This is part 5 of a six-part series on fat acceptance based on a talk I did in 2008.
When I discovered size acceptance, I had to satisfy myself with the answers to the conventional wisdom: Isn’t being fat unhealthy? Isn’t dieting a simple matter of consuming fewer calories that we burn?
With the human body, nothing is simple. And much of the research about body size and weight we see in the mainstream media is funded by the multi-billion-dollar diet industry. There are serious ethical issues when doctors advise patients that they should lose weight, and the research that supports the doctors’ recommendations is funded by those seeking to sell the latest diet.
A lot of this information comes from Big Fat Lies: The Truth about Your Weight and Your Health, by Glenn Gaesser, a professor in exercise physiology. Another online resource is anything referring to Health at Every Size, specifically http://www.haescommunity.org/
The first myth is that body size and a person’s weight is a meaningful indicator of health and fitness. The facts are that the health risks of obesity and the health benefits of weight loss have been greatly exaggerated, with the support of the diet industry. Studies have shown that it is possible to be both fat and fit. Instead of weight or BMI, better indicators of health and fitness include things like blood pressure, activity level, and cholesterol.
The second myth is that weight is controllable. The fact is that heredity is a strong influence on body fat. Nature, not nurture, is the most powerful determinant of body size. Most of us know this just from looking at our own families.
Another myth is that fat is bad. The reality is that fat is good in many ways. We need it to live. It is a very effective form of energy storage.
What I think about those of us who are fat today is that we are built to survive famine—we hold onto our fat storage so well because we are the descendants of those people who were able to withstand food shortages. Now, when food is plentiful, and most of us lead sedentary lives, our bodies are able to gloriously and super-effectively store all of those calories around us.
The last myth is that dieting will help you become thinner, and therefore must be good for you. The reality is that diets don’t work. 95% of people who diet regain the lost weight and more. The National Institutes for Health has acknowledged this fact. Studies show that each person’s body has a natural weight, called a set point, and that all people, fat or thin, adjust their metabolism to maintain whatever the set point is. Dieting alters your metabolism so that it is easier to gain weight back, and can adjust the set point to higher and higher weights. That’s why, with every diet that doesn’t work, more weight is gained, until you end up heavier than where you started.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to be healthy. As a cancer survivor, health is very important to me. There are some situations in which changes in eating habits that may seem like dieting may be necessary to correct an underlying medical problem, such as diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure. For example, after I finished cancer treatment, my doctor told me that eating a low-fat diet was as good as doing another kind of chemotherapy in reducing my chances of recurrence. That was enough evidence for me to try it. I wasn’t on a diet to lose weight, I tried to make healthier food choices because studies showed it reduced the risk of recurrence, and I want to be cancer-free for the rest of my life.
If diets don’t work, if being fat doesn’t necessarily indicate that someone is unhealthy, and if our body size is more hardwired than controllable, it puts fat bullying into perspective, doesn’t it? It is profoundly inhumane to treat fat people differently from anyone else when we are fat for reasons that we cannot completely control.