Stop Worrying About It!

Our Obses­sion With Thin­ness Is Mak­ing Us Fat
By Paul Campos
Paul Cam­pos, a pro­fes­sor of law at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Col­orado, is the author of the forth­com­ing book The Last Amer­i­can Diet.
July 17, 2002

(Note: I’m going to repro­duce the arti­cle here because I don’t know how long it’ll stay available.)

Recent con­tro­ver­sies regard­ing diet and health on the one hand, and hor­mone ther­a­py for women on the oth­er, pro­vide excel­lent exam­ples of good and bad media cov­er­age of pub­lic health issues. 

The sto­ries regard­ing the risks and ben­e­fits of hor­mone ther­a­py have been intel­li­gent­ly writ­ten, reflect­ing a bal­anced view of a dif­fi­cult sci­en­tif­ic and med­ical issue. The sto­ries on var­i­ous fad diets and the sup­posed “obe­si­ty cri­sis,” by con­trast, have exem­pli­fied the medi­a’s unwill­ing­ness to ques­tion the most brazen pro­pa­gan­da of the weight-loss indus­try and its many allies in both the gov­ern­ment and the med­ical establishment.

After research­ing the sub­ject for sev­er­al years, it’s become clear to me that, in the world of pub­lic health pol­i­cy, all ideas relat­ing to weight and health are equal­ly wel­come, so long as they do not devi­ate in any way from the fun­da­men­tal axioms of the war on fat. 

These are that fat is a sig­nif­i­cant health risk, that “fat” peo­ple will be health­i­er if they lose weight, and that “fat” peo­ple can be expect­ed to become thin and stay that way by dieting. 

In fact, the evi­dence for all three of these propo­si­tions is extra­or­di­nar­i­ly slender—not that you would ever get a hint of this from 99.5 per­cent of what the mass media prints and broad­casts on the subject.

I place the word “fat” in quo­ta­tion marks because the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment says that a woman of aver­age height (defined as 5‑feet-4-inch­es tall) is “fat” if she weighs 145 pounds. Many obe­si­ty researchers will tell you that this insane def­i­n­i­tion is com­plete­ly unsup­port­ed by the med­ical lit­er­a­ture. Rather, it is a prod­uct of a nation­al obses­sion with thin­ness that is in large part respon­si­ble for caus­ing the very fat explo­sion we so fear and loathe. 

Cur­rent­ly, an esti­mat­ed 120 mil­lion Amer­i­cans are on some sort of diet. This also hap­pens to be almost exact­ly the same num­ber of Amer­i­cans the gov­ern­ment cat­e­go­rizes as either “over­weight” or “obese.” That is not a coincidence.

Part of the prob­lem is that there are many facts about Amer­i­ca’s war on fat that rarely find their way into the media.

Var­i­ous med­ical stud­ies show that, for instance, peo­ple who inten­tion­al­ly restrict their caloric intake invari­ably end up, on aver­age, weigh­ing more than peo­ple of sim­i­lar ini­tial weight who don’t. Could Amer­i­ca’s $50-bil­lion-per-year weight-loss indus­try be help­ing to cause the very “dis­ease” it claims to cure?

Amer­i­cans get 20-per­cent few­er calo­ries from fat than we did a gen­er­a­tion ago—and yet we weigh, on aver­age, 15 pounds more than we did in 1982, accord­ing to data from the Unit­ed States Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture and the Nation­al Insti­tutes of Health. The rea­son, on one lev­el, is quite sim­ple: Fat itself does­n’t make peo­ple fat—food does.

Con­sid­er the storm of con­tro­ver­sy about a July 7 New York Times Mag­a­zine arti­cle argu­ing that per­haps diet guru Robert Atkins was right after all when he claimed Amer­i­cans would be slim­mer if they ate stacks of cheese­burg­ers with­out buns. To the Amer­i­can med­ical estab­lish­ment, this always sound­ed far too good to be true. So in the spir­it of sci­en­tif­ic inquiry, they decid­ed to dis­miss Atkins’ claims with­out both­er­ing to test them first. 

In fact, the multi­bil­lion-dol­lar low-fat food indus­try has flour­ished by cre­at­ing a nation of dieters who spend their lives eat­ing food that does not sat­is­fy their appetites and, indeed by its nature, can­not do so. This is a pre­scrip­tion for cre­at­ing com­pul­sive snack­ers and binge eaters, which is pre­cise­ly what we have become. Accord­ing to “Eat Fat” author Richard Klein, Amer­i­cans aver­age 20 “food con­tacts” a day. He goes on to point out that the French, who eat a diet with a 50 per­cent high­er-fat con­tent and are much thin­ner, aver­age sev­en food encoun­ters a day.

Phys­i­cal-activ­i­ty lev­els are bet­ter pre­dic­tors of health than body mass: As long-term stud­ies at Dal­las’ Coop­er Insti­tute show, “over­weight” active peo­ple are far health­i­er than thin seden­tary ones and just as healthy as their thin active counterparts.

We’re a nation that makes a large per­cent­age of its cit­i­zens feel ter­ri­ble about their fail­ure to con­form to an absurd­ly thin cul­tur­al ide­al. The weight-loss indus­try prof­its from encour­ag­ing these peo­ple to engage in behavior—obsessing about weight, in gen­er­al, and diet­ing, in particular—that caus­es them to become much fat­ter than they would be otherwise. 

And the gov­ern­ment exac­er­bates this neu­rot­ic sit­u­a­tion by issu­ing increas­ing­ly hys­ter­i­cal pro­nounce­ments, demand­ing that Amer­i­cans keep doing the very things that have been mak­ing them fat but to do them “right” this time.

If his­to­ry is any guide, Amer­i­cans who eat food that sat­is­fies them, who nev­er diet and who focus on what actu­al­ly mat­ters to health—that is, being phys­i­cal­ly active—will be hap­pi­er, health­i­er and thinner.

All of this is obscured by the medi­a’s uncrit­i­cal rep­e­ti­tion of the weight-loss indus­try’s pro­pa­gan­da. In oth­er words, the way to win the war on fat is not to fight it in the first place.
Copy­right © 2002, News­day, Inc. 

Cyn is Rick's wife, Katie's Mom, and Esther & Oliver's Mémé. She's also a professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
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