Monday, January 20, 2014

The problem with fat shaming: it doesn't work

Fat shaming is a simple concept. As a means to get people to slim down, society creates an atmosphere in which being overweight is very uncomfortable. It's been a common practice for many years and has been endorsed by obesity researchers and doctors as a solution to the obesity epidemic in America. Even people who have struggled to lose weight have accepted fat shaming.

Ridiculing overweight people sounds like a plausible solution to our collective fatness as a country, because people tend to change their behavior when there are consequences. But solving our obesity problem isn't that simple.We're often told that weight loss is just a matter of willing yourself to eat less and move more. It's not, as you'll see below. But fat shaming advocates treat this oversimplified view of obesity as gospel. Because of this flawed premise, fat shaming has never worked, and it never will.

This is an easy argument to test. Let's say a team of researchers put a group of overweight people on a diet designed to induce weight loss. They all follow the diet strictly because they're under observation by experts who are tracking their progress. If the fat shaming crowd is correct and weight loss is just a matter of willpower, the overweight group would predictably slim down. But this type of study has been done multiple times, and the results suggest that how much we weigh isn't just a matter of how much we eat.

In one study from the 1960s, for example, a group of lean people and a group of obese people were put on the same high-fat, calorie-restricted diet, yet the obese group had a difficult time accessing their stored body fat for fuel, which is what happens when you lose weight. In a more recent example, researchers in the UK asked 10 lean people to double their caloric intake for a month to see how they would respond. Some gained a predictable amount of weight based on how much they were eating, others gained less, while others still gained no weight at all. When the study was finished, all those participants who had gained weight lost it very easily. In a broader context, other studies have shown that as many as 80 percent of dieters fail to keep weight off thanks to a variety of biochemical factors that are working against them.

These few examples illustrate that obesity is a complex problem, one that often has a lot more to do with chemistry than character, as health blogger Tom Naughton pointed out recently. It isn't that overweight people haven't tried to slim down or that society now accepts obesity as a life choice, as many self-improvement writers and health nannies are fond of arguing. Most overweight people have tried at some point to lose weight precisely because obesity has always been so socially unacceptable. Nobody likes fat people, even other fat people, according to the research. Yet despite this disdain for fatness, the obesity epidemic has continued largely unabated.

I want to qualify this post by pointing out that losing weight is possible. A lot of people lose weight; I count myself among them. But in my experience, success requires access to good information about nutrition, which most Americans have been denied, and a solid support system. Telling fat people how much they suck really doesn't serve any purpose.

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