Friday, July 31, 2009

Is Obesity the New Leprosy?

I’ve been following with interest Megan McCardle’s recent blog posts about obesity. Read them yourself; here, here, and here. Also, here. If this topic interests you, too, there's a recent NYT article here. Megan McCardle's posts have made me re-examine my thinking on obesity, the illusory health benefits of the slim, and the genetic/environmental factors that essentially dictate how much a person weighs. I hit it lucky in the gene pool with a 6' 4" father, who at his heaviest, weighed in at about 160 pounds. I can eat what I want--which most of the time is not too much--and give or take 5 pounds (mostly give), keep 130 pounds on my almost 5'7" frame. I'm not thin, but I'm not heavy either. Does this make me healthier than someone who weighs more? No. Should I chalk my weight up to self-control? Given that I don't actually WANT to eat copious amounts of food, I can't say I have superior self-control. I've been on diets before, I know how strong the craving for food can be. Most of the time, I just don't HAVE those cravings. Sure, I try to exercise and eat healthy low-calorie foods, but here's the thing--even when I'm training for a half-marathon and running 12 miles at a stretch--I never weigh much less than 130 pounds. I'm at 130 pounds essentially for reasons I don't control. And there are many indications that people who are heavy are equally powerless to effect permanent weight change, which makes demonizing the overweight completely inappropriate.

I took my children to see Wall-E not long ago; you know, the movie with all the displaced fat people adrift in space, having gobbled up the Earth. They float around, slurping from gigantic sodas and waiting for the next meal. It's meant to be a repellent portrayal of the obese. I wonder if we'll look back years from now and realize that the currently acceptable prejudice against overweight people is the same misplaced prejudice lepers and cancer patients had to bear. Studies show that many heavy people can't permanently lose weight through diet and exercise; that moderately overweight people may be healthier than thin people; that some obesity may be attributable to a disease; and that our sanctimonious attitudes about overweight people driving up health care costs are misplaced. If I'm stuck at 130 pounds, another woman may be stuck at 160 pounds for the same reasons. But being 30 pounds slimmer doesn't necessarily make me a better, healthier, or more disciplined person.

This doesn't mean I'm going to throw up my hands and have a seat in front of the TV. I think it's probably easier to avoid putting on extra weight than it is to lose that weight, so I'll continue to steer the 500Jerk family to healthy foods and daily exercise. But I'm not going to persist in any delusion that thin people are always healthier than heavier people or that thin people have better self-control. I just don't think it's true.

Now. What's for lunch? I'd like some lentil soup.

No comments: