Posts Tagged ‘Fat’

Do you know a fat person?

July 20, 2010

Call them obese, huge or fat — the stigma won’t go away. And I’m not sure it should.  Obesity is bad for a person’s health, bad for the planet, bad for fellow airline passengers, and even bad for babies born to obese mothers (which, in turn, is bad for the economy; see NYTimes article).  When something causes this many personal and social problems we usually assume it is not a good thing to have or be.

“But,” some say, “we mustn’t blame the victim.  Obesity isn’t a weakness or a fault; it’s genetic. When we stigmatize people, they suffer even more, and may even avoid seeking help.” There is a kernel of truth to this concern, but it distracts us from the main point: obesity can and should be eliminated over time, through more research, and through attacking many known contributing factors (factors such as the  marketing and subsidizing of unhealthy foods).

The most active researchers who advocate against “weight bias” and “weight stigma” (Kelly Brownell and Rebecca Puhl at Yale, for example) also tell us that the obesity epidemic is growing and the health consequences are horrible.  They do not claim the problem is due to a change in genetics.  People can do a lot to prevent and even treat obesity, without altering genes (see many of my posts in this blog).

An anti-obesity program in Singapore that targeted overweight children was discontinued because of concern about stigma, even though the program was effective (reducing the percentage of overweight children from 14% to 9.5% in fourteen years — 1992 – 2006; click here for more information). I don’t know what should have been done in this case; there are no easy answers.

Outright discrimination against people based on appearance is generally wrong, and fat people should be treated sensitively and humanely, no matter what caused their affliction.  (Many equate stigma with discrimination, but I see a difference between the two concepts.)

Whether or not it reduces stigma, television has recently upped its focus on obesity by producing such shows as “Drop Dead Diva,” “Huge,” “Mike and Molly,” and, of course, “The Biggest Loser.”  A new series starts next month, “Too Fat for Fifteen: Fighting Back,” and at least one other obesity-related series is in the works. See this article for a discussion of how obesity is being addressed on TV.

[The photo at the top of this post is from ABC Family’s series “Huge”]

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Why “Eat only when you’re hungry” won’t work

May 15, 2010

During a recent social event, the conversation turned to weight loss and dieting. One of the women said she read a new book and it had “the answer” to her problem of weight gain: eat only when you’re hungry.  Many books and weight loss plans, in fact, emphasize this point, offering various tips and methods to define “hungry” and help the reader learn what kind of hunger, exactly, they should satisfy and what kinds they should ignore.  The worst books (in my opinion) give the message that people gain weight because of various psychological or “spiritual” hungers that we try to assuage with food.  There is little to no consistent science to back up these claims, and I believe the message does much harm, because it implies an almost magical answer to the problem  of overeating.  When it inevitably fails to work, the victim of this propaganda is left with yet another cycle of failed dieting and increased weight.

As recently as hundreds of years ago, most people did need hunger as a cue to begin eating, because their days were full of physical labor and food was not always readily available.  But, in recent decades, this situation has changed dramatically.  Now, most have relatively low levels of physical activity and the availability of food has increased exponentially — to the point where there is a glut of high calorie, low cost “food” in our faces continually.  We rarely get hungry in the old sense of the word, because these cleverly marketed and subsidized foods (high in sugar, salt and/or fat) overwhelm our biological regulatory systems.  Instead, we develop cravings and hungers triggered by environmental cues and implanted “beliefs” from our culture, no longer based on biological requirements.  In a sense, we get “addicted” to unhealthy foods and lose our ability to trust our hunger.

So, what can we do?  Easy — and difficult.  Train ourselves to ignore these contrived temptations; limit our exposure to them (most importantly, protect our children from them!).  Learn what a healthy lifestyle looks like and adopt it.  Avoid frequently eating “addictive” foods containing large amounts of  sugar, salt and fat.  And advocate, loudly and often, for changes in our culture so that fruits, vegetables and other unprocessed foods are cheaper and more available than the junk food that now receives so many economic advantages.

For more information and tips, check out these links:

Food Industry Pursues the Strategy of Big Tobacco

Coping with the obesity epidemic

Ending overeating

Overeating leads to more overeating

What does 200 calories look like?

Do not — DO NOT — deprive yourself

Mindful eating vs. mindless munching

Weight Management for Your Life: Ten Steps to Prepare You for Adopting a Healthy Lifestyle

I recommend Nutrition Action Health Letter, available by subscription from the non-profit CSPI (regarding today’s post: see the May, 2010, cover story “How the Food Industry Drives Us to Eat” featuring an interview with Yale’s Dr. Kelly Brownell).

P.S.  I have not posted in the last 3 months for several reasons, one of which is having surgery and recovering.  I’m fine now, though.

Ending overeating

July 7, 2009

Kessler overeating

A very important new book (The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by David Kessler) accurately describes major factors contributing to the obesity epidemic: cleverly formulated manufactured food designed to seduce us into overeating, addictive ingredients (salt, sugar and fat) which act like nicotine in cigarettes to keep us coming back for more, a profit driven system of marketing and government subsidies which works against our best interests, and the loss of boundaries limiting when and how much we eat. It is indeed frightening to think that a 2-year-old’s appetite “knows” to shut down when enough calories have been consumed, but by the time that child is four (in our culture) there is often a loss of that self-control mechanism.

Kessler’s solutions include re-training our minds to devalue unhealthy processed foods loaded with the Big Three (salt, sugar, fat); reforming our policies and practices which encourage this vicious cycle; and doing much more to educate people as to what they are consuming (such as requiring nutritional information in restaurants).

I agree with all this, but take issue with some of the concepts Kessler promotes. My main complaint is he oversimplifies the issue of food containing salt, sugar and fat by using an addiction model. Too much of these ingredients is indeed unhealthy, but a simple addiction model will not work.

Another problem is his use of the term “real food” (see NPR interview) which is a vague concept, at best. Many seemingly real foods contain salt, sugar and fat (either naturally, or because of the way they are produced), and not all “manufactured” foods are bad (e.g., some fish farmed in a sustainable way are better for us than some “wild-caught” fish). I can buy a chicken that has been doctored with added salt and fat, or I can buy one (usually smaller and more expensive) which has been grown almost organically. To the average consumer, both seem “real.” Also, I can buy “sea salt” and “unrefined real sugar” and think I am getting something healthier than standard table salt and corn syrup, but the bottom line (sodium and calories) may be exactly the same.

Finally, he promotes a black vs. white dichotomy between a disease-like state we cannot directly control (“conditioned hypereating”) and old fashioned willpower, telling us “it is not our fault” that we overeat. Fault, per se, may not be the issue; rather, we should learn ways to increase our resistance to external cues and marketing, educate ourselves about nutrition and portion size, and practice coping skills to enhance self-regulation. I have written about this at length elsewhere.