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.