Myth One: Fat is Unhealthy
By Shaunta Grimes on April 04, 2011
Dr. Pattie Thomas wrote a book called Taking Up Space: How Eating Well and Exercising Regularly Changed My Life that is just really awesome. If you haven't read it, it's well worth investing in.
The first chapter of the book has 10 fat myths. As I read them, I had so many ideas and thoughts and things I wanted to say about each one. I contacted Dr. Thomas and she said that it would be okay for me to use her list to talk about each of the myths here. So--welcome to a 10-week Thursday series.
Myth number one on Dr. Thomas' list: Fat is unhealthy.
To my mind, fat is unhealthy goes beyond myth. It's become part of our social identity. Fat is unhealthy is a statement that is so wildly and widely accepted in Western culture that, as I talked about in another post, to say that it isn't is tantamount to being counter-cultural.
Fat is unhealthy is so deeply ingrained that doctors will recommend, encourage, sign-off on and even give you a hard time if you refuse invasive abdominal surgery even if you are currently healthy.
This happened to me. A doctor recommended weight loss surgery to me as she held my blood tests in her hand: 125 cholesterol and perfect blood sugar. I don't have high blood pressure or a family history of heart disease. I don't have sore joints. I have no mobility issues. I am healthy. In fact, many of my fat brethren are.
But I am fat.
And my doctor could not (and probably still cannot) reconcile health with fat. I would be willing to bet that she felt she was being responsible by referring me to a surgeon. In fact, she probably would have considered herself remiss if she didn't mention that I needed to do something drastic about my weight, even in the absence of any health crisis.
What kind of doctor would have a patient who weighs over 300 pounds and not offer every possible solution to that little problem?
Never mind that I am currently healthy, and that there is no guarantee that I would be after weight loss surgery.
Never mind that I would have something implanted in my belly and while I had insurance at the time of the recommendation, it was certainly not guaranteed that I would have access to adequate health care in the aftermath of the surgery, much less for the rest of my life (the length of time I'd have a foreign object inside of me.)
Are some fat people unhealthy? Clearly. How ridiculous if they weren't. Fat isn't the fountain of youth or some sort of magic elixir for God's sake. But, when you try to talk to many people about the idea that fat people are not necessarily unhealthy, you often hear something like, "well, what about your heart/a stroke/diabetes? Do you want to die?"
Here's the thing: everyone dies. Fat people, thin people and in-betweenie people. All people. All animals. All plants. All living things. It's the trade off for living. There are bristle cone pine trees where I live. These suckers live forever--except they don't. Eventually even they die.
It happens to all of us. It is the great equalizer.
The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) says that it happens to people with overweight BMIs at a slightly older age than those with normal BMIs and that when taken as a whole, people who are underweight or very very obese die slightly younger. There is no giant leap in early death that correlates with a person's weight.
Let me repeat that: there is no giant leap in early death that correlates with a person's weight.
Some people don't exercise and/or they eat beyond past the point of being full. These things, not moving enough and eating too much (of any foods), sometimes result in health issues. They also sometimes cause people to weigh somewhat above their natural set point.
Sometimes people eat too much and don't exercise, but have a combination of genetics that allows these behaviors to not cause weight gain. These people are still at risk for so-called obesity-related health problems.
Some people lose and gain and lose and gain themselves right into health problems, when they would have been healthier if they left good enough alone.
There are real, serious dangers in equating fat with health.
Almost any fat person has a story of going to see a doctor for a health problem, and leaving with a photocopy of a low-carb/low-fat/low-protein diet of some kind, or a brochure for a weight loss clinic, or a referral to Weight Watchers. This is wrong on so many levels, not the least of which is that it discourages doctors from listening to their patients with an open mind and it discourages fat people from being patients when they really should be.
Equating fat with health also puts some fat people in the position of believing that they have no hope of health. If they won't ever be thin and therefore can't ever feel good, what's the point of learning to eat intuitively or getting any exercise?
Another problem is that while some of us are so busy turning fat into a moral failing that makes fat people use up too much of the health care, it is sometimes a symptom of a serious health problem that goes undiagnosed because the fat person is too scared to go to yet another doctor or the doctor can't see the forest for the fat.
The flip side of equating fat with unhealthy is equating thinness with health. This results in some people believing that they don't have to move or eat intuitively for their health, because they are not fat, when really these things are healthful for every single body.
I recently had a dear and very slender friend spend several weeks with us. We talked about this, and I was surprised to find that her experience has not been totally unlike mine. Medical doctors have failed to diagnose her or have misdiagnosed her because outwardly she appears healthy, just like the same has happened to me because doctors can't or won't see past my fat.
Sometimes fat people are unhealthy. Sometimes skinny people are, too. It happens. It is unfortunate that if you happen to be both fat and sick, you have a good chance of being blamed for your health problem in a way a thin person almost never will. It is also unfortunate that if you are a slender person, this may cause your doctor to mistake your body type for health that isn't there.
Equating correlation with causation isn't good for anybody.