What If Obesity Isn’t a Huge Health Problem?

Rethinking ThinWhat if recent increases in average weight are caused by the same things that have given us increases in average height and lenthened the average life span: Better nutrition, vaccines and antibiotics, healthier pregnancies?

According to NY Times science reporter Gina Kolata in her recent book Rethinking Thin, some researchers speculate that “we may be a new, heavier human race and our weight may been set by events that took place very early in life, maybe even prenatally.”

Now there’s a challenge to conventional thinking. Here’s another: Being “overweight” by current standards might actually be healthy. According to statistical studies, health problems related to weight appear to be tied to extremes – both the extremely obese and the extremely skinny are at greater risk. The rest of us – both those who can’t gain a pound no matter how much they eat and those of us who would swear that just looking at ice cream puts on weight – are probably not at great risk.

Kolata’s book provides us with a whole new frame of reference on the subject. Diets don’t work – or, at least, they don’t work long term – and that goes for both extreme ones like the Atkins diet and the more common sense varieties, like reduce calories but eat a balanced diet. Fat people aren’t lazy, undisciplined sloths – their bodies are just at odds with their desire to look like the over-thin ideals celebrated in modern culture.

And every time some scientist thinks they’ve found a miracle drug, it ends up not working for most people. Hormonal problems exist, genetic miscues exist, but there’s no one method that fits everyone.

Reading Kolata’s book has shaken up most of my ideas about weight and health. True, before reading it I thought the ideal weights were off-base and didn’t take into account the extent of human variation. No one can convince me that the basketball star Courtney Paris is out of shape, but at 240 pounds (at 6’4”) she’s way over the top of the charts (assuming the charts even include women over 6’). She’s too “fat” to join the armed forces, for example. I also thought we didn’t pay enough attention to the risks from our obsession with incredibly thin models and actors.

And I’ve always been convinced that most diets – and particularly crazy ones like Atkins that block out clearly healthy food like fruits, vegetables and whole grains – were nonsense.

But even I thought most people – including myself – just needed to avoid junk food, eat less, eat healthier, and exercise more to keep a proper and healthy weight. And I thought that larger portions, fast food, and a more sedentary lifestyle were affecting us, especially since we – in evolutionary terms – are not that far removed from a physically active lifestyle and a feast-or-famine dietary regimen.

But Kolata’s book has made me question everything. And that’s good. That’s what good science – and good science reporting – ought to do, because we’re just now starting to learn a lot more about human beings, our genetics, our brains, how our bodies work. Many things that seem like “common sense” turn out to be wrong, though a few common sense ideas will probably be validated over time. We don’t have all the answers yet, and we shouldn’t act as if we do.

I just put another Kolata book – Ultimate Fitness – on reserve from the library. Now I want to shake up my ideas about exercise and fitness, too, and near as I can tell, that book asks equally interesting questions.

I don’t plan to stop eating what I consider to be a healthy diet – a nice balance of protein, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables. I do still intend to exercise – becoming a jock changed my life and I don’t want to lose the joy of physical training. I still want to lose a few pounds. But I’m looking at the whole endeavor with new eyes.


Nancy Jane’s story this week is “Running the Road.” Her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies is available from PS Publishing and her novella Changeling can be ordered from Aqueduct Press.

Check out Nancy Jane Moore’s Bookshelf for more stories.



What If Obesity Isn’t a Huge Health Problem? — 2 Comments

  1. Interesting post, Nancy. I’ll keep my eye out for more ideas along this line. Most people will pooh-pooh it for sure, but from a psychological standpoint, it certainly is refreshing and worth a look.

  2. I find Gina Kolata’s work interesting, because she always seems to ask good, hard questions. And when she starts digging, she finds holes in a lot of theories. I’ve always thought all the extreme diets sounded flawed, but Kolata digs enough to find that few of them have any scientific basis at all.

    I had a friend explain to me how the Atkins-style heavy meat diet was the natural way people were supposed to eat, because that’s how our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate. But if you actually look at the anthropological record, you find they actually ate more grains and fruit and so forth than meat — meat was special, grains were everyday. Of course, men did the hunting, so meat must have been more important [insert sarcasm mark here]. He lost a lot of weight on that diet, but he’s heavier than ever, now.

    Kolata’s book on fitness does much the same thing — it really pokes holes in a lot of beliefs people have developed about exercise without much science to back it up. Interestingly, Kolata herself is a heavy exerciser; she obviously likes it. She just doesn’t believe all the claims for it.