Decades ago, health experts identified fatty foods as one source of obesity among Americans, and recommended that people regulate their intake of fatty foods. This was good advice, but the way that it got translated into the common American mind was this: “Fat-free foods are magic! All I have to do is eat fat-free, and everything will be fixed!”
So Americans sat at home, eating entire boxes of fat-free cookies in one sitting. They remained fat.
More recently, health experts identified sugars and carbohydrates as a source of obesity among Americans, and recommended that people regulate their intake of carbohydrates. This was also good advice. But the way it got translated into the common American mind was, “A carbohydrate-free diet is magic! If I just stop eating carbohydrates entirely, then everything will be fixed!”
So Americans sat at home, eating bacon and eggs with cheese but no toast. They remained fat.
Finally, health experts decided to keep it simple and tell people to take in fewer calories than they burn. In an effort to prevent further misunderstanding, they approached the obesity problem with the simplest of possible equations: eat less and exercise more!
This is, yet again, excellent advice. But what did Americans hear? In their desperate need for a quick magical fix, this was translated as: “I should just eat as little as possible, and then I’ll lose weight really quickly!”
So Americans spent a week eating nothing but lettuce, became tired and irritable and light-headed, and said “This isn’t working! I give up!” And, yes. They remained fat.
If you are reading this, there’s a good chance you are obese. Over 35 per cent of Americans are, and over 23 per cent of British people. More people are getting unacceptably overweight every year. And yet the science of getting fat is not terribly complicated. People who are obese eat too much, and exercise too little. Although some people have a mild predisposition toward weight gain, obesity is not a “glandular” issue for any more than a tiny fraction of the people who are overweight, nor is it a disease.
Obesity only appears complicated because weight is tied up with self-image, politics, marketing regulations, the for-profit health industry, corporate economics, political correctness, and hosts of other cultural albatrosses. As a practical matter, however, the “issues” surrounding weight function as nothing more than dangerous distractions for a person who is unhappy about being fat.
Consider, for example, the broad and complex issue of the politics of self-esteem. It is true that our society has a strained relationship with youth idolisation and images of beauty. We simultaneously demonise “shallowness” while putting skinny, pretty people on a pedestal.
It is also true that this has a complicated and damaging psychological effect on people who may never be able to attain a “magazine cover body”, especially when they are inundated with these images from a young age.
But none of this has anything to do with obesity. An honest conversation about obesity is not about forcing people to “conform to a standard of beauty”; it is about health. An honest conversation about obesity will not focus around whether or not girls who are slightly full-figured can still be considered “sexy”. An honest conversation about obesity should not be about whether society has the “right” to dictate body-image.
In a conversation about obesity, anybody who starts foaming at the mouth about the tyranny of fashion magazines is deflecting from the real issue. Obesity is not about “standards of beauty”; it is about people who are medically and dangerously overweight.
If you are obese, then you can lose weight regardless of whether you can (or should) attain a swimsuit model body. More often than not, introducing this kind of political issue into the conversation is just a cover for laziness: it is explicitly or implicitly part of an argument that says, “Because I cannot ever look like a person one of those fashion magazines, I’m going to just eat whatever the hell I want and never exercise.”
There is no other area in life in which that kind of argument makes sense. Imagine your child coming to you and saying, “I don’t think I’m smart enough to ever get an A in maths, so I’m just never going to study it at all!”
Fat is not a disease
A similar distraction can be found with the “obesity is a disease” argument. As was recently pointed out in an article in The Spectator, almost anyone can lose weight through diet and exercise, and even those who do have some genetic predisposition to retain fat can overcome that biological tendency by eating less and exercising more.
Almost anyone can lose weight through diet and exercise.
A third demon that is often invoked to excuse justify obesity is the demon of the “evil corporations”. Soft drink and junk food lobbies are constantly pushing for laws that allow them to downplay calorie counts, downplay the use of sweeteners and loosen restrictions on what food can be described as “healthy” or “organic” or “natural”.
Many people believe that companies deliberately make the “serving size” in the nutritional information for foods smaller than they should be, so that they can give the impression that the food contains fewer calories than it really does.
Issues of marketing and food regulation are very complex and very important. Once again, however, they have no place in an honest conversation about obesity.
People have to take basic responsibility for being aware of what they are putting into their bodies. If you don’t have the common sense to know that you shouldn’t have a bacon cheeseburger for dinner every night, then the sudden appearance of a calorie count in large font on the box won’t help you.
Obese people don’t get 40, 50 or 100 pounds overweight because they didn’t realise that they were eating more than they should.
Praying for magic
If there is a disease at work in the obesity epidemic, it is the disease of laziness. People want a quick fix to solve all their problems, and they don’t want to have to do anything differently… even though the things they have always done are what caused them to end up being overweight and unhappy with themselves.
The desire for a magic answer ends up creating a psychological barrier to progress. Because people want a quick, magical solution, even good medical advice is translated into bad, ineffectual behaviour.
The science of obesity is not complex, but cutting through the noise requires some common sense. If you are obese, then losing weight is simple. You need to gradually decrease the amount of food that you eat, and gradually increase the amount that you exercise, so that over time your body adapts to having less “fuel”. If you do this, you will gradually lose weight.
But there are no short cuts. There is no special food that you can eat, or exclude, and have the pounds melt away with no other change in your lifestyle. Eating organic or “additive free” food won’t help you if you eat 4,000 calories a day. There are no magic pills.
Eating healthy food is great, and is something everyone should strive for. But if you are seriously overweight, focusing on the minutiae of your vitamins and leafy green intake is likely to be an unnecessary distraction.
Or worse, it could a way that your subconscious is letting you avoid looking at the real problem. That extra serving of green salad isn’t going to help you if you are still having that fourth helping of pasta with dinner.
What you should be worrying about is eating less, and exercising more. Full stop.
Incidentally, if you are obese and content, or even proud, then perhaps none of this concerns you. It’s possible that you are happy the way you are: you are not trying to diet, you are not placing blame on society or biology for your condition. Perhaps you subscribe to the “big is beautiful” credo.
If that is the case, then by all means, enjoy it, Be free, and eat, and enjoy your obese body until the day that you die – which will probably be sooner rather than later. Though please move to a country without socialised medical care so you’re less of a colossal financial burden on everyone else around you. That would be great.
One thing you can’t do if you’re fat is gripe incessantly about society inconveniencing you. Do not claim that you are being “shamed” when you need to purchase two adjacent seats on an airplane. And do not go to your doctor seeking free “diet pills” or some other quick fix if one day you change your mind and decide that being fat is not for you.
You’re fat because you made yourself that way. If you want to make a change, put down the ice cream scoop and pick up a gym membership. It really is that simple.
NOW READ: Obesity: not a ‘self image’ problem