Worth Considering

The Huffington Post puts out some interesting articles.

This one, “Everyone Knows Obesity Is Hurting Us, But Is the Fight Against Obesity the Problem?” was quite a surprise to me, and I think some of the concepts are worth considering.

Originally, I thought this article would talk about how what we think about and focus on is what we bring to us. Therefore, if we keep thinking about obesity, all that will happen is we will attract more obesity. I thought this article might argue to redirect our focus from obesity and weight to health, fitness and living well. In some ways, it did just that. In other ways, it went well beyond what I was expecting. I felt there were many great points made, but some missed the mark or seemed to get lost, and others I felt like I just wanted to keep expanding on …

Here is a significant portion of the article, and some thoughts I had on the points she makes.

Americans are fatter than they used to be … Everyone knows the weight is causing sickness and early death. Government and industry say the pounds are costing us … This generation will have shorter lives than their parents … Studies show long-term weight loss elusive … Doctors say to keep trying anyway …

[…] Fortunately, an alternative viewpoint is out there, and those facts are available, […] It requires adopting a new, more skeptical mantra, like the one we use in the movement known as Health at Every Size (HAES). “Show me the data,” we demand, and you should, too.

[…] I see information every day that shows that our obsession over body fat is a costly, crippling threat to health and well-being. I routinely tally the costs — medical, financial and psychological- – of the un-winnable War on Obesity and the commercial juggernaut it supports (Low-cal snacks! Diet pills! Weight-loss centers where customers always come back!). And I conduct research and write peer-reviewed articles supporting the HAES paradigm with facts, replacing knee-jerk everyone knows statements with what is truly known about the meaning of body weight.

Obviously, I have a buy-in to the notion of obesity and excess body fat being a problem. I am a fitness professional, and I want to see happy, active people, and help bring about those changes in their lives. Yes, I am a warrior against obesity, inactivity, and the sedentary lifestyle. I want to see people be comfortable and confident in themselves. I want people to live the best quality of life they can.

Although I don’t disagree with her first argument – that fads, pills, and media can cause long-term damage to a person’s health and well-being – I think that the alternative would appear to be ‘just do whatever you feel like and don’t worry about it.’ I think there needs to be a point made that making healthy choices and living well has little to do with low-cal snacks and diet pills.

The evidence demonstrates that fat isn’t the bogeyman it’s made out to be, and that a focus on health habits, rather than weight, accomplishes the very goals collective thinness is supposed to achieve (if it were possible in the first place). Compared to control groups of people on weight loss programs, people who accept themselves and their bodies as they are tend to exercise more and eat better. They do better medically, on blood pressure, cholesterol, insulin sensitivity and similar measures, and feel happier in the long run. They adopt longer-lasting exercise habits. And guess which group weighs less, two years out? Neither! In the HAES study I conducted, both groups ended up with weights where they started, albeit with the dieters having endured another wearying and health-damaging deprivation-loss-regain cycle.

I am not alone in the struggle with the dichotomy of looking at the scale but trying not attaching emotional weight to the number; of looking at the fashion and fitness magazines and seeing the strength, not the size of the models; of looking at people of all shapes and sizes and not wanting to see them as an idealised physique, but an optimised and happy person; of looking in the mirror and being happy with what I see and at the same time seeing room for strength, growth and change.

Yes, clearly acceptance of who we are is important. But is it wise to accept bad habits and poor choices? I know she argues that those who felt more body acceptance did make healthier choices, but I struggle to imagine someone hundreds of pounds overweight accepting their body image while they make healthy choices. It seems a stretch. Afterall, wouldn’t they expect that those healthy choices would lead to a change in their body composition?

In other words, as long as we’re focused on changing our bodies — which the data shows isn’t going to happen for most people, anyway — we are missing the real benefits that come from caring for our bodies.

There’s another great dichotomy: changing our bodies versus caring for our bodies. Clearly, if obesity is linked to diabetes, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease and premature death, which studies say it has been, and changing our bodies hasn’t worked, then maybe the semantics are wrong, and caring for our bodies should be the next big effort? In theory, the idea of the battle against obesity is supposedly that we should be taking better care of ourselves, and therefore we become less of a burden on the health care system, and the planet as a whole.

Every week or month, another example emerges of knee-jerk assumptions about what everyone knows, rather than what we actually do know, shaping decisions in medicine and government. […] These “health” initiatives have not just failed, they’ve backfired, contributing to the rise in weight-based discrimination and bullying, among many other damaging side effects.

Body-size bullying is a real problem and I see it in both directions: from people choosing/judging others based on size (“she isn’t exactly the image we’re looking for”), to self-imposed discrimination. I have a client who recently gained several kilograms due to health and lifestyle problems, and who was so concerned she mentioned it to an employer, suggesting they might not want her any more, when none of her competencies changed, just her confidence in herself! Luckily, that employer said “don’t be silly” and she still has a job she is incredibly good at.

I think movements like Operation Beautiful, End Fat Talk, and Health At Every Size are critical, and that’s really a shame isn’t it? That what is meant to be a health movement has turned into a size movement. It’s a whole new kind of discrimination.

Just using my imagination, I can surmise that being a cave man with a little more weight on would be at an advantage in the lean months, during child-rearing, and just as a general sign of well-being. But someone grossly overweight would probably be seen as a burden on the tribe or clan, not able to contribute to many of the physical tasks, hunting with stealth, or keeping up with the movement of the tribe. It would probably have been a lot rarer to be grossly overweight throughout most of our history, due to the amount of physical work and access to foods.

In fact, I find it quite ironic that historical images of beauty and wealth versus current ones are so different. Up until quite recently, being ‘plump’ was a sign of wealth, as a sign of ones’ access to an abundance of food and easy living. Now, with so many people having access to such an over-abundance of food, being big isn’t a sign of anything important, being thin is. Is this just a reaction to the need to be unlike ‘the masses’?

Now, when it’s easy for so many of us to be healthily plump, luscious or curvaceous like Marilyn Munroe, that is no longer the ideal!

The ideal used to be linked to our survival, and now so much of our lives are so separated from survival that even our notion of what is healthy and normal has become disjointed.

What is known (even if everyone can’t accept it yet) is that:

• Stable fat is blown out of proportion as a health risk (even dreaded “tummy fat”), but yo-yoing weights common to dieters do harm health.

I agree that yo-yo diets are horrible and radically damaging in the long-term. Years of feast and famine habits can wreak havoc on the body and do irreparable damage to the metabolic system and your body’s ability to adapt to even the healthiest long-term lifestyle changes. But people can improve their health through their lives and not damage themselves. And that is what we should be advocating for every person from the start of their lives through to the end.

• The “ironclad” notion that obesity leads to early death is wrong: Mortality data show “overweight” people, on average, live longest, and moderately “obese” people have similar longevity to those at weights deemed “normal” and advisable.

Life spans have lengthened almost in lockstep with waistlines over the last few decades, which should make you wonder about the supposed deadliness of fat.

Interesting. This says nothing, however, about the quality of life of those people. What about the frightening number of malnourished  overweight people? What about the health-care implications and passed-on costs to the public? Are these people living longer, but not any better?

When you consider our cultural preoccupation with food and weight, the data on eating disorders and mental health (among thin people, too), and the social justice concerns that arise from waging a war against body types, fat stigma ranks as far more dangerous than rolls and rolls of fat. And when you see who earns what from the billions spent annually on weight-loss products, procedures, and pharmaceuticals, it becomes clear that commercial interests have tainted obesity beliefs, policy and research. (As a small example, take those controversial fat kid ads in Georgia; the for-profit health care company behind them also sells costly, unproven lap-band surgery to teenagers.)

Commercialism must be the biggest barrier to most people’s physical and mental health. Those who are educated and advocate healthy living and simple, good lifestyle choices are constantly up against what everyone knows. There is so much conflicting information and so much emphasis and personal value placed on numbers on a scale.

[…] Based on real evidence, all these experts reject a fat focus in favor of more hopeful, more effective, and cheaper paths to good health. No matter what everyone knows, or says they do, HAES experts follow the evidence that it’s how you live, not how you look, that makes the difference for health and well-being.

How you live is more important than how much you weight or what size you are. Agreed! 100%

But what accounts for the rapidly increasing size other than ‘Globesity‘ and the over-abundance and over-consumption of food and resources? And how can this possibly be good for any of us in the long run?

My Final Thoughts:

  • the weight on the scale alone does not provide you with enough information to determine a persons’ health or, more importantly, their value
  • we are faced with so many unrealistic expectations, due in no small part to commercialism, that it is nearly impossible to make sensible health choices
  • extreme diets and fast answers are not the answer, ever
  • we need to focus on healthy living and happiness
  • semantics are important: healthy living, caring for your body, nourishment, acceptance, health, strength, fitness, and happiness need to replace our focus on obesity, size, weight, and body image
  • focusing on our health is a good start to improving the quality of life and mental health for countless people, but I’m not 100% convinced that we should allow obesity to continue to run unchecked

I’ve shared what came tumbling out of my brain. I’d love to hear your thoughts now!

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2 responses to “Worth Considering

  1. I totally agree: scales don’t really do it for me either – I go by the way I look in a mirror to be my judge:)) Great post and I look forward to sharing more with you:)

    • Oh my goodness! Your comment has been sitting in my comments for a MONTH! I can’t believe I missed it!
      Thank you so much for taking the time to come by and share your thoughts. 🙂
      A mirror is certainly a good way to tell how things are going – though mirrors can be deceiving little things to many of us women (and I suppose to some men as well). I like to use the “how I feel” – more energised, sleeping better, stronger, happier, more in control – as a subjective guide to how things are going. And how my pants fit as something a little more empirical without having to get out any measuring devices.
      (There’s nothing worse than a cold tape measure first thing in the morning! ;))

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