There are all kinds of reasons why many of us are afraid of gaining weight. One is the fear of judgment – we worry that others won’t find us attractive. Indeed, there is a great deal of pressure on both women and men to conform to arbitrary, cultural standards of physical attractiveness.
Another primary concern, of course, is health. It is presumably common knowledge in our modern society that carrying extra weight is the direct cause of a range of illnesses. However, while being overweight or obese is associated with certain health conditions, scientifically, the connection is not as straightforward as it has been made to appear.
The Obesity Paradox
In recent years, a number of studies have found that, among patients with certain health conditions, including heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, overweight and moderately obese patients had a lower likelihood of premature death than their slimmer counterparts suffering from the same condition.
This is particularly puzzling because obesity is a risk factor in contracting some of these conditions, so the logical assumption would seem to be that obesity would also make matters worse once the condition has progressed.
Why does this happen?
The effects of the Obesity Paradox seem highly counterintuitive. If obesity has so many negative health consequences, how can it actually decrease one’s risk of mortality in certain cases? Scientists have yet to come to a consensus.
One possible explanation is that, as the conditions develop, the body needs higher energy and caloric reserves than it otherwise would. In this scenario, it’s not hard to see how overweight or obese patients might fare better.
Another possible explanation is that the medical community is placing too much emphasis on body mass index (BMI), which is a ratio of a person’s weight to their height, and is used to determine whether someone is obese. Perhaps, some doctors and researchers are suggesting, BMI isn’t as important as some other indicators of health, like the health of a person’s heart, for example. Under this scenario, we can see that someone who does regular aerobic exercise, while they might not lose weight, is nonetheless improving their health because they’re supporting their cardiovascular fitness.
Whatever its explanation, the Obesity Paradox certainly calls into question our assumptions about the connections between weight and health. It challenges us to reexamine some of the biases and stereotypes we may have about those who are carrying a little extra weight.
Health at Every Size
There is another way to think about what it means to be healthy. The Health at Every Size (HAES) movement offers an alternative to traditional restrictive dieting and treatments of health conditions that are overly focused on weight loss. It promotes making positive lifestyle changes for the sake of health and well-being, not to lose weight. It also emphasizes the importance of moving away from the kinds of snap judgments we tend to make about people who are heavier.
Proponents of HAES point to research that suggests that even among those with type 2 diabetes, blood glucose can be normalized without weight loss, and that obese individuals who are physically active and fit have a lower premature mortality rate than thinner people who are inactive and unfit.
The message is that, when it comes to health, it’s more than what meets the eye. It is all too easy to justify our cultural obsession with thinness by saying we’re really trying to promote health, but that may not actually be the case. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be concerned with obesity – but it may not be the automatic indicator of poor health that we often assume it to be.
It’s time that we drop our widespread fat prejudice. Many of us make the assumption that people who are overweight are shortsighted and don’t care about their health, but research has amply demonstrated that is not actually the case. It is possible to maintain a healthy lifestyle without being what most of us would call “thin.” The emphasis should not be on shaming people into losing weight, but rather, on helping them to implement healthy lifestyle changes and to love and value themselves as they are, which will lead to greater health and happiness.
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