First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Is It Bad to Be Fat?
It's the most natural thing in the world for the human body to get fat.
Evolution favors it -- in times of plenty, store it up as fat so you won't lose muscle, get weak, and then die when times are lean.
In fact, what evolution favors is variety. Some people stay lean no matter what, so they need less food just to keep their body mass going.
Some people stay rotund, teardrop-shaped, despite any amount of exercise, because their bodies like to have plenty of insulation. Also, they float.
Some people can fluctuate, depending on the season and the amount of food and exercise. Their bodies adapt to whatever is happening in the outside environment.
But we live in times of plenty. Our bodies respond to the smells and the sight of food, especially food that provides quick jolts of sugar. It's the same core impulse that makes monkeys go for whatever fruit is in season, gorging on it before it all gets overripe, falls from the tree, and rots.
Eat eat eat. It's built into our bodies and it's devilishly hard to control.
Feel stress? Some people fast (a good adaptation, because they need to be light and lean to run away), but some people eat (uh-oh, times are hard, better stock up on food while we've still got it).
Sometimes one strategy will give an evolutionary advantage, sometimes the other; evolution doesn't care, as long as the species has an improved chance of survival.
But fashion cares, and punishes people for having unfashionable bodies.
Well, that's the way fashions work, and those who are slaves to the Look are its constant victims.
The worst thing about being overweight, though, is the widespread assumption that it's your own fault, that there's some awful moral weakness in you if you are a person of unusual size.
But this is absurd. Most overweight people resemble their parents or grandparents -- heredity is obviously at work. I've known large people who eat almost nothing and are hungry all the time, but they don't lose weight, because their bodies, for one reason or another, are determined to pack it on.
Yet they are condemned, ridiculed, treated hideously -- often by medical professionals to whom they have come for help. You think fat people don't know how they're despised? You think they don't want to be different?
It's especially galling because the people mocking them are often of that tribe that doesn't gain weight no matter what they eat. In other words, it's easy for them to stay thin because their bodies burn up whatever they eat. People like that should keep their thin little mouths shut when fat people are being discussed, because they have no idea what it's like to be heavy, or what it takes to lose the weight, when it can be lost at all.
Plus it's hard for large people to buy clothes these days -- especially since European sizing has suddenly come into fashion, so that "XL" now means "medium." Leaving a huge gap between the tiny clothes in the departments stores and the oversized clothes in the big-and-tall stores.
So there's plenty of incentive right now -- either to lose enough weight to fit into the toy clothes at the Gap or gain enough weight to fill out those big 2X shirts at Casual Male. And what with the way thin people treat fat people, you can count on it: Most fat people would like to be thin just so people would treat them decently.
What really irritates me, however, is when science becomes the tool of fashion and a rationale for condemning fat people even more because they impose some kind of "burden" on our health care system.
Is Being Overweight Really Bad for Our Health?
First, let's get one thing straight. The fashionable definition of "overweight" is "doesn't look absolutely lean when naked." That should have nothing to do with the scientific definition, however -- or the medical one.
We've heard that overweight kills more than 300,000 Americans a year. We've been warned that as we get fatter, we'll have an epidemic of adult-onset diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
But what if overweight is a result of adult-onset diabetes, or a co-result of the same underlying cause as diabetes?
And do we know whether that estimate of an "epidemic" of heart disease and cancer takes into account the medical advances we have already made in the treatment of both conditions?
For that matter, do we know where that figure of "300,000" comes from?
In other words, is there any actual science going on here?
Because whenever I hear people making estimates -- like how many CDs and DVDs are being pirated, or how many back alley abortions used to go unreported, or any other fundamentally unknowable things, I have long since learned to leap to the conclusion that is most likely to be right: That someone made the numbers up just to get attention.
The June Scientific American has a fascinating article that doesn't purport to have the answers on obesity, but reports on the fact that some serious critics are very suspicious of the "facts" that are being used to justify public policy -- and to induce panic-buying of weight-loss products and services.
For the details, I urge you to read the article -- or, better yet, the books that the article cites.
But for now, let's look at this quotation from the article "Obesity: An Overblown Epidemic?" by W. Wayt Gibbs: "What is really going on, asserts [J. Eric] Oliver, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, is that 'a relatively small group of scientists and doctors, many directly funded by the weight-loss industry, have created an arbitrary and unscientific definition of overweight and obesity.'"
If you define "overweight" in such a way that Brad Pitt is considered to have too high a Body Mass Index, and George Clooney is classed as obese, then you are not on planet Earth any more. But, assert some critics, that is exactly what has happened to us.
Americans probably are getting fatter, on average, than we used to be.
But, on average, that doesn't necessarily mean we're getting dangerously fat.
In fact, the measures we take to try to lose weight may in fact be more dangerous.
Take, for instance, the fact that most people who lose dramatic amounts of weight usually gain it back plus ten pounds. They might have been better off to stay where they were. (Though it may also be that they were already going to gain those extra ten pounds, and the weight-loss merely postponed it.) Wildly fluctuating body fat amounts can make it harder for your heart.
At the same time, we have preventive treatments that can help prevent heart attacks even in overweight people.
But these assumptions still assume that being fat is a cause of death. What if it's not (except in the obvious case of critically overweight people -- the kind who can't get out of their houses without taking down a wall).
How Good Are the Stats?
A recent analysis of the so-called "fat epidemic" examined three "large, nationally representative surveys." Instead of just reporting the raw numbers of overweight people who died, they first subtracted the effects of smoking, alcohol, age, race, and sex. What was left was a "statistically insignificant" difference in the death rates of overweight people.
In fact, some interpret the results as indicating that adults in the "overweight category have a lower risk of premature death than do those of so-called healthy weight."
If this is true, then the national weight gain is not endangering health, it's improving it.
And this makes far more evolutionary sense than the supposed dangers of weight gain. Our bodies are designed to gain reasonable amounts of weight in order to get us through hard times -- because any early humans who did not were far more likely not to make it to the end of a drought -- or even a hard winter.
When you look at the gloomy prediction that obesity will chop two to five years off the lifespan of overweight individuals, you find out that the study this was based on made some very iffy assumptions, relied on old data, did not look at potential deaths from underweight, and ignored the possibility of future advances in medicine.
Even with all those iffy assumptions and omissions, the study only showed a death rate increase of four to nine months. The "two to five years" warning is a wild guess based on what might happen in future decades. In other words, it's a made-up number.
And you could look at the same stats, change the assumptions in perfectly reasonable ways, and reach the conclusion that the increase in deaths due to obesity will be zero.
Moreover, there are serious indications that extra body fat is significant in improving the survival rate of the elderly -- perhaps because it increases their body reserves.
If All This Is True ...
So what do we do? Stop dieting, tuck up to the table, and eat that Haagen Dazs?
Of course not. There is still the risk of becoming morbidly obese. There's also the matter of buying clothes -- or of mobility.
Because one thing that still makes a huge difference in our health and comfort is exercise. Walking vigorously for half an hour, five days a week still confers enormous benefits -- even if you remain somewhat overweight. But if you weigh so much that walking becomes uncomfortable, then it's harder to get that aerobic exercise.
It makes sense to keep weight gain to a reasonable level. But we don't have to struggle, to treat our bodies mercilessly, in order to achieve weight levels that are not natural for our body type.
What we need is to live in a more compassionate, tolerant society -- instead of one that abuses and condemns people for having bodies that look exactly like their parents' bodies. It would make as much sense as ridiculing the children of short people for being short, or the descendants of bald people for being bald.
Oh, wait. We do that, too.
We Are So Easily Fooled
One of the lessons of this is that we should not be so trusting. All kinds of "scientific" claims get trumpeted in the media without any examination. After all, the reporters usually have degrees in journalism, not in science. So they trust their sources in a way that they would never dream of trusting, say, a White House position paper.
It's not that anybody is trying to lie to us. They might actually believe there's a great danger, and their biased interpretations and assumptions are unconsciously made.
Instead of thinking of it as a vast conspiracy, we can think of it as the result of misplaced enthusiasm. Researchers who are examining the health effects of obesity are not going to go into the situation thinking, "I bet obesity is harmless, let's prove it." Instead, they'll have -- in the back of their minds -- the assumption, "I bet obesity is even more dangerous than people think."
Then, as they make decisions, they'll lean in the direction they think of as "better safe than sorry" -- because they've assumed that losing weight is "safer" for people.
But if it's not safer, then their bias is actually not in the direction of "better safe." They simply don't realize how the design of their research is skewing the results.
And the Critics Do It Too
If you want an example of the same kind of assumption that leads you to possibly-false conclusions, look at the statements in Gibbs's article about the possible motives of those who have cried out the alarm about the "fat epidemic."
Gibbs (and some of the critics he cites) thinks it's significant that many or most of the studies that supposedly support the claims about a "fat epidemic" were funded in part by the weight-loss industry.
Aha, one thinks. So they have a motive! It's about making money from people who want to lose weight!
But that's absurd -- pure conspiracy theory. If a researcher goes into these studies with the goal of saving people's lives, but needs funding in order to conduct the research, what in the world would be wrong with his accepting funding from Weight Watchers or Nutri-Slim? He's not doing it to get rich, he's doing it to get answers. The fact that they all expect the same answers doesn't mean that they're plotting together to get rich, only that they share the same assumptions.
What, do you think they would expect McDonald's or Haagen Dazs to fund their research?
It's very, very bad reporting to make assumptions about motive -- to leap to the conclusion that people are overtly dishonest when there is not a shred of evidence that they have deliberately falsified or suppressed contrary results (the way the tobacco industry's researchers did).
That, too, is irresponsible journalism, and Gibbs should be ashamed of himself. In the midst of debunking possibly-false research results, he should not himself be guilty of claiming the existence of a conspiracy for which there is no rational evidence.
If we adopted that standard of evidence about motive, we'd throw out all environmental research funded by the Sierra Club or other environmentalist foundations. In fact, we should throw out research funded by the EPA, since everybody who works at the EPA got into the field in the first place because they're committed environmentalists.
It's all a conspiracy!
Nonsense. It's all human nature, and nothing more.
There was no reason to point a finger of blame at anyone. It was only appropriate to correct a possible error and call for more research to determine the truth of the matter.
I'm Still Trying
I'm still trying to lose weight that I've gained over the past several years. But no longer will it be because I fear that it's killing me. I want to lose the weight so I can wear off-the-rack clothes again; so my face looks better (to me; other people have to look at it no matter how much I weigh); so I am more flexible; so that when I walk and run, I'm not putting so much stress on my knees and back.
These are perfectly reasonable goals. And whether I actually lose the weight or not, I'm going to keep on exercising regularly because it's good for me and I feel better when I do it.
What I won't do is take seriously any of these alarmists who predict shocking increases of this and that. Whenever it's an estimate or a prediction based on "if present trends continue," you can count on it -- they might be right, but they certainly aren't being scientists when they make such guesses.
You don't have to deform your life in order to follow their well-meaning but misleading plan.
Copyright © 2005 by Orson Scott Card.
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