Everything You Know About Obesity Is… Not As Wrong As You Think
An article was published recently making many sensational claims, saying “Everything You Know About Obesity is Wrong.”
It came across as a very science-backed piece, but at closer look, it might not be as scientifically valid as it seems.
There’s a lot in the article I agree with. And a lot I feel is downright deceptive.
My goal is to plainly show both sides.
What I Agree With
Hidden somewhere in the middle of the article is this line:
“There’s a lot we can do right now to improve fat people’s lives — to shift our focus for the first time from weight to health and from shame to support.”
If only this were the main point being conveyed.
From Shame to Support
People who are overweight or obese should never be shamed, made fun of, bullied, or discriminated against.
If any idiot thinks otherwise, I’ll be first in line to donkey kick them in the face. I know they say you shouldn’t fight bullying with bullying, but that’s how I feel.
As the article points out, being discriminated against is a health risk in and of itself.
In other words, if you treat someone poorly for being overweight, you’re stealing time from their life.
If that doesn’t make you want to double-check your own biases, I don’t know what will.
From Weight to Health
Another thing I agree with is that “diets” aren’t the answer.
Story after story in the article made me feel sick in my gut out of empathy for people who have tried and failed to white-knuckle their way to health through misguided weight loss diets.
It’s not their fault.
We’ve done a terrible job as a society of educating ourselves, and our children, on well-grounded diet and exercise practices.
Rather than creating healthy habits that incidentally promote weight loss, we neglect our health in an attempt to simply see numbers go down on the scale.
The article correctly points out that weight and health are not synonymous. (Although it’s more closely connected than he implies, which I’ll discuss later.)
But the lack of nutrition education doctors receive (19 hours in 4 years) reinforces this generalization, leaving a disconnect between the medical industry and actual, helpful nutrition advice.
We need doctors and nutritionists/coaches to be in communication with each other, working together on behalf of the patient.
Your best bet is to be proactive about making this happen yourself.
Find a doctor you trust. Find a nutrition coach you trust. And do your own research so you aren’t blindly following the advice of any one person.
What I Find Deceptive
Unfortunately, the main points of the article stray so far from the ones above, I fear most people will come away with a very different, potentially dangerous message.
You Can’t Lose Weight
Multiple times the author communicates ideas making weight loss sound like a futile endeavor.
He says “research has shown that 95 to 98 percent of attempts to lose weight fail.”
He doesn’t reference a study supporting this claim, but even if he did, such a broad statement would be impossible to prove in just one study.
In one of my recent blogs, I mentioned a study putting the number at closer to 80%.
That’s still a high number, but the distinction shows that it’s not impossible to lose weight (as you’re being led to believe), just that the most common tactics are flawed.
He then says, “the reasons are biological and irreversible,” going on to briefly, but dramatically, describe metabolic adaptation, which is real, but not a death sentence to your weight loss efforts.
When you lose weight, your body reacts by slowing your metabolism. Meaning someone who lost weight may need to eat less than someone who weighs the same without having lost weight.
However, the effects of this metabolic adaptation can be reduced through a number of strategies (like the one in this study).
The effects may not be completely inhibited, but that’s all the more reason to focus on sustainable, healthy habits for a lifetime rather than quick weight loss — so when your diet is over you won’t be “battling hunger all day, every day, for the rest of your life,” as the author so delicately puts it.
Weight and Health Aren’t Related
A term that remains at the nucleus of the article’s message is “metabolically healthy obesity.”
But does it even exist?
He says, “Studies have found that anywhere from one-third to three-quarters of people classified as obese are metabolically healthy.”
Yet, the study he links to actually shows a range of 6% (not 33%) to 75%. And the point of the study wasn’t to say that up to 75% of obese people may be healthy, it was to point out that we don’t know what metabolically healthy obesity even means.
Turns out there’s heavy debate around the entire concept.
This study questions whether metabolically healthy obese people are truly healthy, considering other risks of obesity, such as osteoarthritis, chronic pain, diseases of the respiratory system, skin and more (just to name a few).
Still another study found an even lower prevalence of healthy obesity (1.3%), higher risks of metabolic disorders, and additional health concerns (such as cancer).
Over and over the author makes statements like, “We’re not going to become a skinnier country. But we still have a chance to become a healthier one,” wedging a gap in our minds between weight and health, as if there’s no connection.
I agree 100% that weight cannot be the only factor we use to verify health.
We know that skinny people can be more unhealthy than those who are obese. And some overweight people are at lower risk than others.
However, weight can be an indicator, and it seems that obesity generally does come with health complications.
Cherry Picking Information
I believe the man who wrote the article was well intentioned, but his interpretation of data is sloppy at best. At worst, he intentionally ignored key points in his research to make his case.
He references one study and comments, “unfit skinny people were twice as likely to get diabetes than fit fat people.”
His interpretation: your size doesn’t matter.
But he ignores a line in the same study stating that being obese, whether “metabolically healthy” or not, still moderately raises your risk of diabetes.
Seems to me like that matters.
Another instance is when he says “No nation has reduced its obesity rate. Not one.” He then cites a NY Times report about how “Americans are actually consuming less calories now than we did in 2003.”
His interpretation: “[the problem is] not how much we’re eating… it’s what we’re eating.”
Yet he ignores a line in the same NY Times article pointing out that “As calorie consumption has declined, obesity rates appear to have stopped rising for adults and school-aged children and have come down for the youngest children, suggesting the calorie reductions are making a difference.”
What we eat and how much we eat BOTH matter.
The last example I’ll give is when he interprets a study by saying, “two years of getting kids to exercise and eat better didn’t noticeably affect their size…”
Yet the actual wording of the results of that study are, “Significantly more intervention than control children stayed within normal BMI percentile ranges both years. Although not significantly so, more obese children in the intervention (4.4%) than in the control (2.5%) decreased their BMI percentiles.’’
In other words, the results of the study are more accurately interpreted like this: Two years of getting kids to exercise and eat better made a significant difference in preventing weight gain, and trended toward a potential benefit of weight loss.
It’s one thing to use a single study to support your own position, ignoring other studies that contradict it.
It’s another thing entirely to ignore data you don’t like so you can interpret a study however you want.
My Final Say
There’s so much more I’d like to address — more truths I wholeheartedly endorse, and more distortions I’d like to confront.
If you take one thing away from my article or the one I’ve been discussing I hope it’s this:
We need to show love to everyone, regardless of their health and weight, or the circumstances surrounding it.
No person should be made to feel like their worth is wrapped up in what they weigh.
You are so much more than that.
But if the point of all this is love, are we really loving our overweight friends and family members — or ourselves — by twisting the truth and saying your weight doesn’t affect your health?
For me, the answer is no.
The solution is to help stop discrimination by examining our own perception of obesity, being sure we don’t augment the problem.
And that includes educating yourself on what weight loss looks like through healthy, balanced, and science-backed practices.
I’ll give you a hint… if you’re focused only on weight, you’re off track.
If you’re ready for help, you can apply for our 1-on-1 coaching here.
If you need more time to learn about this mindset, download our free PDF "Take the Overwhelm Out of Weight Loss."