Despite the bombardment of news articles and research papers telling us that obesity and being overweight is bad for our health, and that fatness is becoming a bit of a pandemic, we need to face the fact that we are NOT being told the WHOLE TRUTH…
We are told, constantly, that our growing waistlines are not only individual problems (rather than huge food industries and government policies), but we are also heading in a direction that is going to have huge costs to society and we should all take action to prevent otherwise.
What we are not being told though, is that fat does not mean unhealthy, and being thin does not mean healthy. We also aren’t told that FEELING FAT is probably much worse for our overall health than actually BEING FAT.
But how on earth can this be?
Being someone who was once a strong advocate for optimum nutrition and being a healthy weight, I also found this difficult to get my head around this concept at first, but now I find BMI such a useless and even harmful concept. To help you get your head around this too, lets dive in and make the picture much clearer to understand.
Firstly, the way we categorise being overweight or obese, is based on body mass index (BMI) calculations, which is simply a calculation that is results from assessing weight (in kg) in relation to a person’s height.
BMI doesn’t actually give any indication of how much fat or muscle tissue a person has in their body, and it also doesn’t consider any other key metabolic factors that give a more accurate indication of health.
These factors include measures of the types of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fats in individuals’ blood, as well as markers of inflammation, insulin sensitivity (an indicator of diabetes risk) and several chronic diseases.
Measures of BMI also don’t give any indication of the types of health behaviours individuals engage in, which can play a much bigger role in a person’s overall wellbeing, such as smoking, their level of physical activity and how much and how frequently they consume alcohol.
For example, it is often the case that individuals who would be viewed as ‘thin’, have specific metabolic markers and health behaviours that would suggest poor health. Similarly, individuals who would be classified as overweight or obese have been found to have a positive indicators of health, including metabolic markers and health behaviours. However, many health-related research don’t take a collection of these factors into account - instead choosing to focus on weight or BMI.
Another important side of the coin to look at is how weight loss, and being told to lose weight, does not lead to positive wellbeing. Of course, in many cases, losing weight will contribute to less stress placed on joints and reducing the risk of conditions like heart disease and diabetes. However, for many individuals, messages and eating behaviours that are based on weight loss lead to poor self-esteem and body image, as well as more individuals embarking on fad diets that lead to weight cycling.
Research with twins additionally shows that the sibling who embarks on a diet is more likely to be heavier and show more unhealthy metabolic markers that the twin who didn’t diet. We have to understand that dieting is not a behaviour without consequences - usually negative ones. For example, over 90% of individuals regain the weight they lost, and even more after their diet has ended (I say ended because most diets are never pursued in the long term because they are difficult to maintain).
Following diets with the aim of weight loss can also lead to yoyo weight cycling (continual weight loss and gain), which has been shown in some studies to lead to unhealthy metabolic consequences and increased risk of chronic disease. Dieting also substantially increases the risk of eating disorders, including binge eating, anorexia and an overall unhealthy relationship with food.
Perhaps even more crucially, the idea of feeling fat may have more detriments than actually being fat. With feeling fat, individuals perceive that they do not meet society’s (unrealistic) expectations, and that they are human beings who are less worthy and loveable than individuals who are not overweight or obese. Likewise, feeling fat, whether categorised as obese or not, can lead to feelings of guilt and shame around food, as well as feeling outcasted by society.
These issues alone have been shown to raise stress and blood pressure, which in themselves are significant predictors of poor health and chronic disease. Feeling fat, rather than being fat, can also impair a person’s quality of life through making them feel like a minority group.
At a societal level, promoting weight loss and messages that demonise being overweight or obese massively contribute to the growing issues of weight stigma. This can often lead to further stress and feelings of being outcasted, as well as even more widespread problems in workplaces where individuals who are viewed as fat are less likely to be employed or promoted.
In other words, feeling fat and promoting the concept that it is not ok to be fat, inevitably leads to inequalities and poor health outcomes.
By flipping the obesity coin on its head, what we really need to be promoting saying is that it is NOT OK to endorse feeling fat. In essence, this simply means that society needs to become more critical of endorsing messages or products that promote dieting, weight loss and the idea that individuals who are overweight or obese will have poorer health.
We need to take action on feeling fat, which is experienced by millions of people nationwide, and can have monumental implications of wellbeing. We can also begin to take a greater focus on promoting healthy behaviours and developing a positive relationship with food and body rather than simple weight loss, which alone is not going to solve any individuals’ or society’s complex problems.
In a nutshell, together lets bid a fond farewell to the trend of dieting and demonising being fat, so we can say a welcome hello to a new world that promotes health at a diverse number of sizes where how a person actually feels is much more valued than their weight and BMI …