All The Arguments You Need: to Convince People Being Fat Isn’t Necessarily Unhealthy
Studies show people with obesity can be metabolically healthy.
In our All The Arguments You Need series, we take on mindsets standing in the way of progress and rebut them with facts and logic.
We live in a fatphobic society. In India, one of the first greetings you’ll get if you’re meeting someone after a long time, especially family members, will revolve around your weight. From mothers shaming their daughters for having fat, to friends who invent supposedly endearing nicknames if you’re overweight, to a constant barrage of anti-fat messaging propagated to you through pop culture, and fat-correction tips and tricks sold to you through advertisements — we’re constantly being told that fat is a bad, ugly, unhealthy thing.
With recent body positivity and body neutrality movements taking root and receiving support from advocates like Jameela Jamil, it is also becoming increasingly clear to people that being outwardly fatphobic is not an acceptable way to be. This, in turn, has given rise to a more subtle form of fat-correction — concern trolling. For people who are fat, this manifests in people commenting on their appearance or giving them fat-correcting advice under the guise of concern — and a majority of this seemingly well-intentioned (it’s not) and exclusive advice assumes that being fat absolutely means being unhealthy — which is, incidentally, 100% false.
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Here are some arguments people who concern troll fat folks usually come up with — and why they are wrong.
You should exercise and diet to increase your metabolism.
“Metabolism is the process by which your body converts what you eat and drink into energy. Even when you’re at rest, your body needs energy for functions such as breathing, circulating blood and repairing cells. The energy your body uses for these basic functions is known as your basal metabolic rate,” according to the Mayo Clinic. Body size and composition is one of the factors that affect the metabolic rate — “If you weigh more or have more muscle mass, you’ll burn more calories, even at rest. So people who weigh more are more likely to have a faster basal metabolic rate — not a slower one — because a portion of excess weight is muscle tissue,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
A 2014 meta-analysis of research found that metabolic health relies on four factors for determination — blood pressure, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, triglycerides, and plasma glucose. The study qualified participants as obese if their body mass index was equal to or greater than 30. Researchers found that 6% to 75% of the studies’ participants had metabolically healthy obesity (MHO) — a healthy rate of metabolism in obese people. Metabolically healthy obese people showed no signs of high cholesterol, high blood pressure or insulin resistance.
As for the advice, studies show focusing on weight loss — losing as little as 3% of body weight — can severely impact metabolism, causing “a body-wide starvation response that blasts you with hunger hormones and drops your internal temperature until you rise back to your highest weight. Keeping weight off means fighting your body’s energy-regulation system and battling hunger every day for the rest of your life,” HuffPost reported. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism showed that even after exercise, and a diet regimen that encouraged fat loss but preserved the fat-free mass (active tissues) most utilised in metabolism, there was a “dramatic slowing” of resting metabolic rate of the person “out of proportion to weight loss,” which slows the rate of weight loss and predisposes the person to weight regain.
Telling a fat person to increase their metabolism, without any knowledge of how their body works, is presumptuous, out of place, and only seeks to increase stigma.
Don’t be irresponsible toward your body.
Fat people are constantly blamed for being fat; the blame often falls on their choices, conveniently ignoring compelling biological and environmental factors that affect a person’s health and lifestyle.
Food intake and activity are only a small part of why someone might be obese. The environment of a person plays a much larger role in their health — the global population is currently suffering from an epidemic of obesity and malnutrition at the same time. The climate crisis has led to severe difficulties in cultivating food, which has hiked up prices of healthy food, making it inaccessible for people. On the other hand, unhealthy fast-food chains that offer quick and cheap alternatives to people filled the gap between healthy and affordable food. Simultaneously, work culture has significantly worsened across the world, which makes it difficult to find time to exercise; a lack of green space in cities also contributes to people’s lack of motivation to exercise.
“At present obesity campaigns tend to focus on this idea of individual “choice”, but the evidence suggests that making it easier for everyone to access healthy food and to be physically active would do far more,” The Conversation reported.
Other factors that increase chances of developing obesity include genetics — research shows that genes affect how hungry a person gets, their appetite, and their propensity to indulge in physical activity. Children are most vulnerable to these genetic factors, which often determine their weight in childhood. Growing up, their environment often becomes entrenched in their lifestyle, which makes the process of weight loss more difficult, and fraught with health complications.
For women, especially, hormonal issues contribute to weight gain — a phenomenon completely out of their control. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), for example, is a hormonal abnormality that affects roughly 9-23% of Indian women. Medical conditions such as high insulin resistance leading to diabetes and obesity often occur in tandem with PCOS. 40 to 80% of women with PCOS are found to be overweight, according to a study.
Though obesity is painted as a choice and the obese individual’s fault, most factors that contribute to it are not within a person’s control. We need to start building a society that not only refrains from assuming poor health from a person’s size, but also one where it’s easy for people to be healthy.
You should take care of yourself. You don’t want to end up with a lifelong condition such as diabetes.
In obese people, the presence of “non-esterified fatty acids, glycerol, hormones, cytokines, pro-inflammatory markers, and other substances that are involved in the development of insulin resistance, is increased,” which can result in the development of type 2 diabetes. These determining factors, however, do not show up in a person’s BMI, a 2016 study found. “BMI does not directly reflect the degree of excess adiposity or how it impacts health risks in individual patients.” The study found that simply by looking at a person, their risk of developing diabetes cannot be determined — the same study found unfit skinny people were two times more likely to get diabetes than fit fat people.
Study researchers acknowledged that obesity can increase insulin resistance in a body, which may lead to cardiometabolic diseases — but lean people can also deal with the same problems if their eating habits are not healthy.
But what ends up happening is people exclusively concern-troll fat people for being ‘unhealthy,’ without any knowledge of their bodies, because of intense fatphobia. The obscurity and intricacy of bodily health then seeks to glorify skinny people, even though they might have similar health issues because of their lifestyle.
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You don’t want to put too much pressure on your heart.
Many factors can contribute to heart health — family history, smoking habits, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. These factors are not determined solely by BMI, or how a person looks. Someone with a ‘healthy’ BMI, such as a thin person, might be in bad health due to smoking habits. Athletes, for example, have a high BMI and look bigger — because they have more muscle; it doesn’t mean they’re unhealthy. Similarly, for fat people, it is impossible to determine what their muscle to fat ratio is simply by looking at them, and therefore, not fair to point out the assumed risk to their heart health. Metabolically healthy obese people, for example, may not have high cholesterol or high blood pressure and therefore are not at risk for heart conditions.
“A person’s overall cardiovascular disease risk is made up of a combination of factors besides weight, including family history, prior or current smoking, and high blood pressure,” Dr. Jorge Plutzky, director of preventive cardiology at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told Harvard Health. “Also, some people just weigh more than others because they have more muscle and bone mass.”
Where an individual carries their fat is more important than how much fat they carry, Dr. Plutzky said. Extra fat that accumulates just under the skin, called subcutaneous fat, appears to cause few health issues, while fat stored at waist level, called visceral fat, in the abdominal cavity and surrounding vital organs like the pancreas, liver, and intestines is more dangerous, he added.
A U.S. study of 40,000 people published in European Heart Journal shows fitness is the key marker for health amongst obese people — as long as they are metabolically fit, they are at no greater risk of developing heart disease or cancer, compared to non-obese people.
Take care of your body. I’m saying this for your own good.
No, they aren’t. Living in a fatphobic society has birthed many health myths that enable people to exclusively concern troll fat people, in an uninformed, bigoted way. This produces the opposite effect, research finds. A 2015 study shows “weight discrimination is associated with the common psychological and physiological correlates of stressful social experiences. Those who experience weightism, for example, report more psychological distress, lower well-being, and greater loneliness,” adding “Weight discrimination increases risk for obesity, chronic inflammation and disease burden and is associated with health-risk behaviors, including avoiding physical activity.”
Weight-based discrimination increases blood pressure, reduces cognitive control, and increases food consumption as “many of the diseases associated with obesity (e.g., hypertension, diabetes) are stress-related diseases that may develop, in part, from the stress of discrimination,” the study found.
This happens because of the increase in the stress hormone cortisol, which is known to increase appetite, reduce motivation to exercise, and improve how food tastes, according to the study. “These findings suggest the possibility that the stigma associated with being overweight is more harmful than actually being overweight.”
You’ll die early if you keep this up.
Obese people are told they’re being irreponsible with their life, because it’s a common belief that being fat reduces life expectancy. According to the U.S. study published in the European Heart Journal, obese people who were metabolically fit had a 38% lower risk of early death, no more than normal-weight, metabolically healthy people.
A Center for Disease Control scientist Katherine Segal has also disproved many studies that conclude obesity conclusively leads to an early death. In a study published in Jama Network, she, along with a team of scientists, showed being overweight, and not obese, was not associated with an increased risk of death. In addition, a 2013 meta-analysis conducted by her showed overweight people with a BMI between 25 and 30, had a 6 percent lower risk of dying than normal-weight individuals. She went as far as to say that where mortality is concerned, BMI should be slightly higher than what we consider ‘normal.’
Segal, however, is in a kind of a scientific tussle with other scholars in the field, who have long delineated the various disadvantages of having fat, clearly outlined in this article from The Atlantic. What Segal’s findings do provide, even as scientists scramble to reinforce or disprove her conclusions, is that our understanding of how being overweight affects an individual’s health is limited and often informed by already pervasive fatphobia. More research, free of bias, is needed to understand exactly what kind of fat, in what location and informed by what other factors, means poor health for someone.
Yes, obesity brings with it health risks — a higher risk of heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, joint pain, arthritis, according to Harvard Health. But these risks do not merit evaluation by simply looking at someone — eating habits and fitness levels are what signify good health, none of which needs to be apparent to others’ naked eye. A healthy, balanced diet and regular exercise is good for everyone, but unwarranted recommendations and uninformed concern are not.
Rajvi Desai is The Swaddle's Culture Editor. After graduating from NYU as a Journalism and Politics major, she covered breaking news and politics in New York City, and dabbled in design and entertainment journalism. Back in the homeland, she's interested in tackling beauty, sports, politics and human rights in her gender-focused writing, while also co-managing The Swaddle Team's podcast, Respectfully Disagree.