Changing our perception of obesity - Baobab Health

Changing our perception of obesity

As you all know, weight loss is a hot topic these days and everyone is trying to cash in on it. Food and supplement companies, gyms and the beauty industry all advertise their new fad products and workout regimes on the radio, TV, in magazines, over social media and through celebrities, that can help you achieve your health and weight loss goals.

The main premise of these fads is that if you exercise enough, eat less and take some crappy supplements/meal replacements, then you will be in the clear! The simplistic approach of these fads epitomizes our social conception around weight gain and obesity. That it is simply a result of laziness, eating too much and not exercising enough. Yes, these are definitely contributing factors, however obesity is a complex, multifactorial DISEASE that results from a complex interaction between genetic predispositions, diet, lifestyle and environmental factors.

Societies lack of understanding around obesity leads to various misconceptions and stereotypes of obese individuals. This post will take a look at some of the most damaging stereotypes and misconceptions.

Skinny does not = Healthy.

Lets be honest with ourselves, we have all had that moment where we have looked at overweight or obese individuals eating something unhealthy and judged their food choice. We have all looked at that person and thought to ourselves, “why is this person eating food X when they are already overweight! How stupid of them and what a lack of self-control. Don’t they know that if they just stopped eating those foods, they would not be fat!”

It is moments like these, which exemplify how simplistic our views on obesity/weight gain really are. That we don’t realize how complicated this disease is. It also highlights how obese people’s bodies, diet and lifestyle choices are policed far more than anyone else in our society and there is a lot of policing going on! We automatically associate a fat person with the word “unhealthy,” and if it were a skinny person eating food X, not many people would think twice about it. Unlike skinny people, fat people in society are not allowed to eat beautiful food that makes them feel healthy and strong, because taking joy in meals is for thin people, when fat people do it, its vulgarity and public suicide.

We associate skinny with being healthy. But skinny does not necessarily mean you are healthy. While poor diet and lifestyle choices may manifest themselves in obesity in one person who is predisposed, in another person, it may manifest itself as other diseases and dysfunctions that lead to ill health or it may not result in anything due to epigenetics. Just because a person looks “healthy” on the exterior, it does not mean that their insides are necessarily functioning at an optimum level, which is the biggest determinate of health.

I have seen far too many “pretty/skinny” people who abuse their bodies with drugs, alcohol, supplements, smoking, stress and poor nutrition, however they still maintain a “healthy” and “attractive” exterior based on societies perception. This is despite the fact that the tissues inside their bodies are suffering. But when these people display unhealthy behaviours in public, they are not policed as much as an obese person doing the same thing.

This occurs because society and the media have created a mentality that skinny/toned for girls and muscularity for men is the epitome of beauty and health. The way we define health and beauty is purely based on external appearances, which is no surprise in our highly superficial society. We beat ourselves up about our bodies not looking a certain way and endeavour to change them, rather than applauding our bodies for all the amazing things it can do and striving to accomplish more (e.g. can your body run, jump, lift weights?).

The social media marketing creates an unattainable goal of external health and beauty, using photo shopped, genetically gifted individuals to represent their “fad” products (that are never scientifically proven to work). This in turn causes individuals to waste time, money and self-esteem on these products, funding million dollar companies, in the pursuit of these unachievable/superficial goals. However, we are all different and most of us will never look like the photo-shopped models we see in the media who no matter what they ate, would probably still have the appearance that they do. This mentality creates a society of individuals who are not comfortable in their own skin (even the genetically gifted ones) and it breeds both obesity and other eating disorders like anorexia.

In our society, being fat is supposedly one of the worst things you can be. Think about all the insecurities and issues an overweight person has to face in our superficially driven society. We are so quick to judge an overweight individual without thinking about the true reasons as to why they might possibly be that way. We must remember that health and beauty comes in all different shapes and sizes, and we have to broaden our spectrum on what we define as healthy and beautiful, because human beings do not fit into binary categories.

Our association between skinniness and health gives birth to our warped relationship to food. We are made to view food simply as calories and whether it will contribute to weight gain or weight loss. We don’t view our food in terms of its nutritional content and how it is there to nourish our bodies in order to make it function properly. This is especially prominent in women, due to the unfair expectations our sexist society puts on them to look a particular way in order to be “attractive” to men.

Fad diets exploit this mentality by basing their programs around extreme caloric restriction, which of course in the short term will help people drop weight very quickly. But they fail to acknowledge that our bodies still need nutrients in food to actually function properly. Furthermore, these diets are not sustainable long term. They are quick fixes, which feed into our world of instant gratification and don’t help change the psychological, environmental, diet and lifestyle habits that put people in their obese state to begin with.

Obesity and your tax money?

Another mentality that I come across far too often is that many people look at fat people as a burden on our health care system and that they consume taxpayer’s money for the treatment of the manifestations of their obesity (e.g. disability cover).

Yes this is true, however there are many unhealthy, skinny people that use our health care system because they acquire diseases as a result of their poor diet and lifestyle choices. Such diseases like diabetes, depression, lung cancer and CVD are some of the most prominent diseases resulting from our poor diet and lifestyle choices, for fat and skinny people alike. Also, these conditions are seen as “diseases” by society, where as obesity is seen as an issue of laziness.

In reality, although these diseases are placing strain on our health care system, it is much easier to give these sick individuals some drugs to patch up their symptoms and send them on their way. However, it is a lot harder to change the way we educate people about healthy living from a grass roots level in order to prevent chronic disease. It is a lot harder to change the complex social, economical, environmental and psychological factors that contribute to disease and obesity in our society.

If the government was genuinely concerned about the prevention of obesity and chronic disease, which plagues our society, they would put into place community health promotion programs that changed the environment in which we live. This would lead to an environment that is more conducive to good health and the prevention of chronic disease. These health promotion programs do occur in various communities throughout Australia, however they are still yet to become widespread enough to cause significant change. Funding these health promotion programs would cost a lot more money and require higher taxes if they were to be implemented. However, they would benefit us in the long run.

Obesity = laziness and Anorexia = complex disease.

Some may argue that nothing in life is easy, therefore obese people have to take control of their lives, stop feeling sorry for themselves and change. Even if obesity is not completely due to factors that are in the realm of their control. Many argue that the resources are out there to help a person change; they just need to have that drive. However, just because resources are out there doesn’t mean people are competent enough to utilize them effectively. Also, like I mentioned above, a lot of this information is quick fix, unsustainable fads.

While I do acknowledge that obese individuals, like any person with a chronic health issue, at some point have to take responsibility for their actions because only they can change their health predicament, I don’t believe the use of fat shaming in our society will support this process. Humans respond better to positive reinforcement and supportive environments that are conducive to making healthy changes.

Our society shames fat people in so many ways, which can worsen these individuals situation. We have to understand that when people make decisions around their health, most of the time it is not logical. You don’t think an obese person knows that they shouldn’t be eating certain foods? Of course they do, however the reason behind their eating is far more complex than simple logical will power. There is a complex interaction between psychological, genetic, situational and environmental factors, which determine a person’s food choices.

Moreover, why are anorexic people not treated like obese people in our society? Why do we not have reality shows like the biggest loser where instead it is called the biggest gainer? This is where anorexic people get yelled at to eat more and exercise less. This is because we see anorexia as a disease unlike obesity. We recognise anorexia as a complex interaction between genetics and the environment but the same cannot be said for our view on obesity. This is why we treat these illnesses very differently. Obesity is just as much of a complex eating disorder as anorexia is with a large mental/emotional component.

Our environment is not conducive to supporting health.

We are quick to criticize obese people despite the fact that the environment in which we live in is not supportive of long term health. We still market unhealthy food to children and it is rare to find school classes based around cooking and teaching healthy diet and lifestyle habits. Processed, fast food and high calorie food is easily accessible and cheaper/easier to prepare than whole foods. This makes these foods a perfect choice for all of the stressed out individuals with little money, time and knowledge on how to cook nutritious food. Also, the government eating guidelines (which health practitioners use) are heavily outdated and result from invested interests in certain food industries.

We treat most illnesses with pharmaceutical drugs (a billion dollar industry) to patch up symptoms but never use food as our medicine to treat the underlying cause. This in turn creates a disconnect between how food and lifestyle choices impacts our health. We treat diseases when they manifest rather than putting preventative measures in place before they occur. We also create an unhealthy relationship to our bodies and food as mentioned above, and allow fads (that are not scientifically proven to ever work) to plague the consumer market with their products that do nothing to promote health and wellbeing, but rather contribute to the quick fix/instant gratification cycle.

Maintaining health is a never-ending process that has to be worked on every day. It requires following consistent, good habits that are made the majority of the time. We need to change our paradigm around obesity in order to prevent it as well as help the individuals who suffer from it.

Furthermore, understanding the complexities behind weight gain will also allow us to treat this disease more efficiently.