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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Fat Demons

There are no shortcuts to health.
My grandmother lay in bed at a hospice facility, days away from death. With her loving children by her side, she looked at her belly and — as she had done for all of the years I’d known her — complained that she was too fat. What?

What did she think six-pack abs would get her at that point? A hot date with the dying patient in the bed next to her? (They could get their morphine injections together and then have a romantic candle-lit dinner of hospital food.) Certainly not lower risk of future health problems, since her soul was just days away from leaving the body behind, big belly and all.

Our national fear of fat defies rationality.

Don’t get me wrong — there are great reasons to eat healthy food, quit drinking soda, and exercise regularly. And I do believe we have a national epidemic of unhealthy lifestyles that are driven by living in a society that makes it difficult to make healthy choices. But when an 81-year-old dying woman’s biggest worry is her waistline — not, say, the fate of her immortal soul — that makes no sense.

But it makes perfect sense to eating disorders specialist Deb Burgard. “Lots of women wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and say I feel so fat, even though fat’s not a feeling,” Burgard told me. “It’s a code word for ‘I feel ugly, I feel vulnerable, I’m going to get rejected socially.’ In our culture, that gets connected up to fatness.”

If you’ve ever felt “fat,” what does that really mean to you? For me, I think it involves guilt and fear. Guilt for eating too many cupcakes and too few salads. Guilt because I don’t exercise enough. And fear that I’ll get even fatter. When my mother offered to buy me clothes as a gift, I almost declined because I was ashamed to tell her what size I wear.

And yet, a study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that overweight people actually live longer than “healthy weight” people, and even moderate obesity doesn’t increase mortality. These results are not new. They appear in studies published years ago.

There’s a big difference between “fat” and “unhealthy.” Of course, some people are both fat and unhealthy. But some people are skinny and unhealthy. Others are healthy but have unhealthy habits like smoking that may lead to problems later on.

What’s our national crisis, really? That the majority of Americans look fat in their bathing suits? Love handles, tummy rolls, and muffin tops? Or that too many Americans suffer debilitating and expensive preventable chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes? Obviously, it’s the latter.

If you want Americans to get healthy, there’s one way to do it. Put the Cheetos down, step away from the Big Gulp. There are just no shortcuts to health. Eat well, exercise regularly, get enough sleep, manage your stress, don’t smoke…that’s a healthy lifestyle.

When you tell people to lose weight, many look for a magic bullet whether it’s healthy or not. It could be an extreme starvation diet or risky weight-loss drugs. Often people stick to a restrictive diet for a short period of time, only to revert back to their unhealthy habits once the weight is gone.

Then there’s the psychological fallout: the self-loathing, guilt, or even eating disorders we develop because we’re unable to achieve the “perfect bodies” we think we should have.

It’s time to change the conversation to promote health instead of demonizing fat.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.