Archive for obesity

The AMA piles on the hate, forgetting that “obese” people can be healthy

Two week ago, the American Medical Association (AMA) declared that obesity is a disease.

They did this even though the AMA’s Council on Science and Public Health “said that obesity should not be considered a disease mainly because the measure usually used to define obesity, the body mass index [BMI], is simplistic and flawed.”

Not only is the AMA’s decision problematic because the BMI scale is unreliable, it’s also problematic because obesity in and of itself is not a disease. Though obesity is a condition that can be associated with diseases such as high-blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease, there are plenty of obese people (myself included) who are healthy.

In fact, according to Abigail C. Saguy, an Associate Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at UCLA“more than half of ‘overweight’ and almost one third of ‘obese’ people” are healthy.

Not only that, “almost one quarter of ‘normal weight’ people” are unhealthy.”

You may be wondering how someone can be “obese” and still be healthier than some people who are not overweight.

Dr. Saguy says, “One explanation for this discrepancy is that physical fitness and/or nutrition—rather than weight per se—may be what really matters. Several studies have shown that physically fit ‘obese’ individuals have lower incidence of heart disease and mortality from all causes than do sedentary people of ‘normal’ weight.”

So what does that mean?

It means that we can’t use weight to determine health.

Instead, we need to look at physical activity and eating habits, which are what really determine health.

But it also means we have got to stop judging a person’s health based on how they look. That’s going to be hard to do because it’s easy to assume that if a person is overweight or obese, then they have poor eating habits or don’t exercise. But that’s simply not always the case, which is why so many of those people—remember we’re talking about 33% of obese people and 50% of overweight people—are still healthy.

This is a point that hits close to home for me since I fall in that 33% of people who are technically obese but still healthy (with low blood pressure, low cholesterol, a low resting heart rate, and a very active lifestyle).

Moreover, I fear that if Americans don’t learn to understand that being overweight does not equal being unhealthy, they will continue to use dangerous dieting techniques to drop pounds fast. And these diets almost always lead to weight gain—and more health problems—in the long run.

Sadly, the AMA’s decision to classify obesity as a disease is only going to cause more people to feel pressured to lose weight and diet, which is why it’s no surprise that some critics fear this classification “could lead to more reliance on costly drugs and surgery rather than lifestyle changes” and that it’s possible the AMA did this to help pharmaceutical companies sell anti-obesity drugs, two of which were introduced this year. “Some people might [also] be overtreated because their BMI was above a line designating them as having a disease, even though they were healthy.”

And how could this classification not lead to these kinds of problems? If someone says that being obese means you’re diseased, it’s perfectly normal to say, How can I be cured?

Which is why calling obesity a disease is incredibly dangerous and irresponsible.

TV news anchor responds to viewer’s demand that she lose weight: “The cruel words of one are nothing compared to the shouts of many.”

No fewer than five people posted the video above on my Facebook and Twitter pages in the past twenty-four hours.

That’s because this is a story we need to share.

In the video, Jennifer Livingston, a morning TV anchor in La Crosse, Wisconsin, replies to a complaint from a viewer who wrote to tell her that she needed to lose weight.

Here is part of what the viewer said:

Surely you don’t consider yourself a suitable example for this community’s young people, girls in particular. Obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make and one of the most dangerous habits to maintain. 

Let me be clear about this: obesity is not a choice. Nor is it a “habit.” People do not choose to be obese. And why anyone would think they is beyond me.

This is just a perfect example of how many people misunderstand how our bodies work.

This viewer assumes that someone who is “obese”—as Livingston points out, “on a doctor’s chart” since she is not obese by any other standard—is not leading a healthy lifestyle, but the truth is that many “obese” people are healthy and are leading a healthy lifestyle.

I am just as “obese” as Jennifer, but I work out almost every single day of the year. I walk, I run, I bike, I kayak, and I go to boot camp. And I eat healthy foods and only indulge in moderation.

But, like Livingston, on a doctor’s chart, I am obese.

Does that mean I’m not healthy? No. Does that mean I’m not making good choices? No. Does it mean my blood pressure or cholesterol are high? No.

Listen, I get it: obesity is a real issue in our society, and it’s a problem we need to work hard to overcome. But telling people they’re obese or overweight and that they should do something about it is not going to help. And as Livingston explains, we don’t need anyone else to tell us we’re overweight. We know it.

I started this blog because to help people understand that dieting and the only-thin-people-are-healthy mentality is not only emotional hurtful, but physically damaging as well. If you diet, there is a 90% chance you will gain weight within five years after the diet is over. And if you feel bad about your body, you are more likely to engage in unhealthy behavior like dieting.

So making people feel bad about how the look or pointing out that someone needs to lose weight doesn’t help them. In fact, it just does the opposite.

As Livingston notes, October is National Anti-Bullying Month. That means it’s a time for us to work together to fight bullying, including bullying about weight. Tearing each other down is not a way to do that. Let’s take Livingston’s advice and “teach our kids” and ourselves “how to be kind, not critical.”

Travel post #8: Dialing up healthy on the road

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This is the eighth in my series of short travel posts from the road as my husband and I drive from one side of the country to the other. See highlights from our trip here: Across the Great Divide.

 

Dave and I started the third leg of our cross-country trip this morning, which takes us from our home in Bowling Green, Kentucky, to New York City.

This leg of the trip includes an intense amount of driving—14+ hours—over less than a day and a half. That means there won’t be many stops to see the sights or have fun; in fact, the only thing we’re looking forward to during the drive is hitting Chipotle, one of our favorite places to stop on the road for healthy, organic food, especially since we don’t yet have one in Bowling Green.

(WTF, Chipotle??? People in Bowling Green like burritos too!)

But the only reason we can find a Chipotle on the road is because we finally caved and bought an iPhone before we drove to the West coast earlier this summer.

Before that, we—like most Americans—were forced to eat at restaurants close enough to the highway that we could spot them from our car every time we went on a road trip.

In other words, we were forced to eat crap. 

And when I realized that, I realized that being able to locate a Chipotle—or any other healthy restaurant—with our iPhone when we travel is directly the result of us being able to afford the service plan for a smartphone. This is something we couldn’t have afforded a few years ago and something many Americans still cannot afford.

In other words, health is, yet again, tied to income.

This is another reason why the poorest people in America are becoming the fattest. We already know that working class folks have more trouble accessing healthy food for the following reasons:

1) They live in a rural or urban “food desert,” where healthy foods aren’t sold in any store near their homes (or at least not in a grocery store that’s not high-end and expensive).

2) Their town also doesn’t have any affordable healthy restaurants even though it may have plenty of fast food. (Laurinburg, North Carolina, I’m talking to you.)

3) They can’t afford healthy and organic foods, which are typically more expensive than non-organic items.

4) Their grocery stores offer deep discounts on processed foods—ramen noodles for a quarter, anyone?—but charge full price or more on whole foods and produce.

5) They work long hours or multiple jobs and, therefore, don’t have time to grocery shop or cook.

And now we can add one more reason to the list of reasons it’s hard for cash-strapped Americans to eat well:

6) They can’t afford a smart phone that would allow them to locate healthier options on the road.

Let’s face it—if you’re poor in this country, being healthy is pretty hard to do, which is why the obesity epidemic is hitting the poorest Americans in greater numbers than any other group.

No, if you want to be a healthy American who eats well, you need to have one thing: money. Money to spend on organic food, money to spend on whole foods, money for sit-down restaurants, money for housing in an urban center, and money for a smartphone service plan.

Otherwise, you’re just screwed.

Stay glad: advice from Woody Guthrie and a recap

Good news!

I managed to keep exercising while on vacation—apparently Key West is a city made for walkers, so we managed to walk more each day we were there than we do at home, which is really saying something since we normally average an hour a day.

We also had an amazing time and were able to really unwind away from the stresses of work and the internet. I don’t say it in the healthy living section of this blog, but I really should—relaxation is as important a part of being healthy as anything else.

The only bad news (and this isn’t really bad news) is that I’ve fallen a little bit behind on telling you about some stories related to having a healthy mind and body. So rather than discuss any one of them at length, I’m just going to give you a quick rundown . . .

1) After all of the I Will Not Diet contributors posted their non-resolutions here on New Year’s Day, someone sent me a copy of Woody Guthrie’s list of New Year’s resolutions for 1942, which I’ve included above. Some of my favorites include: “Don’t get lonesome,” “Stay glad,” “Have company but don’t waste time,” “Dance better,” and “Love everybody.” I’m sure we’d all do well to take the same advice.

2) I’ve been wanting to tell you for a while about The Real Girl Belly Project, and my friend Alison reminded me about it today. This is a section of online magazine XO Jane (run by Sassy and Jane founder, Jane Pratt) devoted to publishing pictures of real—not Photoshopped—bellies. You’ve honestly got to see these to believe them. They are all flawed and human and wonderful!

3) My cousin Jennifer told me about an article called “The Death of Pretty,” in which the author argues that young girls today no longer want to be “pretty” but rather just “hot.” The article is far from perfect, especially when it veers into the women-should-be-innocent-creatures-men-want-to-protect territory, but it also makes a good point about our commodity-driven culture and the fact that young girls often grown up way too fast in our society because, like the celebrities they see on their screens, they want to be as sexy as possible. I wrote about this problem in my 2010 Halloween post, and, sadly, it’s not something I expect to be resolved any time soon.

4) And last but not least, another friend, Holly, reminded me that Children’s Health Care of Atlanta is currently running a series of anti-obesity ads that are drawing fire. You’ve really got to see the ads, which you can do here, to get the full impact of them, but suffice it to say they’re incredibly dark (like similar anti-meth and anti-smoking ads), and some people think they are hurting more than they’re helping, causing embarrassed kids to avoid exercise rather than embrace it. I have mixed feelings about the ads. I’m certainly glad anti-obesity ads are being disseminated in our society, but I don’t like that the ads seem to lay all the blame at the feet of the parents. At this point, we know that obesity is about the chemicals in our environment as much as it is about diet and exercise. So why not target lawmakers as well as parents? In several of the ads, kids ask their parents questions like “Why am I fat?” and I’d love an ad in which one of the kids said, “Dear Congress–why do you let corporations put so many chemicals in my food?”

Giving it the old college try . . .

I’m teaching a unit on food in my freshman English classes right now and using several pieces from the healthy living section of this blog. The students seem to be enjoying them, but it is strange to be going into class every day and talking about my thoughts and experiences with them.

And it got really weird today when the subject of BMI charts came up, and I had to tell them that, according to the NIH, I am obese.

Despite the fact that I talk about this issue all the time here and encourage everyone to come out of the closet about their weight, it was still really difficult to stand in front of a room full of eighteen-year-olds and say that I fall into the obese category. I know as well as anyone how superficial and hurtful students can be, so it felt both brave and foolish to put myself out there that way.

But I told them about this because I wanted to use myself as an example of why the numbers are misleading.

Many people don’t know this, but one of the reasons we’ve seen such a spike in how many people are obese and overweight in our country is because thirteen years ago—in 1998—the NIH changed the way they determine who is overweight and who is obese, making an additional 8.5% of Americans overweight overnight.  As CNN explains, “Or, put another way, 25 million Americans who weren’t fat before are now” because the NIH changed their standards one day.

According to CNN, “Using the old criteria, the average woman — with a height of 5 feet, 4 inches (1.6 meters) and weighing 155 pounds (70 kilograms) — was considered overweight.

Under the new definition, that weight drops to 145 pounds (66 kg). A person at the same height who weighs 175 pounds (79 kg) would be considered obese.”

What this means is that we all got fatter simply because the NIH redefined what it means to be fat. As one commenter said on another blog, that’s “like redefining ‘blue’ as ‘green’ and then panicking because the sky changed color.”

I’m not trying to argue that we don’t have an obesity epidemic in this country or that we shouldn’t do something to try to counter-act it. We do and we should. One of the main reasons I created this blog was to fight obesity since I believe that dieting is a major contributor to the obesity problem.

But I also think it’s easy to get confused by the numbers. Yes, we are fatter as a country, but a big reason for the increase isn’t that our body composition has changed as dramatically as the numbers imply. It’s because someone changed the way the numbers work.

It makes me wonder what else they’re not telling us.

The bottom line is that the BMI scale is flawed. Just like any other system designed to evaluate millions of people, it’s not always accurate. I may fall into the NIH’s obese category, but I also have low blood pressure, low cholesterol, and a low resting heart rate as well as a smallish waist. Thankfully my doctor knows this is more important than the size of my thighs.

I just hope my students get that too.

Shows about big people: step in the right direction or more jokes about fatness?









Glee‘s new hot couple: Puck and Lauren.

If you haven’t noticed, there has been a drastic increase in the amount of big people on TV lately. There are still very few medium-sized people (which is a problem), but the rise of big people is worth noting.

We now have numerous shows about obese or overweight people: Mike & Molly, Huge, The Biggest Loser, and Dance Your Ass Off are the most obvious examples.

The question is, are these characters being presented in ways that are helping us a society or hurting us?

My favorite of these shows is Huge, a smart and moving scripted drama about teens at a fat camp, which I’ve written about before. Not only does this show avoid the usual fat jokes, it also treats each character as a unique and interesting individual, something I’d like to see more often with characters of all sizes. Unfortunately, this might be the only show on television that regular depicts big people as real people.

I don’t watch the reality shows about losing weight, and I’ve only seen one episode of Mike & Molly, and that was enough to turn me off. As Slate’s Daniel Engber says in his outstanding photo and video essay, “Tele-Tubbies: The Rise of the Obese Actor on TV,”Each episode [of Mike & Molly] delivers an onslaught of rim-shot-ready, anatomical putdowns. (Hey, this shirt looks like it was made in an awning store, ba-dum-bum!) After [several] months on the air, the scripts still vacillate between sweetness and fat shame. So what should we make of Mike & Molly? Does the show reflect some new phase of size acceptance in America, or just the opposite—a growing appetite for weight-based minstrelsy?”

Engber raises a good point—are shows about big people just a way for us to laugh at fatness? And if they are, is it still good for us to see people of different sizes on television or not?

The answer is ultimately that the jury is still out.

The most recent episodes of Glee have brought an obese character—Lauren, played by Ashley Fink who also has a supporting role on Huge—into the spotlight, but I still haven’t decided if Glee’s treatment of Lauren is good or bad.

Lauren joined the show last fall, but her character has taken center stage since one of the show’s main character’s—Puck—started pursuing her this winter.

On the one hand, it’s nice to see someone Lauren’s size being depicted as the object of desire.

On the other hand, it’s disappointing and frustrating that a show as envelope-pushing as Glee still falls back on so many clichés—Lauren eats all the time, she’s loud and a bit crass, she has attitude to spare, etc.

Still, probably the most off-putting thing about the introduction of Lauren as a major character is that Puck sang Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” to her while he was trying to seduce her.

Thankfully, Lauren told him what she thought of that, explaining that though she’d always wanted a boy to sing to her, she never thought it would be a song like that, adequately expressing her—and our—disapproval. And, as some people have suggested, maybe that’s WHY the writers chose to have Puck sing that song, to demonstrate how insensitive and cruel people can be.

So, yes, the show is laughing a little bit at the “fat” thing by including such a song and showing Lauren as a lover of chocolate, but her character isn’t taking the abuse either, and just by doing that, she’s pushing the envelope.

As Lauren explains, “I look like America. Deal with it.” One of my friends called the war between Lauren and Santana (Puck’s on-again-off-again super fit girlfriend) “a fight between ide0logies”: raising the question, what makes us happy? Having our bodies worshipped by men or accepting ourselves the way we are?

Ultimately, Lauren is intelligent, mature, and thoughtful, and not just there to make us laugh, and since Huge is the only other show on television with obese characters depicted this way, that makes her characterization a positive to me.

Like I said, the jury is still out on whether the increase in big people on our TVs is a good thing or a bad thing, but I think we can all agree, we’ve got to start somewhere.

Breaking my heart a little bit more

The other day I met with a student who surprised me.

I was talking to this student about his major and his life plans, and in that way, our discussion seemed pretty normal.

But then things got more serious.

Even though he is a creative writing major and loves to write, the student confessed he has always dreamed of becoming a chef. I want as many creative writing majors in our program as possible, but I also want our students to be happy, so I encouraged him to do follow his dreams.

Once he had let out that secret, I knew others would come out as well.

And so I wasn’t surprised when he kept talking, admitting then that he had planned to go to cooking school all along but had chickened out at the last minute because he was afraid of failing.

At that moment, my heart leapt out to him—because I know as well as anyone what’s it like to let fear hold us back.

But then things got even more intense. The student revealed he also had a desire to become a nutritionist, that he wanted to help people learn how to eat well.

And that’s when he said something I did not see coming.

He said that he was afraid no one would take him seriously if he became a nutritionist. He paused then, as if working up the courage to continue, and finally said, “Because of my body size.”

I guess I should add that this student is a pretty big guy. He kind of reminds me of a pre-diet Peter Jackson: a big and scruffy teddy bear of a guy.

I should also add that he has a huge heart, and he almost always puts it all out there, sharing himself without fear of judgment. That’s probably what led him to reveal all of this to me.

And that’s why I was determined to tell him what he needed to hear: that he should do whatever he wanted and do it well and not worry for an iota of a second about people judging him or not taking him seriously. And that if he was good at what he did, no one would think twice about his girth.

I told him exactly what I believe: I told him he had to go for it.

Mike & Molly premieres Monday,
but still no show with people who look like this Molly

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CBS is launching a new sitcom called Mike & Molly on Monday September 20th at 9:30 p.m. Eastern time.

In some ways, the show is not unlike all of the other half-hour comedies we’ve been watching for years—it’s just a show about two people falling for each other.

But there is one unique thing about the show. The two main characters—played by Melissa McCarthy (formerly of Gilmore Girls) and Billy Gardell (My Name is Earl)—are both obese.
First, I need to give this show the credit it deserves. As I said in my “Couples Retreat” post, over the past ten or so years sitcoms have fallen into a big-guy-thin-girl rut that is not only trite but also offensive. So a show about a big guy and a big girl feels revolutionary.
Sure, Roseanne did it first, but that was a show about a family struggling economically, and since we all know obesity is tied to income, the stars’ sizes seemed to be making more of a comment on their economic class than their romantic appeal.
On the other hand, Mike & Molly is a show about falling in love. The two leads meet in the first episode—unfortunately at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting—and the show goes from there. Two big people as romantic leads? That really is revolutionary.
It’s clear that we’re having some kind of moment where shows about bigger people are suddenly hip—look at Huge, More to Love, or Drop Dead Diva—and I’m absolutely thrilled about that. But my concern is that, though Hollywood is finally starting to show people who are bigger, they’re still not showing anyone in the middle. There is still no one on my small screen who looks like me.
Nevertheless, I’m happy about Mike & Molly and look forward to watching it Monday night. But what I’m really hoping is that shows like this and the others I’ve mentioned are just the beginning. That they are opening doors that desperately need to be opened. And that though we only see two sizes on TV now—big and little—we will soon seen people of all sizes.

Read all about it

198 pounds
My husband and I have just finished editing an amazing collection of stories about commuting and travel called Commutability: Stories about the Journey from Here to There (pictured to the left).

Though the theme of this book isn’t directly related to this blog, there are several outstanding stories that relate to body issues, and I want to mention those here in case any of you are interested in buying the book—which is available for pre-order at the low price of just $9.00 until this Saturday, July 31st.

These stories include the following:

“Lactational” by Sara Holcombe—I think it’s safe to say that many women feel like their “girls” are lacking in some way. Some of us think they hang too low, others think they’re too small or too big, and many of us wish we could change them in some way. It’s one of the few body issues that I find women of all sizes share, which is one of the reasons I find this story—about women who sell their breast milk to health food stories for an impressive sum—so entertaining. FINALLY, we can make a profit from our bodies at any size.

“Scream Queen” by Ed Gorman—What would happen if Lindsay Lohan disappeared from society and showed up at your local video store? This story imagines just that by following a geeky twenty-something video store clerk who figures out that one of his regular customers is really a famous B-movie actress who has recently disappeared from the public eye. Though he is initially disappointed in her obvious weight gain, the clerk—and his loser friends—eventually become infatuated with her, proving that beauty really does come in all sizes.

“Who Loves You” by Eric Goodman—There is a long history of stories and novels about adultery—Anna Karenina anyone?—and this story continues that literary discussion from the point of view of a woman who has recently decided to forgive her husband for cheating on her. But her willingness to do so is challenged when she and her husband spend time with an old friend and his new—younger, thinner—girlfriend, challenging her belief that her husband still finds her attractive and wants to be with her.

“Outbound Bus” by Yelizaveta P. Renfro—If we are being honest with ourselves, we have to admit that it’s difficult for any of us to look at someone who is severely obese and not judge them in any way at all. Yes, we know intellectually that obesity is caused by many things besides over-eating—such as genes and chemicals—but this is also an issue people still struggle to comprehend on an emotional level, which is why Renfro’s story about a woman who was once married to a severely obese man is so profound. We all know what it’s like to try to hide our so-called flaws, and this character’s attempts to literally hide her entire husband is both moving and chilling.

“Strawberry Fields” by K. Terese Pampellonne—This touching story begins with a familiar premise: boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, but in this version, rather than lose the girl, this teenage boy gets his girlfriend pregnant, causing the two of them to run away together. As the story progresses, we find out that he is less interested in his girlfriend once she becomes “fat.” Sure, his attitude is completely offensive, but that’s why it’s good to read and share stories like this—so we know why this kind of perspective is so wrong, making it a great story to have all your guy friends read. I tell my students that the best characters are the ones we like despite their flaws—think of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs—and the protagonist of this story is another outstanding example of a wonderfully flawed character.

There are more moving stories that deal with body issues—“Completo” by novelist Faye Moskowitz comes to mind—and much more, but I’ll keep the other stories a surprise for those who decide to buy.

Click here to order a copy of Commutability: Stories about the Journey from Here to There.

Bless me, readers, I have sinned . . .

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According to food guru Michael Pollan, the obesity problem in our country would be solved if we all ate every meal at home from here on out.

I agree with Pollan, but I’d back away from his extreme solution by one step and say that we should all only allow ourselves one meal out a week.
I mean, come on, Michael.
You don’t want us to EVER eat out again?
You can’t expect a nation raised on Happy Meals and pan pizza to go cold turkey like that. And once a week is a pretty good goal. There’s no way that wouldn’t make a dent in our nation’s collective girth.
And I don’t mind sticking to once a week if I have to.
In fact, that’s what Dave and I try to do. To be honest, we’ve become pretty darn routine about it. Saturday nights, we see a movie and go out to eat. It’s downright scary how much we’ve become like my parents who took us out to eat every Saturday night after mass when I was growing up. I guess you could argue that Catholic mass is its own form of theatre, huh?
Despite the similarity of my own life to that of my parents’, I’d be happy to stick to the eating-out-once-a-week routine if I could. The problem is that things keep getting in the way.
For instance, I had to go the doctor today—does this just happen more often as you get older?—and after numerous tests and x-rays and surgical gown changes, I decided that I deserved lunch out on the town.
(In case you’re wondering, Dave and I went to Taquiera Azteca on Old Morgantown Road, which has some mean tacos de carne asada if you’re ever in Bowling Green, Kentucky.)
I don’t know why I always want to go out to eat after I go to the doctor. It just feels right—I figure if I have to suffer a little, I should live a little too. Know what I mean?
The problem is that it violates my only-eat-out-once-a-week rule.
And going to the doctor isn’t the only thing that causes me to break this rule. Going shopping or to a movie also makes me want to eat out. As does running errands. Or going to campus when school’s not in session. It’s almost as if I think that if I leave the house at all, I deserve some kind of culinary reward.
And let’s face it—that is seriously f***ed up.
Maybe Pollan’s right. Maybe I should go cold turkey. But it’s hard to imagine doing that if I can’t even cut back to once a week.
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