We Don’t Have an Obesity Epidemic

If we really cared about health in America, we wouldn’t be worrying about an obesity epidemic. This may sound ridiculous, but it’s true, because weight isn’t the problem.

We don’t have an obesity epidemic. We have an epidemic of food-deserts. An epidemic of people who cannot afford healthy, well-balanced diets even if they do have access to decent grocery stores. We have an epidemic of companies producing foods laden with trans fats and hydrogenated oils, things that do damage to our bodies, simply because those ingredients are cheaper. We have an epidemic of people damaging their bodies through yo-yo dieting, dangerous diet pills and supplements, completely unhealthy weight-loss plans, and even eating disorders because our society teaches that this behavior is normal, okay, even preferable. We do not have an epidemic of fat people; we have an epidemic of people of all sizes being fed damaging attitudes, horrible misinformation, and unfulfilling food.

Yet all we can focus on is fat.

When the Gilmore Girls marathon three Thanksgiving dinners, or sit down to one of their junk-food and movie binges, we are expected to laugh and think that it is cute because Alexis Bledel and Lauren Graham are skinny and gorgeous. Their gigantic appetites are a cute quirk, not a cause for concern. Contrast this with the repulsion and “concern” that people express over the “message” that fat characters (regardless of their nutrition behaviors) might convey simply by being on television “¦ and you should begin to get my point.

Fat is an easy enemy. Vilifying fat sells diet books, diet foods, diet pills, diet plans, diet camps, weight-loss surgeries, Spanx “¦ the list goes on and on. Focusing on health, on the other hand, is not nearly as lucrative. The magazines and newspapers we read, the movies and TV shows we watch, the websites we visit all know this because so much of their profits come from the industry that continues to cash in on the idea of fat as the ultimate evil.

Luckily for us, science and activism are finally staring to gain ground in disproving the myth of the Obesity Epidemic.

The video above is the first segment of a BBC documentary that follows an experiment wherein subjects were asked to eat double their caloric requirement (as calculated by a nutritionist) a day (mostly via foods that are not considered healthy – like fried eggs, milkshakes, or cakes), and they were not allowed to exercise or walk more than 5000 steps per day. This study was inspired by another study done Vermont prison inmates who ate up to 10,000 calories a day in an attempt to gain weight. Researchers were surprised during the “fattening up” portion of the study when they found that some of the inmates couldn’t gain more than 18% of their body weight, even when eating 10,000 calories a day.

The researchers performing the modern British study that the BBC is filming have decided to set an upper limit of a 15% increase in body weight – if any of their subjects hit that limit during the four weeks of the study they will be asked to leave the study; this is done for ethical reasons, to prevent the study from causing major damage to anyone’s health. You should watch the video because the results are incredibly interesting – they indicate that there is a very strong genetic component to weight and fat storage.

More recent research has also indicated that fat may not be unhealthy (or at least, not as unhealthy as we have been told). Kate Harding sums this research up well on her blog, Shapely Prose:

“Weight itself is not a health problem, except in the most extreme cases (i.e., being underweight or so fat you’re immobilized). In fact, fat people live longer than thin people and are more likely to survive cardiac events, and some studies have shown that fat can protect against “infections, cancer, lung disease, heart disease, osteoporosis, anemia, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis and type 2 diabetes.”

This scientific research is happening at the same time as a huge, awesome activist push to destigmatize fat. Search for “Fat Acceptance” or “Size Acceptance” and you’re bound to find some of the fantastic blogs and projects that all sorts of people are starting. Some of my favorite at this moment include Definatalie’s superhero comic, fat-positive tee shirts, and other projects that merge graphic design and activism; fat-positive blogs like The Rotund, Two Whole Cakes, and Shapely Prose; communities like Fatshionista; and conventions like the one run by NAAFA.

All of this activism and research seems to be culminating in a positive way of viewing nutrition called Health at Every Size (HAES) which promotes healthy habits both mentally and physically, without a focus on weight or weight loss. This approach to diet and exercise is not great for the industries that prey on our insecurities to make a profit since it doesn’t lead to an endless cycle of weight loss, weight gain, purchase of diet product(s), weight loss “¦ and on and on. However, this movement is great for the rest of us because it promotes knowledge: learning about your body’s needs and desires and LISTENING to your body, instead of a diet program, to determine what you eat and how you exercise.

Unfortunately being able to subscribe to things like HAES is still a major privilege, at least in the U.S. Many people don’t have the money, or the access to a variety of foods needed for a balanced diet. Many people are entrenched in a culture of negative body-talk, through the media, their friends, or even their families. Supporting programs like the Community Food Security Coalition or donating to local food banks is one way to help.  On a less expensive scale, consider educating yourself about HAES and Size Acceptance so you can change your rhetoric and help educate those around you about the various issues surrounding food. Join me in bringing attention to the real epidemic that we face!

13 replies on “We Don’t Have an Obesity Epidemic”

This is still such a great article, and I just wanted to point out that a writer at Slate posted a similar article today that focuses on how dangerous the stigma from the “war on childhood obesity” could be for kids, especially “fat kids.”

He makes a lot of the same points you did and cites some interesting studies about how “fat shame” is counterproductive to weight loss. It’s amazing and ridiculous how cruel people can be in the name of “health.”

I love that you frame this in terms of treating the cause, not the symptoms–and by recognizing that obesity is just yet one more symptom of the sick way food and movement are conceptualized and dealt with in the US.

That said, while it’s perfectly possible to be healthy and fat, and perfectly possible to be unhealthy and thin, there does seem to be a connection between obesity and ill health (like type II diabetes), through pretty-well-understood mechanisms. But so often in studies, “obese” gets used as a catch-all for sedentary lifestyle and poor diet (by which I mean, low fiber, high fat), so it’s often hard to say for sure whether obesity itself is the risk factor, or factors that are often linked to obesity. If we disconnected obesity from diet and exercise (at least in terms of medical and epidemiological studies) I think we’d be better off.

I’ve always wondered how much of the “massive weight gain” throughout society can be attributed to lower smoking rates. People were smaller a hundred years ago, yes, but they weren’t on average as tall as we are now. Also everyone smoked because it was sometimes even promoted as healthy, and that really only started to drop off in the 80s and 90s, didn’t it, and when people stop smoking, they almost always gain weight, right? So perhaps everyone who stopped smoking or never started to is ten or fifteen pounds heavier than they would be with a pack-a-day habit, but doubtlessly we are healthier than those people a hundred years ago.

Also, thank you all so much for your wonderful comments – I really appreciate knowing when people can relate to my writing & you all have such interesting stories to share. I was really worried about how this post would go over but you’ve made me so happy!

[TW for discussion of weight, negative body image, and disordered eat habits]

This post is really hitting home for me. When I around 16, my issues with my weight were so intense that subsisted on a diet of lettuce and diet for nearly 2 years. Even eating so little, my weight never dropped below 118 lbs, which at 5’3″ meant I still had some chub. This was devastating. I was convinced that something was horribly wrong with me, that I was disgusting and unlovable. It really did a number on my mental health.
Now I’m in a happy, healthy, stable relationship, living the vegan life and eating better and more consciously than I ever had. And you know what? I gained weight. A lot of it. I went from 125 lbs when I entered college (and became vegan) to 150 lbs. I still struggle with my body image, but I’ve never felt better, stronger, or my happy with my life than I do now. I still have occasional crying jags, half hours spent on the couch silently weeping over my dimpled thighs and second chin, but also moments of pure, unadulterated joy in my body. And it’s infinitely better than the way I used to feel.

[TW for discussion of weight, negative body image, and disordered eat habits]

This is so interesting and relevant. My boyfriend is a former wrestler, and while i realize intellectually that men can and do have disordered eating, i’d never seen it. His attitudes toward food and eating are some of the weirdest I’ve seen or heard, and I personally have some minor issues around food and weight loss. He skips meals like mad, declines food in order to fit in the calories in beer, etc. All, I think, because he’s been a wrestler all this time, and trying to make weight. People’s attitudes toward food are way out of whack.

I am a former wrestler. Yeah, we’re pretty messed up about food. On the plus side, all that cutting weight did teach me a lot of real-life valuable information about nutrition and weight loss, like how to make sure I’m taking enough vitamins no matter what I’m eating, eating all of my calories for the day in ice-cream is a tempting but terrible idea, water weight is just water, and working out for four hours a day sucks.

When I was a student “vegetarian” and I ate nothing but pasta, mashed potatoes, and peanut butter sandwiches for five years, I was at my least healthy. I was also at my all-time thinnest. This is why I have such a hate-on for fat-haters — they are not concerned at all about anyone’s health, otherwise they’d be outside fast food joints picketing. If Michelle Obama wants to do some good with her pet project, she should be petitioning her husband to set up subsidies for healthy food growers and distributors to get affordable fresh food to every town in the country.

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