whole time it has been a “loose weight” track. Like my family never for a second thought that my weight is perhaps my natural body size? No.

    But being fat long term, a lot of family members will tell me I’m beautiful, just the way I am.

    Of course I love to hear that, who doesn’t? And I BELIEVE that. I believe I am beautiful in all of my fatness and I love my body.

    But recently I happened to lose weight because I was unwell, and you should hear all the people who say I look so great for losing weight.

    Now, on paper I think this sounds ungrateful of me, but I’m just trying to put across the fact that they are coming across like:
    “you look much better like that.”

    Which begs the question: – did you really mean it when you said I looked beautiful before? Will you judge me when I put my natural weight back on?

  3. I certainly know which epidemic I want to fight.

    My body, my business. Your body, your business.

    And public shaming has never been a helpful tactic for… pretty much anything.

  4. It is a little disturbing to know that the government has declared war on me. They have a propaganda machine in doctors, newspapers and newscasts that love the “headless fat person.” They have weapons that are designed to either maim or kill me (if you ever want a shock, look at the number of people who die from bariatric surgery or even on calorie restricted diets–next time your family tells you to eat no more than xxxx calories–get up and walk out. You could die). They have enlisted our family and friends in this war.

    So tell me this fat warriors? How is that I have been fat my entire life? Despite being on several calorie restricted diets that have done permanent damage to both my physical and mental health. I tried exercising through sports and left me with ruined knees at an early age (actually forced is a better word, forced by my homophobic father who convinced being brutalized on a football field would “fix” his “sissy” son). How is it that just about my only comfort in the world is food? Are you suggesting that a person who is scarred physically and mentally (from your war) stop using my only comfort so I can then be transformed into one of your skinny warriors–which wont work anyways.

    No wonder you are trying to get rid of me…I’m too strong for you.

    1. Bless you, Simon.I’m in tears reading how you were mistreated by a an awful parent.And you DO sound like a very strong person:)The fact that society brainwashes its own citizens of all ages on how to treat people is very sad and troubling as well.I work in a hospital and to hear how the various providers defame and verbally assault their patients is disgusting.Obviously, medical school,nursing school and all other education processes forgot to teach respect and compassion for those that don’t “fit” the description of what a person “should” look like.Every one of them should read the above mentioned books and maybe learn from them…

  5. TW as I will be talking about ‘diet’.

    Netflix has 25 episodes of Alton Brown’s Good Eats. I just started watching them because I Iove the science behind cooking.

    He just did a diet episode. Well, he describes it as putting more nutrition packed food on his plate and avoiding energy dense food that does not have a lot of nutrition. He claims he lost 50 pounds.

    He did the energy in, energy out analogy.

    What I noticed was that most of what he chooses to eat is fairly expensive. Salmon three times a week is not in everyone’s budget.

    He also talks a lot about ‘discipline’ in avoiding snack foods like sodas and candy.

    At least there is a giant disclaimer at the beginning that he is not a health expert, this is just his experience and so forth and so on.

    The implication that these simple changes could work for me annoyed me quite a bit. At least he didn’t outright claim they would.


    1. And of course the real question is how long his fifty-pound weight loss will last. It would be very interesting to see, five years from now, if he’s still fifty pounds down from his pre-diet weight. He could be; someone’s got to be in that five percent of dieters who can maintain their reduced weight. But 95 percent of us can’t — not even if we can afford to eat salmon three times a week.

    2. I’ve really enjoyed his shows, he explains about deep frying turkeys, and how it all happens. But the “dieting” information he has is based, most likely, on diet books. I usually try to buy salmon when it’s on sale, but even in a can it’s sooo expensive. I’ve started buying the pink salmon as that’s cheaper, and according to the nutrition label, it’s identical to red salmon. Just not as much taste to it.

    3. Yeah, my fat fella and I fell in fandom with Alton Brown because he explained how to build your own turnspit on the (relatively) cheap and exactly why varying the ingredients slightly will turn chocolate chip cookies chewy or crunchy…and fell out of fandom when he started in on the diet talk. I think my husband’s exact words were, “If I wanted to hear from Jarrod, I’d watch a Subway commercial.”

      1. Cutthroat Kitchen is his current show so you can see what he looks like in 2014 which is more than five years from Good Eats that was made in 2008.

        1. He appears to mostly have kept it off. However he’s got the money for the more expensive foods he eats plus probably a personal trainer. He also gained the weight over a fairly short period of time (a matter of a few years because he was thinner at the beginning of Good Eats than he was when he started his diet). I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the people who have success with dieting are those who gained weight over a matter of a few years like he did.

          1. And those who tend to be more naturally slender. Even in my own family, one of my brothers tends towards thin, while the rest of us tend towards fat.

  6. Thank you for consistently being a quality writer about how media keeps villianizing weight and making it an issue that needs to be discussed! I can hear your passion when you write and enjoy reading every time I stop by your blog 🙂

  7. “And what are we fighting for? A world without people whose weight in pounds times 703 divided by their height in inches squared is greater than 30?” There are so many reasons why the “war on obesity” is senseless and this is one of them that sums it up perfectly.

  8. shame is what people use to try and control you. domestic violence relationships are riddled with shame or how religion uses shame to control morality? in order to stop the shaming we have to take power away from those who try and shame us. great piece, something really good to think about.

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