Beware the 'Fatlash' Books

January 01, 1998  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Overweight and obesity

Americans are getting fatter so fast you can practically hear the buttons popping and the zippers snapping. The American flag may soon be replaced by a yellow banner proclaiming: "Extra Wide Load." At least a third of us are obese by the government’s standards, and more than two-thirds of us are now heavier than the National Academy of Sciences has said we should be.

Considering that this is occurring despite the sales of tens of millions of diet books, tens of billions of dollars of diet foods, and with a weight loss clinic on practically every corner, perhaps it’s not surprising that the latest wave of books is aimed not at combating fat but at making peace with it.

With titles like Big Fat Lies, Eat Fat, and Losing It, these "fatlash" books carry two messages. First, there’s no harm in being overweight. All that stuff you’ve heard about heart disease and cancer and stroke — it’s just a health industry conspiracy.

Eat, drink, and be merry — for if tomorrow we die, it won’t be from obesity.

Second, the books say, even if obesity is dangerous, there’s not a damned thing to be done about it.

Naturally, people in so-called "fat acceptance" groups are just eating all this up, as are assuredly some fat people who aren’t in such victim organizations.

Indeed, three of the six endorsements on the back of Glenn Gaesser’s Big Fat Lies come from members of the most prominent such group, the National Organization for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance. One is from board chairman Charles Van Dyke, who gushes: "Finally, truth and justice for the fat person. People will vary, and cannot all fit some insurance chart."

Charles should know: at 600 pounds it would take three insurance charts laid end to end to fit him.

Sadly for these victim wannabes, however, these books are wrong on both grounds. Obesity isn’t just unsightly and inconvenient; it kills. But it is treatable.

Studies throughout the world have shown a consistent correlation between excess pounds and early death. For example the largest, the Nurses’ Health Study directed by Dr. JoAnn Manson at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, found that women just 30 pounds overweight had a third higher chance of dying during the study period.

As weight climbed, so did risk. Women 75 pounds overweight doubled their chance of premature death. Manson estimates that about 300,000 deaths a year in this country are caused by being overweight.

A recent huge study of Harvard male alumni found similar results.

But what can be done? Isn’t obesity pre-destined by genes? The fatlash books would have you think so, but years of study have found that genes only play a small role.

For example, one highly-touted study which allegedly found a strong genetic link to fatness actually indicated that persons with a copy of the gene did burn fewer calories a day, but the number is about the equivalent of a piece of hard candy.

Over many years, that difference can add up. But so-called "fat genes" are not "destiny," merely a disposition for which we can readily compensate. Further, genes hardly explain why the American population gets fatter each year and why we’re so fat compared to Europeans that we’ve become the butt of their jokes about how wide our butts are.

The good news is that if we can get fatter, we can get thinner.

The first step is dumping both the diet books and the anti-diet books. Fad diets, including those emphasizing a few foods or one type of nutrient over the others (such as the current mega-seller The Zone) almost always work for a little while, but inevitably the weight comes back with a vengeance.

Similarly, fad exercise equipment — like all those silly devices with "ab" in the name — won’t make you thin. Neither will anything labeled "magic." You want magic? Go see David Copperfield.

Some pills may help you, but they’re hardly miracles. You want a miracle? Go to Lourdes.

Low-fat foods will not make you a low-fat person. A multitude of studies indicate that a calorie is a calorie, whether it’s from fat, carbohydrates, or protein.

True, since carbohydrates and protein have four calories per gram and fat has nine, a low-fat cookie might have fewer calories. But if you’re like most Americans you’ll eat five of the low-fat ones instead of two of the high-fat ones, more than wiping out the savings.

The key to weight loss and maintaining that loss is moderation. You didn’t get those thunder thighs or that beer belly overnight. Trying to lose it quickly and keep it off is virtually impossible.

Instead, reduce your food intake moderately to a level you are prepared to maintain for the rest of your life. If you see your reduced intake as a mere prelude to a pig-out, you’ll accomplish nothing. Likewise, increase your exercise level moderately, again to a point that you can keep up.

It’s true that if there’s one thing Americans in the 1990s can’t stand, it’s hearing that their fate — or their fatness — is in their own hands. Writing books that cater to this can make you rich and popular. But victimhood doesn’t help anybody, and it’s not going to keep the seams of your pants from ripping out.

Calculate your BMI to see if you are obese. What the scores mean:

  • 24 or under: Minimal health risk
  • 25-29: Low to moderate risk
  • 30 or over: High risk