Recently a friend of mine posted about a lot of weight she had lost and her improved health/bloodwork after starting a new way of eating (or WOE, for short). It doesn’t matter which WOE she used, here – Weight Watchers, Mediterranean, the Zone, Atkins, LCHF, whatever, it doesn’t matter. The fact is that she improved her health and lost some weight doing it.
What made this post stand out for me is that a friend of hers immediately jumped in to give all sorts of weight loss advice that was neither asked for nor needed, under the guise of being supportive. When her advice was routinely rebutted by my friend, who kept saying over and over, “thanks but I tried that, it did not work for me” the woman got hostile and defensive and, in the end, rude.
And here’s the worst part: the advice that was being given was in and of itself damaging. More so, it was based on the idea that all fat people are stupid.
It amazes me how often that assumption is made. One time, I was walking down the street talking to a friend. Kind of out of the blue, she said, “Have you thought about losing weight? It would be so much better for your health; it’s really important.”
I stopped dead and stared at her in utter disbelief.
Not because she was wrong (debatable), but because she felt compelled to tell me that. I’m 45 years old, and thanks to modern processed foods and my mother’s twisted obsession with body fat, I’ve been overweight pretty consistently since I was about 10 years old. That’s 35+ years of mostly being fat, and only being thin a few times under the duress of disordered eating and obsessive exercising.
Now, at what point does she think I missed the message “fat is bad”? Was I out the day the memo was passed around? Did I skip that lesson? Did I somehow, miraculously, live for 35+ fucking years in a society that is obsessed with body image issues and that has a deep seated hatred of anyone who is more than 10 pounds overweight and NOT figure out for myself that my life would be better if I were thinner?
No, I did not. I got it, I got that message loud and clear. No one who has even an ounce of body fat on them has missed that message.
The problem is that we, as a culture, have been told so hard and so long that losing weight is easy, therefore being fat is a choice; that it is a decision we make at some point and is something we have complete control over. We’re taught “calories in/calories out” as if the complex biological system known as the human body is as simplistic as a carburetor engine, and we’ve been taught “eat less/exercise more” under a diametrically opposite belief that the less fuel you give an engine, the more it burns.
Well, you can’t have it both ways, and you also can’t reduce the incredibly complex human metabolism to the first law of thermodynamics. I mean, I get it: I wish it were that easy too. But it’s really, really not. While it is possible to eat less, exercise more, and lose weight, it is not successful. Successful is something that improves your health and has long-lasting effects. Successful is something that leaves people feeling good about themselves, at a healthy weight, and not hungry all the time. Successful is something that applies to a method that does not have a 95% failure rate, as traditional low-calorie diets do. (Ask any scientist or even an undergraduate student: any experiment with a 95% failure rate is, to put it kindly, a fucking failure.)
I get into arguments with friends about this not because they know what they are talking about but because it is such a closely held belief that no one wants to let it go. It sounds so EASY, of course it must work!
But if it did, I assure you, obesity would not be an epidemic. I would not be fat, that’s for sure. I would have not only lost weight but kept it off during one of the dozens attempts I made at the “eat less, exercise more” diets I’ve tried over the last 30 years. I’m not lazy and I have crazy mad willpower and even right now, overweight and out of shape, chances are damn good that I eat much more healthfully and probably much less than you do.
But the myth holds. My friend who asked if I had ever thought about losing weight was thin and had been thin her whole life, yet felt compelled to say what she said because she really believed that somehow, I’m just so lazy and inefficient and, possibly, stupidly ignorant that it’s never occurred to me to try and lose weight. To her, losing weight should be easy (eat less! Exercise more!) so if I have not lost weight, then it’s obviously because I’ve never really, honestly tried. Like, maybe it just never occurred to me? For fuck’s sake.
Here’s the thing, though: eating less than what your body decides it needs is not a magic bullet for getting healthy. In fact, it is a very practical, sure-fire bullet for ruining your health. Here’s what I mean:
The myth is that if you don’t eat enough, your body will go to its reserves (fat) to give you energy.
This is true.
But first, it will do a bunch of other things, because the human body does not want to tap those reserves. They are emergency stores, for lack of a better term, not a candy bar you break out during a long afternoon when you skip lunch. This should surprise no one, but obviously needs to be said: the body will go to extremes to NOT eat itself.
First, the body will tell you it is hungry. Then, when you don’t eat or you don’t eat enough, it will tell you it is still hungry. And then it will remind you that hey, you’re hungry. Look at the time! You’re hungry! Still! Hungry! HUNGRY! HUNGRY HUNGRY HUNGRYHUNGRYHUNGRYHUNGRY FOR FUCKS SAKE EAT SOMETHING YOU FUCKING MORON!!!!!
Then when you STILL don’t eat, the body does not magically start eating itself. The body abhors cannibalism, and it will do anything to avoid it. So it turns down the metabolism; slows everything down so you don’t use as much energy. This is efficient. This is exactly what the body was designed to do.
Now you are HUNGRYHUNGRYHUNGRY and also lethargic.
According to traditional diet advice, this is now the perfect time to go for a run!
If the insanity of this hasn’t struck you yet, then you aren’t paying attention.
Eventually, if you stay hungry for long enough and force your metabolism to spike using intense exercise, your body will finally, unwillingly, regretfully start eating itself. It will start with the fat stores, then move to the muscles, then to the organs. The key to success in this war is to stop pushing so hard at that magic point in between fat and muscles. But how? Your body is in deficit and eating itself. It has no concept of balance, here: either you are eating enough to live on, or you’re not. If you’re not, then the body assumes “ffs still starving? Fine!” and just keeps eating itself.
You hit that magic number on the scale and finally! You can sleep in and not go for that long run every morning! You can up your caloric intake from 1200 to 1400! Time for those extra two ounces of cheese! Woo!
Your body sees this mild concession as the end of the battle, but not the war. It’s cautious; it doesn’t trust that it won’t happen again, so it lowers the baseline metabolism to keep energy stores safe. It ramps up the hunger signals, reactivating cravings that might have been pushed to the side by deprivation.
And within six months to a year, you’re back where you started (or, more likely, even heavier than when you started), with friends telling you that you should really lose weight because it would be healthier for you. Because, clearly, you just have no willpower.
Here is what no one wants to admit: being fat is not a condition with universal causes, and there is no universal solution. Current research is starting to completely reframe the issue of obesity. Traditionally, being overweight was the problem, and “eat less/exercise more!” the solution. What is being explored these days is that obesity is actually a symptom. Overeating isn’t a disease, and under-eating isn’t the cure. Obesity happens because of other factors, and those factors can be as individual as people.
Some people gain weight because they overeat due to depression or in response to issues like domestic violence; some people have thyroid problems; some people have physical or psychological addictions to sugar or other foods; some people have food intolerances; some people have insulin problems stemming from genetics and/or bad habits; some people have to take meds for other health reasons which have side effects like hunger and weight gain; and yes, there are even a few very rare individuals who don’t give a flying fuck and overeat because they want to.
In addition, the modern diet is a landmine of addiction and psychological dependence. We are completely addled by sugar, which is in nearly every process food on the market (even processed deli meats; go ahead, check the labels, I’m not lying to you). Sugar itself is totally natural and an important staple of our diet, but not in massive quantities. While it’s addictive, cutting it out completely is impossible and ill advised (that is, fruit is a natural sugar, and fruit is healthy, but if you have a problem with sugar, fruit can be a trigger; it’s a vicious cycle) so people end up on a hamster wheel of deprivation/binging.
At what point does this turn from being an issue of will power to one of physiology?
If you don’t have the answer to that question, and you don’t, then shut up. If you aren’t someone’s nutritionist or doctor, then shut up. Being thin is not a badge of honor or a success; it’s just how your nature/nurture cards played out. If you are naturally thin, I guaran-fucking-tee you that every fat person you know has a much better grasp of nutrition, exercise, and calorie counts than you do. The majority of us have been on the hamster wheel of “Eat less! Exercise more!” at least once if not a dozen times. Every single one of us has tried Weight Watchers, Atkins, the Hollywood diet, supplements, and Slimfast.
Some of us have even starved ourselves into anorexia because that is easier. I’ll give you a moment to wrap your mind around that one.
Got it? Good. Yet over and over, well-meaning idiots tell us that we should think about losing weight, because it would be healthier for us. Our clothes would fit better, you know? Just eat less and exercise more, it’s so easy!
Yes, thank you, we know.
My point here is to ask you to rethink what you assume. If you are thin, don’t assume it is because you have a better grasp of portion control or calorie counts than your fat friend (who, very likely, eats less than you do because their metabolism has been depressed by yo-yo dieting). You really don’t, I’d lay money on that. Don’t assume that the fat people you know are idiots who have never been exposed to diet advice before in their lives (they have…every day…by everyone). Don’t assume that being fat is a simple problem with a simple solution, because chances are you don’t know a damn thing about the actual reasons why that person is fat in the first place.
Most importantly: Don’t treat obesity as if it is a personal failure of willpower or dedication. When you do that, you are telling people who are overweight that they are lazy, stupid, and lack self-control—yes, that’s exactly what you are implying, even if that’s not what you meant. Claiming you are “just trying to help” (when no one asked you for your help) is an excuse for your rude behavior. Concern trolling is more about feeding your sense of arrogance and superiority than it is about helping people. Period.
Remember, the traditional “Eat less! Exercise more!” paradigm fails 95% of the time. Instead of thinking that 95% of the people involved are pathologically compulsive and lazy, why not accept the fact that the primary assertion of that hypothesis is just fucking wrong.