Students should rethink the language used to discuss body weight and size. (Mimi Cole)
Students should rethink the language used to discuss body weight and size.

Mimi Cole

Intuitive Eating with Mimi: Why I don’t believe the “Obesity Epidemic” is a problem

How the body processes nutrients and the many contributors towards weight

January 4, 2020

Photo by Drew Baxley

One phenomenon that most people agree upon is that an “obesity epidemic” has swept our country. The public tends to attribute the lack of time spent outdoors, a decrease in exercise and increased consumption of “junk food” as the root of the epidemic of larger bodies in our country. However, I believe that this “obesity epidemic” is actually a moral one that values some people over others based on their bodies. People’s health and character have nothing to do with their bodies, and fat actually serves many helpful functions in the body.

The body mass index (BMI) scale commonly used by doctors to measure health is very outdated, and doesn’t account for factors like bone density and muscle mass. The BMI scale even changed overnight when standards shifted in 1998, causing individuals who were once considered normal weight to be considered overweight the next day. In fact, in a longitudinal study examining hundreds of thousands of individuals through the National Health Interview Survey (NIHS), researchers found that being overweight was associated with lower mortality, and was actually a protective factor against death. 

The notion that individuals can simply eat “right” and lose weight easily is saturated in diet culture; false misconceptions about how weight is determined and how the body processes food are rampant. Weight loss studies that show that maintenance of weight loss and personal anecdotes typically do not account for long term (greater than 5 years) follow-ups, weight stigma, weight cycling and weight suppression that returns later. These studies also don’t account for chronic dieting and disordered eating, both of which are associated with the development of eating disorders. The most important factor to work on for optimal health is changing health behaviors (i.e. adding more nutrient-rich foods rather than subtracting or restricting; incorporating sustainable and joyful forms of movement), independent of weight, as up to 95 percent of dieters will regain the weight lost, and more back.

The idea that if you just expend what you consume, you will lose weight, simply offers people a false sense of control over their weight. When we consume calories, or energy in the form of joules/kilojoules.This energy is processed and stored in our bodies in different ways. Eating fat does not make someone fat; it is used in the body to keep our organs functioning well, keeps us warm and helps us attain satiety. The body uses a variety of nutrients and knows what to do with them. We can trust our bodies to use the food we eat to support our energy needs and for cognitive, mental and emotional functioning. 

There are several contributors to a person’s weight that have little to do with their diet and exercise. Accessibility to a variety of foods can be limited in food deserts, socioeconomic status can influence ability to buy different types of nutrient-rich foods and genetic predispositions towards metabolic rates are all contributors towards weight. Our bodies are not the problem. The eighth principle of intuitive eating is to respect your body weight. It will fall at its set point, or the weight at which optimal functioning occurs for your body, when you learn to honor your body’s homeostatic cues of hunger and fullness. You can trust your body to tell you what it needs and when, so don’t worry about your weight if you are honoring your body cues. 

So what does this mean for you as a college student? Individuals in larger bodies are just as worthy as those in smaller bodies; this outlook informs our language in the ways we talk about our own and others’ bodies. It means that we begin to stop shaming people for the fat on their body or belittling others because of their weight. Disrespecting others’ bodies with the words we use is often a reflection of the way that we feel about our own bodies, and can have negative consequences for our society when we ostracize those in larger bodies. It means that if you’re studying to become a doctor and/or politician, you advocate for healthcare that is weight-inclusive. The Health at Every Size paradigm is a social justice movement to accept and learn to value people in larger bodies, and it is something that begins with our studies here. We must examine our own biases towards fat and our narratives about the worth of people in larger bodies, and work towards equitable treatment of people in all bodies.