Fat and healthy: In which there are scare quotes.

J and I got our typical Tuesday weight-lifting session in today. I continued my No Cheating pledge and tried 15 reps, and things went okay. The way J increases the weight he’s lifting is: he starts out with 10 reps at a weight, and then he adds more reps until he gets to 15, then once he can do 15 reps he increases the weight and goes back down to 10. That seems like a reasonable way to do it, doesn’t it? I should try it.

I’m a scientist and a skeptic; I trust the scientific method and generally disavow all sorts of woo, especially health-related woo. So I often have people say to me, “Science says that being fat is unhealthy! How can you think it’s possible to be healthy and fat?”

An important part of scientific reasoning is that a matter isn’t settled as long as there are contradictory observations. So “fat isn’t healthy” and “some fat people are healthy” can’t coexist– the latter disproves the former. At that point, the counter-argument goes either “not fat enough” or “not healthy enough”– which points to the fact that our definitions of “fat” and “healthy” are completely arbitrary anyway!

“But what about the literature? All the studies say…” At this point I start to sound a little crazy perhaps, as I point out that many studies are funded by companies that make weight loss products and bariatric surgery products, as well as being performed by doctors
whose stock and trade is in weight loss. (The diet industry is a nearly $60 billion a year industry!) If getting our bodies to an “acceptable” size was as simple as “Move more, eat less”, dieters would be successful all over the place. They’re not, so obviously we don’t have the whole picture here.

Then comes “Our society is sick! We are eating all the wrong things and not moving enough.” Once again I have to pull myself out as a data point; I eat fairly well (not quite “clean” as the lingo goes, but most of my meals are home-cooked meals made of “real food”) and exercise plenty, and guess what: still fat!

I count myself as a healthy fat person data point; want to see the results of my last bloodwork? I’m not a huge fan of using myself as a data point since that’s not very objective, but I’m the person I know best, and this is my experience. So I apologize for the anecdata.

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2 Responses to Fat and healthy: In which there are scare quotes.

  1. wriggles says:

    “How can you think it’s possible to be healthy and fat?”

    How do you respond to the fact that if fatness is defined by (scientists?) as ‘obesity’ and as a disease in itself, that technically a fat person cannot declare themselves “healthy” (I’ll define it here as an absence of disease) regardless of other health measures , not because of public prejudice, but because of the definition of ‘obesity’ itself?.

    • G says:

      As far as I know, obesity is not yet considered a disease in the technical usage. (The IRS does classify it as a disease for the purpose of writing off diet programs as medical expenses, but for example Medicare does not cover treatments to reduce weight unless prescribed by a doctor for a related condition. Sorry for the USian perspective here– this probably varies by country.) Fatness may be a symptom of disease, and there is a strong correlation between obesity and certain diseases, but it isn’t a disease itself.

      I think that there is a strong tendency in health reporting (and science reporting in general) to take shortcuts and be sensationalistic, which makes for interesting stories lacking in facts.

      And you’re totally right– if we define obesity as a disease, then all fat people have a disease. (I pity the person whose weight fluctuates such that his BMI oscillates around 30– he’s never sure if he has a disease or not!) Luckily we’re not there yet.

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