By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 20 may 2009)
J. Eric Oliver’s meticulously researched book, Fat Politics, tackles many common assumptions about weight and health, as well as identifying the causes of the modern obsession with weight. In particular, Oliver provides a synopsis of recent large-scale studies, which have found that physical activity, rather than thinness, is correlated with health.
Exercise Improves Health More Than Maintaining a Low Body Weight
Studies often find correlations between high body weight and various diseases, both chronic and fatal. However, when researchers take physical activity into account, it becomes obvious that it is not body fat that is the problem; rather, it is inactivity.
Many of those who are obese are less inclined to engage in rigorous physical activity, and thus are more likely to suffer from and even die from various diseases. But thin, inactive people are also more likely to die from those same diseases than active people who range from “normal” weight to overweight by modern standards.
Fit, Active People Are Less Likely to Die of Heart Disease than Thin, Sedentary Individuals
A 25-year study of fitness, weight, and mortality among 25,000 men found that inactive, thin men were twice as likely to die as active, overweight men. In addition, other studies have found physical fitness to have more influence on the heart disease mortality of older men than hypertension, heart disease, smoking, or body weight.
Other research has found that women who engage in regular physical activity, even just walking, dramatically decrease their risk for developing heart disease, regardless of their body weight.
Active Women Are Less Likely to Develop Breast Cancer, Regardless of Body Weight
A study that followed almost 75,000 post-menopausal women showed that those who were moderately active (walking for 75 minutes per week or more) decreased their risk of developing breast cancer by 18% compared to inactive women. Body weight on its own was found to have no effect on breast cancer risk.
Active People Reduce Their Risk for Diabetes, Regardless of Body Weight
A number of studies have shown that those who engage in regular exercise are less likely to develop diabetes or to die from it if they do develop it, regardless of body weight.
Why People Have Become Obsessed with Thinness
Given that fitness, rather than body weight, is a true indicator of health, why does the obsession with thinness persist?
Historically, plumpness was considered a sign of success. This rare commodity could only be obtained by those who could afford all the food and leisure time they desired. Thus, higher body weight was associated with affluence.
A by-product of industrialization has been the widespread availability of inexpensive, high-calorie junk food in recent years. Given that the human body is programmed to take in as many calories as it can when they’re available in order to protect itself against future famines, this has led to higher average weights in areas where such junk foods are readily available.
Whereas in the past, plumpness was associated with riches, in modern times, it has come to be associated with poverty. Thinness suggests that a person is affluent enough to hire personal trainers, purchase pricey diet products, and eat at fancy restaurants where food quality is high and portions are smaller. By contrast, those living in poverty often must purchase cheaper foods that tend to be high in refined flour, sugar, and other ingredients that increase the likelihood of weight gain, as well as eating at restaurants that serve larger portions of less healthy food. As a result, weight has become correlated with income and education. In the United States:
- 16% of college graduates are obese compared to 27% of high school dropouts.
- People living below the poverty line are approximately 15% more likely to become obese than those living above the line.
As such, attitudes toward body fat have come to reflect the intrinsic socioeconomic prejudices that people hold. Negative attitudes toward the poor are conflated with negative attitudes toward those who are classified as overweight, and thinness has become a mark of social prestige.
Another factor maintaining the obsession with thinness is that there is far more money to be made from diet products and weight loss surgeries than in getting people to exercise more. Walking around the neighbourhood, jogging in the park, lifting weights at a local community center, and many other fitness activities can be undertaken for free or inexpensively. By contrast, dieting, because it tends to be ineffective in the long run, causes frustrated people to purchase expensive products over and over again in search of the elusive magic bullet.
Good Nutrition Is Also Important
Although physical activity, rather than weight, is correlated with better health, good nutrition is still important. Eating a diet high in refined flour and sugar and saturated and trans fats will have an adverse impact on health for both thin and heavier individuals.
For more health and fitness articles, see the main Mind/Body Health page.
Reference: J. Eric Oliver. (2006). Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America’s Obesity Epidemic. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.