Is Body Fat Really the Killer it’s Made Out to Be?

Is Body Fat Really the Killer it’s Made Out to Be?

Hardly a day goes by that we aren’t warned about another health problem caused by body fat. In fact, “warned” isn’t a strong enough word- leading authorities say that fat is a national threat on the level of terrorism. In 2002, the Surgeon General at the time declared “obesity” as, “the terror within, a threat that is every bit as real to America as weapons of mass destruction”, and “unless we do something about [obesity], the magnitude of the dilemma will dwarf 9/11 or any other terrorist attempts.”

This type of thinking has led to panic around body fat, and has given the culture at large permission to go to war against fat- a war against bodies- despite that scientific evidence doesn’t support this declaration. According to Linda Bacon, PhD, and Lucy Aphramor, Phd, RD, authors of Body Respect:

“We don’t have an epidemic of obesity; our epidemic is one of judgment, bias, and hyperbole. Calling for a war on fat presumes we have clear evidence of its danger. We do not. It also implies we have a proven arsenal for intervention. We do not.”

When it comes down to it, the war against fat is not supported by sound science and doesn’t promote health.

Following are some myths surrounding “obesity”, and the hard science that debunks it. This list is adapted from a peer-reviewed article by Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor entitled “Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift” and their book, Body Respect:

  1. Fatness leads to a shorter lifespan. There are now an enormous number of peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate people in the “overweight” category have a lower mortality risk than people deemed “normal weight”, and that people who are mildly or moderately “obese” live at least as long as “normal” weight people. Even the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found this to be true, though after publishing these results in the Journal of the American Medical Association, they issued a disclaimer encouraging state health agencies to disregard the data. In their words, “Despite the recent controversy in the media about how many deaths are related to obesity in the United States, the simple fact remains: obesity can be deadly.” And then later, “We need to absolutely, explicitly clear about one thing: obesity and overweight are critically important health threats in this country.” One would think that a big government agency like the CDC would stand by the evidence, but the facts truly show this isn’t the case.

  2. BMI is an accurate measuring tool of a person’s health. This is a myth that most people are aware is a myth, so I won’t spend much time on this one. The current standard of overweight at 25 and obesity at 30 were arbitrarily set, even though the evidence indicated there was no health decline until well past these points. The World Health Organization set these standards, and they were informed by the International Obesity Task Force (IOTF). The IOTF’s two biggest sources of funding were the only two pharmaceutical companies that had weight-loss drugs on the market at the time, companies which make quite a lot of money on the belief that fat is deadly and that they have the solution.

  3. Fatness causes illness. In a less-charged example, bald men are more likely to have heart disease than men with full heads of hair. Does this mean that baldness causes heart disease? No- bald men have higher levels of testosterone, which is known increase the risk for heart disease. Correlation doesn’t equal causation, and there are many other explanations for the diseases more commonly seen in higher-weight people. According to the Cooper Institute in Dallas, activity and cardiovascular health plays a much greater role in health than weight does. Their research found that across every category of body composition, sedentary individuals have a much higher mortality rate than those who are active and in good cardiovascular health, regardless of what they weigh. Fatphobia and discrimination based on size is rampant in this culture, which is very stressful to experience and stress is risk factor for most of the obesity-associated diseases, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Research has also shown that calorie restriction and repeated cycles of weight loss and gain increases inflammation in the body, and inflammation is a risk factor for many obesity-associated diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes.

  4. Losing weight improves health. There are plenty of studies that show short-term health benefits from short-term weight loss, but none of them account for the fact that most of the time, participants are changing their eating behaviors or exercise habits, both of which are proven to improve health regardless of weight loss. This isn’t actually proof that weight loss improves health- in fact, a study on liposuction that controlled for behavioral change found “abdominal liposuction does not significantly improve obesity-associated metabolic abnormalities.” Several epidemiologic studies that took place over a decade+ have even shown that intentional weight loss may increase mortality risks, even when the study is controlled for confounding factors like hazardous behavior and underlying diseases. I highly recommend checking out Linda and Lucy’s “Weight Science” article to diver deeper into this.

    When it comes down to it, the “war on obesity” is a war on body diversity, and we all suffer for it, regardless of body size. Our current cultural take on weight leads to repeated cycles of weight loss and regain, food and body preoccupation and dissatisfaction, eating disorders and disordered eating, weight stigmatization and discrimination, and poor health.

    Instead of trying to fight our natural state, Dance Life is about celebrating all the amazing things that our bodies can do- because each one of us has unique and awesome human tricks! We believe that dance and movement is encoded into the human soul, and that everyone should have access to that joy who would like to have access to it. These myths and the discrimination and shame that come with them abound; there are places in the digital realm where one can go to find a reprieve, but so few physical spaces. At Dance Life, we work hard to create a space of joy where one can come to take their armor off. We believe that the positive experience of embodiment leads to the ultimate feeling of belonging. Your body, exactly as it is, belongs with us! Come join us and shift the cultural tides towards a society that allows all of us to exist in beautiful diversity.