I've been catching up on all the newspaper I've skipped while away several weeks, and notice that in every issue of the four different papers I peruse, there are at least two items about obesity, eating or dieting that I feel compelled to clip, given my work on a book in that area. I find something objectionable about them all, because appearance/eating journalism features guilt, shame and failure as themes. No wonder newspapers are sunk.
Here's a piece in USA Today, "Critics pounce on Coca-Cola obesity campaign" from Tuesday, January 15. The Coca-Cola company makes a video trying to define its role in making people fat--after all, consumers pay to guzzle their products--and the anti-obesity establishment jumps all over it. The article's headline nods to the disdainful Michael Jacobson, executive director of Washington's Center for Science in the Public Interest, who says Coke's video "is a page out of Damage Control 101, which is try to pretend you're part of the solution rather than part of the problem."
If nobody bought Coke, the company would go under. Enough people are willing to pay for it to generate profits instead. Banning soda whether in Mayor Bloomberg's favorite 16-oz. cups or any other form, or shaming its imbibers is no solution for obesity, but nobody wants to hear it. At the end of the article, a Coca-Cola spokesman offers, "Obesity is complex, and it requires partnership and collaboration to help solve it. We have an important role to play in the effort to find solutions that work for everybody."
Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina won't buy it, responding, "The Coca-Cola Company still remains one of the major causes of obesity in the USA and globally." So there.
On the very same page of that day's newspaper was an interview with "Manhattan socialite" Dara-Lynn Weiss, 41, whose new book explains why she put her obese 7-year-old on a diet. She wrote about it in the April issue of Vogue, to subsequent viral web vilification. Now she's hyping her story further, and says little Bea, now 9, is a "healthy" weight. Bea bulked up by age 6, despite living in a home of thin people who shared healthy meals together, because she "was a child with an enormous appetite."
|Dara-Lynn Weiss and Bea|
I can understand how difficult it is for a fat child. No mother wants to see her daughter suffer with something that can be addressed. On the other hand, few mothers would describe their efforts to slim their 7-year-old in Vogue Magazine.
That aside, the message remains: Fat, shape, obesity and dieting are enormous problems in America. Perhaps as much for their psychological impact as their physical manifestations. They're also huge sources of wealth for businesses large and small who deal with them.
Yet, being fat could be good for you. I found a slew of articles reporting on a new US government meta-review of 97 studies on longevity that found that overweight people had a 6%, and "Grade 1" obese a 5% lower risk of early death, than either higher-level obese or normal-weight people. The study's release was followed by a New York Times Op-Ed piece by Paul Campos, one of my favorite writers on the subject, who's made the same point repeatedly since his 2004 book, The Obesity Myth.
I'm also a fan of the lead author of the massive new study, Katherine M. Flegal of the CDC and National Institutes of Health, who discusses her process and findings in a three-and-a-half-minute video. Her team looked at 7,000 studies, eventually selecting 97 that met their criteria: body-mass index as the measure of girth, and broadly representative populations (not subsets, such as those suffering from a disease). Their many analyses yielded "strikingly consistent findings," across age, sex, smoking, gender and parts of the world (most studies were from North America). Being somewhat obese or overweight was simply not a hazard for dying; being overweight was a statistically significant advantage to longevity.
|The obesity police? Watch out!|
Perhaps you can grouse that BMI isn't an accurate measure of overweight since it doesn't account for percentages of muscle, or location of fat, but when you talk about 97 high-quality studies of three million people, you've got enough information to say something important. The health establishment is so invested in its anti-obesity campaigns that it can't even acknowledge a bit of good news.
And the reason that establishment is so dismissive is the same cultural bias that prompted Dara-Lynn Weiss to print in a fashion magazine the dragon-mother tactics she used to whittle her 7-year-old ("I stopped letting her enjoy Pizza Fridays when she admitted to adding a corn salad as a side dish one week. I dressed down a Starbucks barista when he professed ignorance of the calorie content of the kids' hot chocolate...").
And that reason is our hatred of body fat. We associate a bulbous appearance with negative personality characteristics. Here's another article I clipped today, from the Wall Street Journal: "Want to be CEO? What's Your BMI?" "Executives with larger waistlines and higher body-mass-index readings tend to be perceived as less effective, both in performance and interpersonal relationships," according to a study by the Center for Creative Leadership, a non-profit group. "Excess weight can convey weakness or 'lack of control,'" adds New York image consultant Amanda Sanders.
A 2010 Australian study found that "obese people were rated less favorably, and as more disgusting, than all other social groups." Yale University researchers (2005) tried to improve anti-fat bias by combatting the perception that obesity is within an individual's control, and that "people get what they deserve and are responsible for their life situation." Interestingly, prejudice against the rotund has grown to a global phenomenon, with Arizona State University researchers reporting cross-cultural agreement with the statement, "fat people are lazy."
A generation ago, we might have considered it impolite to comment on others' sizes. I remember my mother admonishing that one's inner soul, or "the content of his character" is what counts, not how he looks on the outside. At the very least, we judge by behavior, right? No longer.
We despise fatness, and now in the guise of ending an epidemic, the obesity police have free rein to butt into our most personal decisions ("what size beverage do I want?"). It doesn't matter that health and BMI are for most people unlinked. Paul Campos can wisely repeat that "baselessly categorizing at least 130 million Americans--and hundreds of millions in the rest of the world--as people in need of 'treatment' for their 'conditon'" merely feeds big pharma and weight-loss industry coffers. He can insist that there's no health reason to push present ideals--but he won't change anything, because in our culture, fat is abhorrent.
I've spent a lot of time researching causes of obesity, and they are many. Certainly not soft drinks, though glugging full-sugar sodas throughout the day adds calories, just as enjoying a morning latte does. Pure fruit juices count as "sugary drinks" equally, despite their enrichment with extra vitamins, since their calorie-counts are similar to Coke's (for example, 8 oz. of Florida's Natural orange juice is 110 calories; regular Coca-Cola has 96 for the same amount). What few people mention is that "normal" eaters, the ones in touch with their body's cues of hunger and satiation, feel full when they consume food or drink, and the more they consume, the less additional they want.
And that's my answer to the obesity issue, though certainly not a complete or perfect solution. Rather than listening to the prattle of pundits or exortations of experts, all of us can relax and strive to trust our bodies' messages. Even doing that, many people will be fat. I think of poor little Bea Weiss, whose mother watched in horror as she responded to her inner call for food. Dara-Lynn Weiss only wants the best for her daughter; she only wants her to grow up healthy and happy, and the only means she knows to facilitate that is to teach Bea very young to deny her desires and place a major emphasis on staying thin. "It's absolutely a problem every day that we are attentive to," Dara-Lynn Weiss tells Fox and Friends in an interview about her new book, The Heavy.
My hope is that medical science can learn more about the causes of obesity, and means to regulate them--and there's a lot to learn. Some obesity is caused by a cold virus. Some is the result of imbalanced hormones. Some is a medication side-effect. Some obesity is inherited, and some is the result of genetic changes caused by environmental factors. Stomach acids play a role; the amount of calories expended in breath impacts metabolism, too. If you ever watched the excellent BBC series "Why are Thin People Not Fat?" you know that a range of influences determines how calories are burned.
Exercise is not necessarily central among them. Some sedentary people eat whatever they want in any amount they choose and remain thin. They may not have finely-toned muscles, but they stay slender. What determines one person's desire for soft drinks versus another's preference for black coffee? Is the black coffee drinker more likely to be thin? Is a Cheetos-eater more likely to be fat? Not necessarily. We just don't know enough.
This is never the message of the articles I cull from the newspaper daily. I have folders on all sorts of interesting fat-related themes, including psychological influences on weight, what crusaders are doing to shrink the populace, and various substances certain loud voices dub deleterious (think sugar). I have files on childhood obesity (Bea!) and exercise and the food industry.
But aside from awaiting research, what can Americans do? Learn to turn inward. To thine own body sensations be true. Separate psychological, media and presence-of-food influences from real hunger, and when eating, focus on physical reactions. This is a learnable way to live, natural and effortless for a swath of the population. It's just too bad all this publicity about obesity and sloth has everyone so unfairly and wrongly uptight.