Why Science Says It’s OK to Stay Fat
It’s time we stop equating good health with weight loss.
The world is getting heavier. But you don’t need to lose weight.
A number of news outlets have been covering a recent report out from the CDC, with headlines mostly pointing to the apparent 15-pound increase in average weight in Americans since 1994. The report drew from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), an ongoing data set examining a number of health statistics of a representative sample of Americans since the 1960s.
A study published in the Lancet earlier this year analyzed more than 19 million participants in 1,698 population-based studies covering most countries in the world, found that worldwide, the proportion of individuals with obesity rose by almost 10 percent since 1975. These increases are associated with numerous serious, expensive-to-treat health problems, like type II diabetes, heart disease, and certain kinds of cancer.
But all this does not mean that you need to try to lose weight.
If you’re an average American, you could probably stand to be healthier. Only about a fifth of Americans get adequate amounts of physical activity, and the standard American diet falls far short of recommendations for optimal health. Most Americans have poor health habits, but not because they are irresponsible, or bad. And despite what we are told almost everywhere we go, health does not start with weight, and if you are heavy, it does not mean there is something wrong with you.
I suspect that one of the greatest barriers to reversing obesity trends is the assumption that the answer lies in individuals’ abilities to make “better” choices. There are several things wrong with this assumption.
First, is that the “better” choices in question are diet and exercise. Dieting and exercise to lose weight are not “better” choices. They are strange, bizarre choices. I write about obesity often, and inevitably these pieces will attract comments like: “People are fat because they’re lazy.” (Though often with uglier words) This is as naïve a statement as “The world is flat, because it looks flat.” It ignores the evolutionary, sociological, psychological, and physiological context in which we make decisions about moving and eating, and how our bodies react to those decisions.
As I’ve written before, we are in a situation unlike that of any living thing in history: We evolved in a world that required a lot of physical work to get scarce and precious calories. That world no longer exists. Today we have as much food energy as we want and it takes zero energy-cost to get it. This is a recipe for population-wide weight gain. Indeed, those of us responding to this environment by indulging those powerful physiological and psychological imperatives to GET MORE ENERGY, and then to STORE THAT ENERGY, are simply responding naturally to our surrounding environment.
Having the discipline to ignore those drivers is admirable, to be sure, but it is not normal, nor should that be the standard to which we hold every individual. In most cases it takes education, spare time, money, and an amenable cultural framework for healthy eating and physical activity to become normalized components of one’s daily life. But these are not luxuries all people have.
This is another problem with a purely “make better choices” approach to weight management. It simply isn’t working, and there’s no evidence that it will work. To those champions of personal responsibility: however deeply you believe that people should be making what you call “better” choices—the reality is that they likely will not, especially when the ability to make those choices is constantly being undermined by a multibillion-dollar marketing effort from the food industry.
A Yale report found that in 2012 alone, $4.6 billion was spent advertising fast food to children, versus a tiny fraction of that amount spent on advertising fruits and vegetables. For decades now we’ve been promoting dieting and exercise for losing weight (unnatural, and for some, unpleasant behaviors that have not been shown to be effective for most people in the long term), and yet the rates of overweight and obesity continue to rise.
One more issue with the “choose to lose” strategy is the simple truth that even if every person on this planet got the recommended amounts of physical activity and ate moderately, we would still have people among us who are overweight and obese. Are they bad people? Are they irresponsible? The human body exhibits a spectrum of body types. As long as we tie moral character to weight status, we are hurting a lot of people. And even worse, there is evidence that weight stigma can lead to greater weight gain.
This should not be misinterpreted as an attack on exercise, or eating well. All evidence points to a shit-ton of benefits from being physically active. Likewise, eating a varied, moderate, whole-food and plant-heavy diet, instead of a diet characterized by overconsumption of calorically-dense, nutritionally deficient foods, will drastically improve quality of life and health outcomes. But those things are not the same as trying to lose weight.
Should you try to lose weight? Maybe, maybe not. Should you try to figure out how to fit healthier habits into your daily life in ways that you can tolerate and enjoy? Absolutely. Is there something wrong with you if you don’t eat better and get more physical activity? No. You’re acting like any normal primate, though you’ll probably be better off if you do make those changes.
But should the obesity epidemic be addressed? To be sure. However, as long as our solution is limited to wondering “why all those fat people are being so irresponsible,” then we will fail. First, we should acknowledge that we need to start focusing on promoting healthy habits in individuals rather than demanding weight loss.
Then, we should look at the numerous environmental and societal drivers of obesity and change those: a food system that encourages processed, cheap, and nutritionally empty calories, rather than affordable, whole nutritious foods; a denial of basic public education from an early age about how to take care of our bodies; a laissez-fare attitude towards food industry practices like selling ludicrous portion sizes, marketing unhealthy foods to young children, and infiltrating schools and daycares to shape eating habits from a young age; an approach to building and city planning that promotes motorized transportation and sedentary behavior; a lack of universal access to green spaces; and finally, some of the strongest correlates of all: poverty and social inequality.
There are many additional actions that could help reverse the trends in weight gain, in this country and worldwide. But one that probably won’t help is this tired refrain: You need to lose weight, you need to lose weight, you need to lose weight…