If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results, then our society’s approach to the wide spread increase in body mass throughout the nation is spectacularly psychotic. If dieting doesn’t work, then dieting needs to stop, and a new approach given a try.
Scientific health studies and surveys consistently find that dietary changes for the primary purpose of weight reduction lead to short-term loss and long-term gain, more than if no loss had been attempted. Dieting does not merely fail to produce persistent reduction in body mass, it appears to be materially responsible for accelerated increase in body mass among those who diet. The dramatic increase in body mass across society points to structural environmental changes larger than any one person’s choice of food. Diets are too varied to be able to attribute the obesity rise to some specific food element, such a HFCS, sugar in general, refined carbohydrates, “additives”, etc.
Even so, the food police waste no opportunity in which to ride the fat pig of obesity in hopes of promoting their particular ideological (and whacked out) cause of the week. They want a monster to slay, something big and scary which they will bravely face down and so be heroes. The target is “the food industry” but the battleground is the bodies and psyches of Teh Fatz, a social group othered as poor, dark, low-class and/or female, who may therefore be used as social experiments for these high-minded servants of the public interest. Of course, the poor, the non-white, the lower class and the non-male parts of society have always been appropriated for the amusement of their social betters.
Fat is a result of calorie storage, and thus of food and eating, which seems to make a focus on food a logical place to start when trying to stem the Fat Tide. The obsession with food intake is leading us to forms of invasive regulation and pervasive monitoring of the subject class that is not compatible with respect for adult autonomy and free will. “It’s for your own good,” is the refrain, as if we fat people cannot judge for ourselves.
Increase in societal body mass is not the result of some nefarious plot by our evil corporate overlords. It is not the result of “fat pigs” going on food “binges,” scarfing down mountains of “processed” food. It’s not our poor, weak, sinful wills that can’t set the Doritos down. It is a quiet combination of a slow but steady increase in calories in amounts that are easy to ingest without noticing (slightly larger portions, richer ingredients, food in ready-to-eat forms) accompanied by a steady decrease in opportunities for activity (rise of the computer, decline of manual labor, greater reliance on the automobile vs. bike or feet, decay of public amenities like sidewalks and parks), leading to an overall increase of weight across all socioeconomic classes.
Ordinary people eat a bit more during the day than they did 25 years ago and move substantially less. We eat out more. We buy more kinds of foods because they are available and because they are cheaper than other things we could buy, and we do more eating because it is cheaper than other things we might do. Food shows encourage us to try this, advertisements demand we try that, friends offer up a wide array of snacks when we go over to watch the game. We nibble. We nosh. We snack. We eat things that, a few decades back, would be feast food or special occasion meals because they make us happy and they taste so good and we can afford them now. If we live under conditions of food insecurity, we eat all we can when its available because tomorrow it might not be there. These are small changes to our traditional eating patterns and they add up.
Maybe this is why so many food police frantically want to find a monster (or at least a self-indulgent fatty) under the obesity bed. It doesn’t seem right that so great a change can happen with so little fanfare. Something must be sapping our vital essences! Something must be poisoning us! Something that is amenable to being resolved through short-sighted legislation and public shaming must be at fault!
So, what? What’s the punch line here, Anglachel? If diets don’t work, then what? Just get fat?
Well, to a degree, yes. Or, to be more precise, we need to be less hysterical over the prospect that, at least for now and probably for the foreseeable future, we’re going to be heavier on average than a couple generations ago. We need to lose the fat phobia that keeps us on the treadmill of Sisyphus. Make your peace with that.
First off, we know what doesn’t work – focusing on losing weight as the primary goal and measure of success. We have decades of proof.
Instead of starting with the commandment “Thou shalt lose weight, lard ass!” we need to look at teaching and supporting health habits first. How can the food environment be restructured to allow people to eat the kinds of things they truly love to eat in ways that don’t automatically lead to caloric excess? Here’s a few ideas:
- Promote eating competence, as defined by the Ellen Satter Institute. This approach has literally upended everything I have thought before about how to eat. Once someone has been trained in eating what they like in a structured way (fighting food ubiquity), then there is time to support more adventurous food choices (i.e., “healthy” food). Chances are, simply by gaining confidence in their food competence, individuals will have personally healthier diets overall.
- Focus attention on how to become and stay more active. Everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) I have read by reputable medical organizations indicates that increasing activity regardless of weight loss improves health all around. Every health marker can be improved, often significantly, with moderate increases in activity levels. You can be Clark Kent and do just fine.
- Promote shopping and cooking competence. The best defense against poor diets is knowing how to make your own food for cheap. Emphasize being able to produce tasty food over any formal nutrition. This really means bringing back Home Economics at schools, and having some good shows on the TV and online that point out how to budget, how to buy and how to prepare food for your family. This is not an occasion for some celebrity chef to come in and pass judgment on the locals.
- Support the return of PE to schools. (I can’t believe I’m saying this. I hated PE in school, but the reason I did was because I was graded on whether I could make free throws in basketball – which inevitably led me to getting an “F”. Hot, sweaty, public embarrassment and I get my GPA dragged down. Of course I hated the fucking thing.) No grades, all fun, and not for weight loss. Don’t talk about fat. Talk about heart rates. Talk about muscle growth. Talk about bone strength. Or just shut up and play kickball.
The larger picture is social changes that take coordination, regulation and evangelism. Work hours that provide time for being more active. Less commuting by car. Make it easier to get to well stocked grocery stores with wider food selection (and lower prices) for marginalized communities. Strengthen food safety laws. Restrict food (hell, I say all) advertising aimed at children. Improve public amenities such as parks, gyms, sidewalks, transit, and housing that provide opportunities to be active as part of everyday life. Reduce reliance on the automobile. Better healthcare. Etc. I’m sure you can come up with some others.
The two elements that must be present, however, are promotion of individual control over their activity and food choices, and dropping weight loss as the primary objective of health improvement. If someone is fat and content with their life, then that’s their choice. If you are fat and discontented, you are free to choose what course of action seems best to you.
Most of all, none of the above will automatically lead to weight loss for those who are already fat. That’s not the point. The point is to help people navigate the contradictory and unhealthy conditions of food ubiquity without falling into a no-win dieting cycle; it is to keep their dignity and sanity intact. It can help children escape the dieting trap in the first place. It will allow people who are fat to simply be, without harassment and punishment.
No more scare tactics. No more alarmism. No more shaming.
No more diets.