Weight Loss is Not the Answer

School lunches photo courtesy of The New York Times

Today I was greeted with this: Obesity Rate Falls for New York Schoolchildren. The city has been working to provide real food and more opportunities for exercise to kids, which are good things. But what I take issue with is the way fat kids are demonized, and size is accepted as the full measure of our nation’s health crisis. Take this quote from the article:

The number of obese New York City schoolchildren fell by 5.5 percent over five years, federal and city officials said Thursday, offering a glimmer of optimism about one of the country’s intractable health scourges.

Being fat is not the health scourge. It is, however, easy to measure. While there are some correlations between obesity and health, size is not the full measure of fitness. Plenty of skinny people suffer health problems from the very same root causes that make other people fat. Scapegoating the people who are fat and holding them out as the example of what’s wrong with the USA is not only false but also unkind and damaging to real people who are complex human beings with value.

The win in this story is not that more kids are thin. The win is that more kids got fresh vegetables instead of vending machine “food,” got play time instead of TV time in day care, and got water instead of soda. We don’t need to wage a war on fat kids to give all kids a shot at a healthier life!

We do have a broken relationship with food and exercise in the USA, and there is no doubt that one of the side effects for many people is weight gain. When people from other cultures come to the USA, they often develop the health problems that are common here and not elsewhere as soon as they adopt our culture and our processed foods. It’s not that they suddenly start eating more and turn into the sterotyped fat person (you know the one – lazy, addicted to food, and riddled with emotional problems), it’s that they eat up our warped cultural ideals and our addictive, processed “food” – and it makes them sick!

Distribution patterns, our culture of convenience, genetically modified foods, and factory farming have reduced the quality and nutritional value of the foods that average people have access to.

Misguided information about what’s healthy has people who are trying to eat right confused. Products with health claims like “low fat,” “sugar-free,” “heart healthy,” “organic,” and “gluten-free” confuse us into thinking they’re doing everything right, when in actuality those products aren’t necessarily doing us any favors. We label foods as good or bad, and then label ourselves as good or bad based on what we eat. We forget that food is supposed to be fuel, and try to eat the fewest calories in the biggest portion. Then we wonder why we’re hungry and full of health problems caused by vitamin deficiencies. Dieting like this disconnects us emotionally from seeing food for what it is at its best – a vital source of nutrients, energy, and pleasure!

Another aspect of our culture that contributes to poor health is our impressively sedentary lifestyles. I’m someone people tend to regard as “active,” yet if we’re going to be honest about it, there have been times in my life where I stared at the computer all day and didn’t do more exercise than walk to and from my car. These days I do some outdoor projects, but also have many days where I sit all day long. I have friends at least twice my size who ride their bikes several times a week, dance regularly, and do exercise programs at home and the gym. People wouldn’t look at me and think I couldn’t run two blocks without stopping, but it’s the truth. Size isn’t a good predictor of cardiovascular health – activity is!

So… if we shouldn’t focus on our eating on being “good” by choosing low calorie, low fat, sugar-free, rationed portions, and shouldn’t judge our success or failure on our body mass index, what should we do?

I love this series on how to eat by the Fat Nutritionist. One thing that jumped out at me very strongly was the idea that we have permission not to even try to be healthy. When we start to untangle and accept the emotional issues that bind up our size, health, and intrinsic worth, we open ourselves up to being able to enjoy food, enjoy movement, and make choices that are good for us as whole people and as a society.

I invite everyone, no matter their size or history with dieting, exercise, and other weight loss experiments, to reflect on these four simple statements:

  • Size is not an accurate reflection of health.
  • Being healthy is not a moral imperative.
  • Real, whole food is good for you.
  • An active life is good for you.

I believe accepting these four concepts can liberate us from the judgement we have for others and ourselves, while inspiring us to create more vibrant lives.

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This post is a part of Fight Back Friday on Food Renegade!

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6 comments to Weight Loss is Not the Answer

  • Nice piece! I wanted to add that eating healthfully and exercising feel good too, after an initial period of adjustment. I think the almost-inevitable pains of change are the biggest challenges to success. Once we get into the groove, it becomes very rewarding.

    • Joy

      Absolutely, Teri! However, we have to be aware of how we define “success.” It’s defining success primarily by a number on the scale that I have a problem with, not good food and exercise!

  • Glad to see you naming these issues! It saddens me that the foodie community typically feels the need to make their argument on the backs of fat people. Seems logical that we all deserve support and access to safe, nutritious food, regardless of what we weigh – and that a positive campaign like that shouldn’t be based on hatred or eradicating a demographic. This in fact, is my area of research and expertise. (I imagine you’re aware of my work in this area as you tagged me. Thanks for the heads up.) If you want more information on these issues, I wrote a longer post pointing people to resources about the science and ethics that underlie these ideas here: http://www.lavidalocavore.org/diary/4617/ending-foodie-fat-bashing. There’s also a lot more in my book, Health at Every Size (www.haesbook.com) and many articles I’ve published in scientific journals. Thanks for being an articulate voice of reason.

    • Joy

      Thanks for your reply and the link. I couldn’t agree more. I am familiar with your work, and truthfully am a little star struck that you commented on my post!

      Even as a thin person this fixation with the “obesity epidemic” has informed my life. If I had a penny for every time someone complimented me on being thin I’d be rich. People say “you look good, did you lose weight?” Or start valuing changes I’ve made for health only when they impact my size. Even when someone loses weight because they are dangerously ill, they’re expected to see that as a benefit! There is the rare person who will make me feel bad for being thin by saying things like “real women have curves” or calling me skinny, but that’s a sign of the same problem – the idea that it’s ok to make judgments about people’s worth based on the size of their body.

      We’re starting to see a bit of a backlash in the foodie community against food and health being strictly about weight. However, instead of focusing on the intrinsic value of good food, these people are focusing instead on how it may or may not make us look. This photo made the rounds on facebook and really pissed us off. My partner called the fact that the photos were far from a direct comparison (one posed in makeup, one candid, etc), and that people can eat the same diet but have different appearances. People’s responses were that Nigellea looked “softer,” “curvier,” and nicer to touch, so it was ok to make the judgements.

      Here is what Kelsy had to say about that:

      I think what I’m reacting most strongly to, though, is the creation of an “us” and a “them.” Gillian McKeith has unhealthy attitudes towards eating, thus she is not like us because we have healthy attitudes towards eating. We know we have healthy attitudes towards eating because we found an unflattering photo of the poor woman.

      It would be one thing to post some of her misguided ideas about food and dubious credentials, but instead we rely solely on a photo without knowing any of her story. It just smacks of misogyny to me, as I find it hard to believe that anyone would do this same thing with photos of men.

      As long as we continue to give the OK to these kinds of us and them separations based on perceived beauty and health, (even if we’ve expanded our definitions of beauty and health) we will perpetuate the same problems that got us into this mess in the first place.

  • Oh, this is very well said :) :) :) Thank you :) Love and hugs from the ocean shores of California, Heather :)

  • Wow ~ I love what Kelsey said! I am guilty of the us and them naming – but truthfully, in my heart I do not intend to divide people. My biggest goal would be to slaughter the mindsets that get people into unhealthy lifestyles. This causes me to think more carefully about how I share things! Thanks!

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