Friday, January 25, 2008

Beware of the Roundheads

Moral puritanism has been stalking the land this week and us fatties have been the target. Words like 'crisis' and 'epidemic' are being thrown about with gay abandon. The Government is in a high state of panic about the dread fear that "almost nine in 10 adults and two-thirds of children will be overweight or obese by 2050 and at risk of diabetes, cancer, heart disease and other health problems, costing society £50bn a year (my emphasis)". I rather like the idea of being an expensive luxury or a burden (and a heavy one at that). However, to me, this is just another tiresome rehashing of conventional wisdom that reflects an acceptable prejudice, one that is exercised against fat people.

These prejudicial attitudes are the worst aspect of this tawdry alarmism. And where else would you expect to see the most grotesque example other than Comment is Free? There the gaunt face of Anne Perkins peers out of my browser to tell me the "truth"; "that being fat is a sad side-effect of feeling useless". Listen Perkins, as I read your pathetic little article I was indeed filled with loathing, but not for myself. I refuse to be the object of your pity and condescension.

Idiotic and offensive drivel may be CiF's trademark, but this takes the butter-rich, sugar-coated biscuit. People who never have to worry about their weight feel free to explain the failings of those who are not as beautiful as them without the slightest recourse to anything remotely resembling evidence, let alone research. For thin conservatives, fat people are morally deficient, greedy and slothful. For Guardianistas, we are pathetic victims. We are neither. We just put on weight and they don't.

Thankfully, a tip-off from the Glavin family was at hand to provide an oasis of sanity and reason. I have been reading Gina Kolata's excellent short book, "Rethinking Thin". Kolata takes on the diet evangelists, including the Republican presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee, but her main purpose is to examine and explain to a lay audience some of the scientific research that questions the current orthodoxy on obesity. It is highly persuasive to this layman, not least because much of it makes absolute sense in explaining the real experience of someone like myself who has spent many years struggling against my weight until I joyfully decide to "let myself go".

Kolata is aware that the scientific study of obesity is recent and incomplete but makes the following points.

1. If weight gain is the result of lifestyle, why do only some people who live that lifestyle get fat?

2. Dieting does not work. Studies show that initial weight loss stops however hard anyone tries and then weight is regained (dead right, I have been there). She concludes that people's weight can fluctuate within a limited range and that an ideal slimness is not permanently achievable by those who are not naturally slim. (There goes the government's new strategy.)

3. Variations in weight are due to physiological rather than psychological factors, with genetic predisposition being dominant.

4. That there are epidemiological studies that question the assumptions of the correlation of obesity to ill health and premature death. Instead they find that there are health risks associated with extremes of thinness and overweight but that moderate obesity, especially in old age, can have a protective function against many diseases (the "obesity paradox").

5. And I like this one; people in Western society are getting heavier, taller and healthier. Why are we not worrying about an epidemic of height? Perhaps we should just accept a trend towards a change in body shape.

Kolata is clear that there are benefits to moderate weight loss, most fat people feel better if they are towards the lower end of their natural weight range. Eating good food isn't virtuous, it is delicious and developing food awareness is one of the side benefits of dieting. It just won't make you slim.

All in all, I'm with Shakespeare:

Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights:

(Julius Caesar, Act I Scene II)

See also Norm here and here and thanks to Will for tipping me off.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would say about dieting as well as being unpleasant for greedy food lovers it makes you obsessed about food. I remember being on a diet, walking down the street and all that I was seeing was people putting food in their gobs and all I was thinking about was food. It's a waste of your attention and brain to be so obsessed. And obsessives are bores, and people on diets (usually women) are especially boring talking about how they were "good" last night by dining on a low fat yoghurt and how they will be "bad" this morning and have a wee choccie. Away with it all.