By Rob Archangel, 180DegreeHealth.com staff writer
Hey crew, Rob here with my first post at 180 Degree Health. A couple times in the last few days, I’ve had the chance to articulate my thoughts around obesity. One of them was the highly trafficked Cracked.com article Fat is Officially Incurable (According To Science). Vigorous debate rages there and on the 180D Facebook page, and I’ve participated some. I thought I might try to consolidate some thoughts here, in question and answer format.
What is obesity and is it dangerous?
Technically, it’s having a BMI (body mass index) over 30. It’s not necessarily bad for you. In some cases, it’s protective as we age. On an individual level, health and obesity are not the same. You can be fat and fit, or lean and a mess. And anyway, BMI is a crude tool- you can be lean and weigh a lot, like a bodybuilder, or have the same BMI as a pot-bellied couch potato.
Aren’t most people with high BMIs not healthy, though?
Maybe, but lots of people of any BMI aren’t healthy. Having a good relationship with how we move, what we eat, and how we live our lives is probably most important, and how much weight someone is carrying around is no clear indicator of those relationships.
What about all the links between obesity and degenerative disease?
That’s mostly due to reasons you wouldn’t expect. Paul Campos in The Obesity Myth makes the following point:
“… long-term human studies show that almost all of the excess risk associated with obesity can be accounted for by the higher incidence of weight cycling in obese people, and that obese people with stable weights have very little excess risk.”
In other words, dieting, drugs and exercise, when they result in temporary weight loss and re-gain (the pattern found in most obese people) is the real driver of obesity-related illness. Which is to say, telling fat people to lose weight makes them less healthy. Wild.
Wait a minute- its not losing weight that’s unhealthy. It’s just when fatties put it back on, right? If they just had some discipline, they could lose weight and keep it off.
Not so fast there, hotshot. The body doesn’t work that way. We have a pretty tight weight range that our bodies naturally stay within without us having to count calories in or out. It’s hard to reach outside of that in either direction for too long. The body counter-balances our efforts and works real hard to bring us back. Check out this BBC Documentary, ‘Why Are Thin People Not Fat.’ As hard as it was for them to keep that weight on above their natural weight, it is equally hard for fat people to stay below their natural weight. So ‘go hungry and exercise hard forever’ is not a real solution.
What about people who have lost X number of pounds and kept it off for Y months/years?
One- give it time. Check back in in five or ten years and see where they’re at. Two- the Cracked article doesn’t say the absolute number is zero, but that it’s small enough statistically that it’s inconsequential. And that’s true- there is no safe and effective method for long-term weight loss that works reliably. Mostly, it fails, and leaves people worse for the wear. Three- even if it works, the weight loss might be unhealthy. FDA researcher Bruce Schneider says the common trait among long-term losers is their monomaniacal and dis-ordered relationship with food and exercise. Eating disorders are much more dangerous than a few extra pounds. And even when it’s not a full on eating disorder, having rigid exercise and eating plans is an unhealthy social liability, rarely outweighed by the marginal benefits.
So what causes obesity? Even if it’s not as unhealthy as we assume, something’s up, right?
Probably. Extra fat could be a protective mechanism for toxins in our environment. It could be related to an imbalance in our gut bacteria. Given that obese people have similar hibernation-like body chemistry as starving people, it could be that obesity is the body’s way of dealing with not getting what it needs of all sorts of things (nutrients, sleep, meaningful social connections, engaging work, whatever). The main thing to remember is it’s more a symptom of a deeper issue than the issue itself.
Should we motivate people to lose weight?
Maybe. The question is, to what end? Overweight doesn’t equal unhealthy. We might do well to help people become healthier, to step into their bodies and move around in enjoyable ways, to be more intentional about their food and really enjoy it without guilt or fear, to address stress in their lives and to find an individual sense of purpose. Getting your life in order might result in weight loss, and if so, that’s awesome. But it might not, and that’s fine too. You can be plenty healthy carrying around a few extra pounds. It’s definitely not a good idea to focus just on weight loss, because that usually results in rebound weight gain and a net health loss.
Are there any healthy ways to lose weight? Is it really hopeless?
I don’t think it’s hopeless. There are some promising approaches to weight loss, or more specifically fat loss; we don’t want to lose muscle or bone or organ mass. The key is that these approaches tend to create fat loss almost unintentionally due to increased health and metabolic functioning, rather than due to intentional creation of calorie deficits. The latter tends to produce the weight cycling that’s no good for us. In contrast to long-duration cardio, weight training, along with sprints and other high intensity activity seem to increase our metabolism and could play a role. Intermittent fasting seems to have beneficial hormonal effects in some cases and could be valuable. 180 Degree Health encourages ‘eating the food,’ and resting for a while to create a calorie and nutrient superabundance, and a decrease in the stress hormones that help us hold on to those extra pounds. When we create a lower-stress relationship with food and our bodies, and especially when we start doing things that make us more fulfilled in general, we get healthier . And what we’re looking for when we talk about weight loss is really better health.
What do y’all think? Tell me what I got wrong.