I’ve started to write this blog several times. Each time it has spiralled out of control as I attempted to cover all the bases – look at supporting facts from all sides, make a call based on the evidence I could find and then branch into never-ending loops of options.
So instead I’m going for the opposite. A short-ish blog on Fat Acceptance. Fat Acceptance, if you haven’t come across it (and I’m guess most readers of this blog have) is a movement to remove discrimination against the overweight from Australian (and I assume, other) societies.
It’s a noble cause I fully support.
However, it goes further than that – the Fat Acceptance group also claims that health and weight are completely unrelated. When I first questioned this statement – after all, it goes against everything I’d ever learnt – I was told to ‘educate myself’. ‘Go Google’, I was instructed.
So Google and Google and Google I did. And here’s what I’ve found:
1. Obese people have reduced life expectancy compared to mid-range weight people.
I take life expectancy of a pretty reasonable indicator of health. After all, a live person can be reasonably expected to have better health than a dead one.
The statement most repeated in the Fat Acceptance blogs is this one: Fat people live longer than thin people. Of course it is true, but it is used in a fashion that is meant to deceive. It’s meant to read “Fat people live longer than other people”. Which isn’t true. Not that I can see. No matter how much I google or follow through the links listed on Fat Acceptance blogs, I never come to a single study disputing the statement that people in a mid-weight range live longer than those in the over weight range.
2. The overweight are more likely to have chronic diseases.
Now you’ll also see the follow statement “being overweight can be beneficial when you have chronic diseases. Fat people live longer after being diagnosed than mid-range weight people do”. Again, it’s true. What’s never pointed out is that overweight people are far more likely to develop chronic diseases and are on average more likely to be younger than mid-range weight when they develop the disease.
Which is how you reconcile the two statements: The overweight live shorter lives but being overweight is beneficial for chronic diseases. The answer is if you are in the mid-weight range and develop a chronic condition, you may live for less time than an overweight person but chances are you’ll be older, so on average the age you die at will be higher than the overweight person.
So ‘on average’ the conclusion is: being mid-range weight is healthier than being overweight.
Of course, this is over large populations. It is completely possible and very common for a specific overweight person to live longer than a mid-range person. And there lies another common Fat Acceptance argument: “BMI is bullshit, it says I’m overweight but I have no risk factors and am completely healthy”. Again, completely possible. After all, BMI correlates with risk factors. It isn’t a guarantee of poor health.
And before someone trots out “Correlation doesn’t equal causation” let me just respond with: true, but that is why science spends so much time working on this question. In fact, while I have resisted linking – because that’s a never ending story and I’m sure plenty of links will be posted in the comments – you should check out the article: National Heart Foundation: The Relationship between Overweight, Obesity and Cardiovascular Disease. It specifically categorises causation into those with good evidence of a link, moderate evidence and weak or no evidence.
So (from extensive Googling) the ideal weight to be over a lifetime seems to be this: be mid-range weight or slightly overweight for most of your life. You’ll slowly gain weight as you age (everyone does), moving into the overweight category around your fifties or sixties. You’ll stop putting on weight in your late sixties, and then, as everyone seems to do, start losing weight again at eight-five. You’ll lose weight until you die.
The thin die early in every case. Looks like there is some justice after all.
Linking health and weight isn’t a conspiracy by women’s magazines, weight loss and drug companies and governmental health experts. The link exists – over a broad population.
The above groups all profit, of course, from making people feel bad about their weight – Biggest Loser anyone? – and this is where I rejoin the ultimate goal of FA. Discrimination against people because they are fat is repugnant. But to make the argument against discrimination into a war against anyone daring to link health and weight is, frankly – a self-defeating action – and somewhat dishonest. It drives those sympathetic to your cause away. It happened to me when I – completely in ignorance – stumbled onto a Fat Acceptance blog and started shooting my mouth off. Several people who have contacted me about their fear of crossing this group because the attacks are sharp and overwhelming. That’s a crazy place to be. While I can’t speak for her, the attacks on Mia Freedman, merely because she dares invite discussion on the topic and doesn’t kowtow to the FA dogma probably make her feel the same (then again, she may be more mature than me). While some parts of the Mamamia website don’t interest me (and let’s face it, it’s a website for women, not Dads) overall I think she walks the fine line between encouraging respect, fighting discrimination and acknowledging problems about excess weight.
Sure, she might say something stupid once in a while but who doesn’t? Fortunately, the wonderful site-manager Lana deletes everything stupid that I say (thanks Lana, you can’t do that magic elsewhere can you?).
Fat discrimination is a real problem. Obesity in society is also a real problem. Overweight female teenagers are far more likely to commit suicide than mid-range weight teenagers. And overweight teens are more likely to develop chronic diseases.
Both are terrible facts.
Just because there is no quick fix to being overweight (we’d all be mid-range if there was) and crash dieting is dangerous and ultimately self-defeating, giving up isn’t the answer.
The answer isn’t easy – but what answer worth discovering is?