Most of us are aware, or at least wouldn’t be surprised to discover, that there are a lot of strange organizations out there. These include the North American Man/Boy Love Association, an alliance of God-fearing furries who refer to themselves collectively as the Furrs Fur Christ group, Nickelback fan clubs; and — steadily gaining attention as more people fit (or unfit) the standards — the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA).
As stated on its website, NAAFA seeks to improve the quality of “life for fat people,” “end size discrimination in all of its forms” and “enhance the world at large.” Unintentional, self-inflicted puns aside, some of NAAFA’s policy recommendations are for employers to implement codes against weight discrimination, for schools to take more active stances against the bullying of overweight children and for health care providers to enact a Health At Every Size (HAES) policy.
While some of these goals have merit, I find myself frustrated by the organization’s proposals for health care. No one can deny that the general trend is that excess weight and obesity have been tied to a battery of chronic health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and hypertension — the result is an ever-increasing cost of $147 billion imposed upon the health care industry each year. This is a statistic that economists and health care providers alike have commonly cited in support of an extra counteractive tax on overweight patients.
The bluntly nicknamed “fat tax” has been criticized on multiple grounds, most prominently its blanket nature. Despite common conception, research suggests that people can be healthy at nearly any size. A 2007 study conducted by Stephen N. Blair, a professor of public health at the University of South Carolina, found that a poor fitness test result was a better indicator of increased mortality risk than an above-normal body mass index (BMI) alone. Additionally, an extra tax on overweight patients would gloss over those who experience weight gain as a result of uncontrollable factors, including the 9.3 million Americans who suffer from hyperthyroidism.
But the problem is that these exceptional cases only account for a small fraction of the 200 million overweight or obese Americans, who comprise 68 percent of the nation’s total population. Sure, some people are just genetically predisposed to being bigger — but to argue that most overweight Americans are actually fit and healthy is a gross stretch. Just last week, the Washington Post blogged that 70 percent of obese people don’t believe they’re obese, but merely overweight. The denial is stunning.
Furthermore, NAAFA isn’t promoting a healthy attitude by demanding for the world to simply, “Understand it. Support it. Accept it.” It’s as if the overwhelming sector creeping toward obesity is simply the natural, inevitable state of things. But it’s not — according to the Agriculture and Natural Resources division of the University of California, average Americans today are 25 pounds heavier than they were in 1960. Coincidentally, the average burger and fry meal has increased by 165 calories in the past 30 years. It’s a simple correlation, and despite what NAAFA suggests, most fat Americans actually aren’t “victims” of anything but marketing and denial.
The wild goose chase for the mysterious obesity gene or secret compounds in food that make you fat (really, they’re called obesogens) is ultimately a waste of time and money. Some reality may lie behind these hypotheses, but the primary reason for America’s obesity trend is and will always be the fact that we refuse to take responsibility for our own health anymore. Other than smoking, never before has the U.S. been faced with an enormous public health evil that could so easily be remedied by preventative measures.
One can criticize the fast food industry and the media’s hyper-focus on waifs ad nauseum, but perhaps the real root of the problem lies in our very fixation with weight itself. It’s common knowledge that BMI tests, which only take into account height and weight and not body fat percentage or where that fat is located, are an imperfect indicator of health. The number on the scale should only be read in the context of a slew of other figures like your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, mile-run time or resting heart rate. But far too often, it’s the sole target of obsession.
The results of this modern preoccupation with “fatness” instead of “fitness” has dire results: as the rate of obesity increases, ironically so too does the prevalence of eating disorders. The psychological damages of weight fixation evidently goes both ways — while body image problems and frustrated weight-loss attempts can lead to depression for overweight individuals, weight fixation and negative self-image are conversely cited as two strong risk factors for developing anorexia as well.
At some point, while caught up in the chaotic milieu of media ads for KFC’s double-down sandwich and 5’11, 120-pound Balenciaga models, we lost sight of what’s ultimately important, which is our actual health and fitness and not our weight. The best course of action on that note is to eat right, exercise and listen to what our bodies tell us rather than the scale — the fact that we now need to be reminded of this is more ominous than any health statistic I could rattle off.