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April 04, 2006

Fat Is Good?

I tend to be a bit reflexively hostile to those seeking to normalize obesity. It is not, as some would have it, an immutable condition -- I consciously lost 50 pounds when I was in high school and have kept it off since -- and all the data I know of shows imposingly high correlations between "normal" weights and better health. But I may be in the wrong. The data Ampersand marshals to prove dieting unhealthful is both impressive and fairly convincing. I'd be interested to hear what you guys think.

Update: Don reminds me that losing weight when you're young is much easier than when you're older. I wonder if there are differing health impacts as well? And if folks do tend to gain weight rapidly in their 30's, is their some evolutionary advantage it confers?

April 4, 2006 | Permalink


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Not to freak you out, but I lost close to that amount in high school as well; but that was (holy crap) 30 years ago, and when all is said and done I'm pretty much back where I was -- although that amount of extra weight is less extraordinary at middle age than in high school. Like many people, I had a substantial almost-overnight weight gain around the age of 30, and I assure you that all of those people did not suddenly double their food intake. What I'm saying is that adult weight loss and adolescent weight loss are likely different stories.

But I never really got the exercise thing going except erratically, and it's possible that if I had started with both weights and aerobics at age 20 I could have effected what happened at age 30. But maybe not.

Posted by: DonBoy | Apr 4, 2006 11:40:40 AM

Correlation is not causation.

Posted by: fiat lux | Apr 4, 2006 11:43:06 AM

It would take hours to review all of the linked material but I'll just point out that there's no incompatibility between your reference to health advantages or normal weight and his references to the harm of dieting. It may be that normal weight is better than obesity but dieting as a route to normal weight is not. It could be yet another case of correlation not equating to causation, i.e. the normal weight is just a marker for good health and not the cause.

Posted by: QuietStorm | Apr 4, 2006 11:43:43 AM

I agree that diets--the sort of programs that have beginning and end points--do not usually result in any permanent weight loss. I also agree that people of similar height carry different body weights, and that this is in turn due to different metabolic rates, among other factors.

What I have a problem with is the subtext, namely, that diets don't work; that obesity isn't as harmful to one's health as dieting may be--and in fact may not be that harmful at all; and that being obese, or simply overweight, is one's lot in life, therefore diets are a waste of time.

Listen: diets don't work. But being overweight carries with it all manner of risks, and this country is leading the world in terms of those risks manifesting in our population: diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and certain cancers, for starters. Further, more children are obese than ever before. At age 45, I am easily thirty pounds (or more) lighter than many of my son's eighth-grade classmates of the same height. This is not to brag; it is simply to illustrate the benefits of eating thoughtfully as a lifestyle, one I've undertaken permanently, not as a diet with a beginning and end, after which one resumes a routine of feasting and sloth.

Of course there are variations in metabolism from one person to the next. Of course there will be people who simply have more muscle mass, or a tendency to gain weight in some parts of their bodies as opposed to others. This does not mean everyone should throw in the towel and abandon the gym. All bodies are different. But with very few exceptions, something each human being has in common is the ability to take care of, and assume control of, that with which he was born.

Posted by: litbrit | Apr 4, 2006 11:46:25 AM

I've had a pet theory that weight gradually became the new morality after WWII. Let me explain: prior to that time, most people lived either in smaller towns or tightly-knit communities. As a result, you KNEW your neighbor's flaws: he gambled away the rent, she drank too much, they were having an affair.

But when huge numbers of people moved into suburban communities, that sort of information was no longer readily available. So we needed something easily assessable that let you feel superior to others. With food being very, very cheap and convenient for the first time in probably ever, Americans were starting to gain weight...and this became the new casual morality. By this I mean that when people are overweight, we are considered free to assume that they're gluttonous, they're lazy, they're weak - in short, that they're inferior to us. And everybody does it; fat people (like me) are just as prone to thinking this way about people heavier than they are.

A large part of why this works is because, as Ezra points out, it's not all hot air. Being lighter does have tangible health benefits, and can (in rare cases) be achieved through the kind of dedication and willpower that most moralities encourage.

This idea of weight as morality occurred to me a few years ago when researchers had found what was essentially a gene switch in mice that enabled them to lose weight very quickly, keep it off, and suffer no significant side effects. I remember Weight Watchers' reaction as being the most sane: "Whatever science develops, the best way to stay healthy is eating right being active." But the rest of the weight-loss industry responded with what could best be described as moral outrage. This treatment was not merely an unproven gimmick (as WW said); it was wrong. One must earn a skinny body, and doing otherwise is a sin; after all, how else are we to judge the dedicated and worthy from the fat and lazy?

OK, I layed it on a little thick there, but you get my point.

Posted by: Kylroy | Apr 4, 2006 11:51:26 AM

There are certainly correlations between obesity and various bad health outcomes, but the effects of obesity itself don't seem to be very improtant. Rather, it's that eating a bad diet and (especially) being sedentary correlate with gaining weight--but it's the bad diet and being sedentary that produces most of the bad effects, not the weight per se. Not exercising is bad for your health whether it makes you fat or not.

Posted by: Scott | Apr 4, 2006 12:06:08 PM

Any correlation between having a strong and decent moral code and maintaining a healthy, fit body have long since been done away with by a certain bike-riding "leader" whose admirably low blood pressure and cholesterol levels are supposed to insipre the nation even as physical education classes are routinely slashed from public school curricula to make time for yet more No Child Left Behind test-preparedness.

Posted by: litbrit | Apr 4, 2006 12:13:18 PM


Facts never get in the way of a good morality. It's all about the truthiness.

Posted by: Kylroy | Apr 4, 2006 12:20:39 PM

There may an additional factor here: socio-economic class - once past the 30's or 40's weight crisis. Wealthy people (on average) are usually slimmer than low-middle class people. Professionals are often slimmer than service personnel. My guess is that better eating habits (more balanced, nutricious food) and much more attention to body image are at work.

That said, at base, for each individual (with the exception of those with genetic factors that predispose obesity) this is a calorie-in, exercise-out equation that is controllable. We slide into a excess calorie, inadequate exercise regime as we age. But adding on the pounds is profoundly easier than taking them off once the 'set-point' of metabolism has changed.

Note also the excellent article in The American Prospect (April 06) by Pete Myers that places great suspicion on environmental contaminants (BPA, especially) as altering our genetic development - including weight gain. Low-fructose corn surup used in soft drinks is another candidate for suspicion.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 4, 2006 12:35:31 PM

is their some evolutionary advantage it confers?

Many mammals put on large amounts of fat when food is plentiful (bears being the poster boy for this), anticipating a long period of no food at all. But obesity isn't a bear problem (even with the no-exercise hibernation), or any other mammal that I'm aware of. Humans typically don't have a lean season however - we eat too much, exercise too little almost year round. We do know that Lance Armstrong-level exercise will keep one real lean, however.

Sexual partners (in many, many species) are selected for survival and reproductive success. A mild degree of bodily fat may indicate a successful provider. Certainly among males, many primate species confer upon the bulkiest, scrapiest males the head of clan-dominant male preferred access to the females. It seems to work the same way for females - those that have the fittest bodies become the alpha female.

I haven't noticed any really overweight men that are attracting the females the way the Brad Pitt or Sean Connery types do. It's all in the sex attraction, ma'am.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 4, 2006 12:51:47 PM

This is absolutely all simply socially constructed. Fat men who are "attracting the females?" Uh, Henry the VIIIth comes to mind. Diamond Jim Brady? Plenty of people in previous centuriries when calories consumed were a good indicator of social status. Overweight female bodies? Uh, Rubens, the venus of willendorf, etc...

Fat is a social construct, as is attractiveness.

As for why people tend to put on weight in middle age--your metabolism starts to slow down. If your food consumption patterns don't change/aren't held down by circumstances you are going to start gaining and holding weight that you previously burned off. Nothing evolutionary about it, where evolutionary is a misreading of "advantageous." But it may be "evolutionary" in the sense that post middle age humans were once rather rare and had done all their reproducing already. Or you could follow the grandparents were necessary to englarged human brains hypothesis and argue that a slower and more efficient matabolism enabled post-menopausal females to survive and to serve as caretakers for their grandchildren, thus enabling children to have a longer period of childhood dependency/more time for brain maturation.

Which is by way of saying that the human body and specifically the history of the human metabolism, age, and fat isn't all about sex attraction at all, or isn't only about sex attraction.


Posted by: aimai | Apr 4, 2006 1:05:13 PM

Fat is a body tissue. The social construct is the thresholds at which a physique gets labelled as being fat.

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein | Apr 4, 2006 1:18:48 PM

This is absolutely all simply socially constructed. Fat men who are "attracting the females?" Uh, Henry the VIIIth comes to mind. Diamond Jim Brady?

While I certainly won't argue with the claim that what is considered attractive has changed over time, you're overlooking the fact that both Diamond Jim Brady and Henry VIII were not only fat but also posessors of great power. Would they have been considered as attractive if they hadn't been in such dominant social positions?

Posted by: fiat lux | Apr 4, 2006 1:44:43 PM

Of course dieting can be unhealthful done in an unhealthy way. But that doesn't mean that it is healthy to be a fatass. The point is that you have to lose weight in a gradual fashion and incorporate a healthy diet with plenty of activity and exercise. Duh. It is just common sense.

Posted by: shoelimpy™ | Apr 4, 2006 1:45:32 PM

"While I certainly won't argue with the claim that what is considered attractive has changed over time, you're overlooking the fact that both Diamond Jim Brady and Henry VIII were not only fat but also posessors of great power. Would they have been considered as attractive if they hadn't been in such dominant social positions?"

You are also ignoring the fact that at least Henry VIII was considered quite a handsome man when he was in his prime. He didn't turn into a fat disgusting pig until later in life.

Posted by: shoelimpy™ | Apr 4, 2006 1:47:31 PM

Ampersand's article doesn't say fat is good. It doesn't say anything like that. What it says is that weight-loss diets don't work to turn fat people into thinner people. It has nothing to say about whether those fat people would be better off thin, or whether there might be another way that they could become thin.

Americans are much fatter than other people, and much fatter than previous generations. There's ample evidence that this is a bad thing.

Maybe the coming increase in the price of oil will get people out of their cars, and that will have the desirable side effect of making them thinner.

Posted by: Cardinal Fang | Apr 4, 2006 1:58:01 PM

shoelimpy, Ampersand's post cites studies that suggest that a healthy diet and moderate exercise don't lead to significant weight loss, gradual or otherwise. They are healthy in their own right, but that applies to skinny people as well.

Posted by: tps12 | Apr 4, 2006 2:08:40 PM

I have a strong interest in this subject, both as a health professional and as a person who lost 80 lbs in her mid-40's (and has kept it off). The subject is very controversial, but I think there are a few points that are fairly clear: 1) Severe obesity is a health hazard for most people. 2) Moderate overweight isn't as serious for most people as we used to think. 3) People with weight-related health problems (eg diabetes and hypertension) often greatly benefit from relatively small weight losses (10-20% of starting weight). 4) Yo-yo dieting is also a health hazard (I haven't read the Ampersand post yet, but I'm guessing that's what he was talking about), and should be avoided. Fad diets should also be avoided, and the current obsession with types of food (fat, carbs, etc.) is probably overblown and not very helpful. 5) Portion sizes are much too large in this country, and most people will benefit from reducing these. 6) Increasing activity is crucial, and probably more so (and more doable) than large amounts of weight loss (I walk 5 miles 5-6 days a week). 7) On the "immutable" question, we know that there's a great deal of ethnic variation in body size. Native populations that apparently developed the "thrifty gene" are very obesity-prone in Western society. Encouraging these people to exercise and eat moderately from childhood is crucial.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen,PhD,ARNP | Apr 4, 2006 2:46:29 PM

I was just saying the other day that as a fat man from a long line of fat men, these Johnny-come-lately fatties are ruining it for the rest of us. ;)

For some people, losing weight is a real challenge. Sure, it can be done, but some people are going to fail at this. Is it that beneficial to make these people feel like shit (which is generally the way societal pressure works) if it's not going to bring about the end result of them actually being thinner?

The way I see it, despite our nation's fatness, we still are a tremendously weight-conscious society. People want to lose weight. The diet industry makes a fortune off this. The problem isn't so much that fatness has gained wide acceptance, but that those who are fat aren't finding the right way to live healthier lives.

Posted by: Royko | Apr 4, 2006 3:16:56 PM

As a “weight-loss success” story, having lost 120 lbs and kept it off for over 6 years, let me tell you that I only achieved success once I quit dieting.

I, like most obese people, went up and down over the years with various diets but always put back on more than I lost. After getting my ’shot across the bow’ by having a very minor heart attack at age 48, I decided that I wasn’t quite ready to die yet. I threw away all the diet books and just started using a little common sense. I ate the things I knew were good for me like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and dairy and stayed away from junk. I never measured a thing or count a calorie. I also started doing exercise that I enjoyed so I would stay with it, in my case that was bike riding, and gradually built regular exercise into my life.

It took about 2 years to lose the weight but now I feel better and stronger than I have since high school. And the weight has stayed off, my cholesterol is 127 and my blood pressure is 110/60.

My point? Weight loss diets don’t work but eating healthy and exercising as a way of life does.

And what’s best is I stopped getting hustled by the weight loss industry. They, like narcotics detectives in the war against drugs, have no real interest in solving the problem. It would put themselves out of business. No careers to be made in that!

Posted by: Ed | Apr 4, 2006 3:35:11 PM

Oh, and I forgot. THIS bike riding fanatic with admirably low blood pressure and cholesterol levels, is not inspired by the Our Dear Leader. He probably gave me the heart attack in 2000!

Posted by: Ed | Apr 4, 2006 3:40:55 PM

Between 18-22 I gained close to 40 pounds. Mostly from not exercising and lots of trips to Wendy's.

Now at 25 I'm close to my weight just post-highschool. Mostly from regularly exercising again & substituting "healthy choice" TV dinners for double cheeseburgers.

It's not that hard people.

Posted by: Dustin | Apr 4, 2006 3:45:25 PM

I found this article in Slate positing a relationship between obesity and smoking to be quite interesting. It was certainly true for me. I have no regrets, of course, since smoking will definitely kill me and a few extra pounds won't. Still, it's a trade-off that bites sometimes.

Advice to anyone who smokes. Quit young, not only for your health, which you should do anyway. Quit for your vanity too. If you wait until middle age, you'll find it much more difficult to diet off the extra weight you'll gain.

Posted by: digby | Apr 4, 2006 3:56:19 PM

It's not that hard people.

Delurking to say that well, of course it's not that hard when you're 25... I was never over 125 pounds on a 5'6" frame until I was at least 27 or so, and just upping my activity level considerably during one college semester left me so thin that my classmates were convinced I was bulimic (no, I wasn't, and yes, I adjusted back up to around 118 after a while). But sedentary jobs, actual nightly meals, less exercise, weaker joints, and more outside demands on one's time do tend to make weight maintenance/loss more difficult, even ignoring the usual age-related metabolic slowdown. Sometimes I even fondly remember my anxiety-fueled tendency to fidget & pace, because that burned off a whole lot of energy that my more mature self-acceptance sure as hell doesn't.

Posted by: latts | Apr 4, 2006 4:27:24 PM

I suppose it's possible for a person who exercises regularly and eats good, nutritious food -- though too much of it -- to be "healthy fat" if we're talking about, say, an extra 20 pounds. I once read about some Antarctic explorers who, in preparing for the expedition, ate 6,000 calories a day while working out like fiends so they could be in great shape and have a layer of blubber for warmth. But how many "healthy fat" people are there?

Posted by: C.J.Colucci | Apr 4, 2006 4:30:23 PM

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