Challenging Obesity Myths

Unfortunately, for those living in larger bodies, size-related discrimination and bullying can be an everyday occurrence.  The pervasive negative judgement so many experience is in part fueled by our society’s obsession with thinness, typically seen as synonymous with beauty and health.  Further, we’re bombarded by messages that being overweight is not only unsightly but hazardous to one’s health.

I recently came across a compelling piece that challenges the “war on obesity.”  The article attacks a number of myths that undoubtedly have become ingrained in our public conscious.  You may be surprised to learn…

Myth: Obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death in the US.

In 2004, the CDC released a study  stating that approximately 350,000 deaths per year were related to being overweight or obese.  In part, with this study at its foundation, a war on obesity was declared. Just one year later, however, the study findings were corrected… dramatically.  The re-analysis more accurately reflected the number of deaths related to obesity to be more like 25,000 – not 350,000.  This was a 94% difference.  In spite of this correction, the damage was done. Obesity was being viewed as a deadly condition to be eradicated via a nationwide effort.

Myth: Obesity causes other illnesses.

We’ve been informed by countless sources that obesity leads to illness like diabetes, heart disease, stroke.  This is not totally accurate. It’s actually a complicated issue of correlation and causation. The presence of both fat and disease does not indicate that the former caused the latter.

Take for example those who have experienced a lifetime of dieting, weight loss, weight re-gain, more dieting etc. The process of weight cycling (losing and then re-gaining weight repeatedly) is known to lead to increased and chronic inflammation in the body.  Inflammation is a major risk factor for many diseases, like heart disease and diabetes – diseases we typically attribute to obesity.  So it may actually be inflammation that leads to disease and not obesity directly. Yes, obesity may be correlated with disease, but it is not a direct cause of disease.

Myth: Thinner people are healthier overall than overweight or obese people

Interestingly, studies show that those who are categorized as overweight, using the BMI scale, live longer lives than those in the “normal” range and those who are “obese” live similarly long lives as their “normal” BMI-range peers. In spite of the messages we hear repeatedly, obesity is not, in fact, the killer that we might have believed.

“Researchers have found that the gap between a person’s actual and idealized weight (that is, the extent to which they experience body dissatisfaction) is a better indicator of mental and physical health than the BMI scale.”  So interestingly, your overall health is impacted more by how you feel about your body than by your actual weight or size.  “In fact, even the CDC reports that our day-to-day health behaviors, like diet and exercise, only account for less than a quarter of differences in health outcomes.”

The factors that make the most difference in overall health are what we call “social determinants of health.” These social determinants include educationl, employment status, food security, medical care, and housing.

Myth: Weight loss can improve health long-term.

This is yet another myth that’s been etched into our consciousness.  There is no concrete evidence that weight loss leads to improved health long term.  Most weight loss studies evidence only short-term health impact of short-term weight loss.  Interestingly, longer term studies suggest that weight loss can increase the chance of premature death!

Myth: Society’s attack on obesity can help people lose weight.

It’s a commonly-held belief that shaming tactics can motivate people.  “The idea that pushing guilt and shame on people is effective in health behavior change has been proven wrong again and again and again.”   According to an analysis by the Centre for Advancing Health, high school students who identified as overweight were much more likely than their classmates to suffer from depressionor to attempt suicide. Even if done in the name of “health concern,” shaming someone for their body size is always destructive behavior.

We live in a culture that demonizes overweight, yet we are hard pressed to find data that actually supports the widely held beliefs we have about obesity.  As the Director of Columbus Park eating disorder treatment center, I regularly see the profound effect that culture has on our clients’ experiences of their bodies.  Our society comes in all shapes, sizes and colors, yet we still as a culture have little acceptance for all the difference and diversity before us.  So as we move on, we do our best to uncover truth wherever possible via hard facts and science.  As our world evolves technologically and we have endless information at our fingertips, it’s all the more important to ask questions and challenge the status quo… and of course, continue to recognize and question our own personal biases.