Here are some facts about food, exercise and obesity. If you eat more food than you need, you put on weight. If you eat less, or do more exercise, you lose weight. A number of countries are experiencing obesity epidemics. In those countries, people are getting too little exercise and consuming too much food. In the US, for example, the average calorie intake had risen to 2,700kcals daily by 2000 – a 24 percent rise over 30 years.
None of that should seem too controversial, yet many people will insist that it just can’t be true. Whole online communities and industries have sprung up around desperate attempts to find alternative explanations for something whose cause is incredibly obvious.
One recent fabrication was the idea that the obesity epidemic is also affecting wildlife – fattening creatures on a global scale, presumably due to some global environmental cause (the rise in CO2, perhaps, or whichever chemical toxin has been in the news recently). The idea seems to have come from a 2010 paper that looked at "obesity epidemics across species", which was popularised by an article in Aeon last year ("The Obesity Era"). That article has since been quoted in forums all over the internet as proof that obesity has nothing to do with eating and exercise, and all to do with everything else.
For example, Io9 reported: “A 20-year scientific study has concluded that both humans and animals are getting fatter all across America. The reason is not the fatty food: even lab animals that live under strict control diets have been gaining 35 percent per decade. The scary thing is that scientists think that there may be "some widely shared cause, beyond the control of individuals, which is contributing to obesity across many species".
Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be complete bullshit. The research didn’t rule out fatty food and didn’t look at wild animals, but "mammalian species that lived with or around humans in industrialised societies". So pets, domesticated animals, city-dwelling rats and laboratory animals.
It’s immediately obvious that urban species and pets are going to benefit from an increase in left-overs and the rise of the pet food industry. As for laboratory animals, the authors make much of the fact that they’re kept on controlled diets, but gloss over the impact of four decades of improvement in welfare standards and veterinary care.
The only mystery in all this is why anyone thinks there’s a mystery in the first place. It takes a special kind of genius to ask: "Why, since rationing ended, food became much cheaper, fast food was invented, restaurant eating and takeaways became more common, cars and TV went mainstream, people stopped walking as much and conscription ended have we got fatter?"
Then there’s the idea that somehow obesity can’t be reversed – that fat people can’t help being fat, but are somehow trapped against their will. For example, Canada’s CBC reported recently that: “Obesity research confirms long-term weight loss almost impossible,” adding to a chorus of voices who claim that, essentially, obesity is something that people have absolutely no power over. Something that should just be accepted until they die early of heart disease.
Again, this is complete nonsense, and neatly debunked by the University of Ottawa’s Professor Yoni Freedhoff at his blog. In reality, people who lose weight have a lot of success keeping it off. A major analysis at the University of Pennsylvania found that around 42 percent of people who lost a significant amount of body weight in the first year had kept it off – or lost more – after four years.
Is losing weight easy? No. Is it impossible? Hardly.
Sure, a lot of people failed, but as Freedhoff points out, a lot of this probably comes back to the shitty plans people are following: “If a meta-analysis […] fails to show long-term success with weight management, does it mean the people in the included trials failed to maintain their interventions, or does it mean that the interventions were too crappy to be sustainable in the first place?”
People making long-term lifestyle changes tend to succeed, but many end up following dumb, impractical, short-term fads – exactly the kind promoted heavily by the diet industry. The harsh reality is that if you’re going on a "diet", you’ve basically already failed.
The problem is, it isn’t in anybody’s interests for this stuff to be simple. At least three major industries – food, publishing and diet / self-help – make vast amounts of money out of our fucked-up relationship with food and exercise, pushing ideas or products that are unrealistic, unhelpful or unhealthy. All three have a long history of trying to make obesity seem more complicated than it is, because doing that opens the market for more books, more cheap-to-produce shitty food and more idiotic diet plans telling you to eat only tofu and kale, or live on whatever an elk can forage, or whatever the latest moronic craze is.
Worse still, dieters don't want it to be simple, either. The diet industry is built on the bank accounts of people who want there to be some "third way" that doesn't involve eating less or moving around more. People struggling to lose weight leap on articles like the CBC’s to reinforce their own denial about the unhealthiness of their lifestyle, or their unwillingness to change it. The idea that obesity can’t be helped gives them an excuse that means they're no longer responsible for it. Which is totally understandable, but completely self-defeating.
This isn't to say that it's all the fault of obese people; we live in a society that's doing its best to make people fat. Every hour of every day we're being nudged towards making bad choices that make us less healthy, whether it's because of work, advertising, supermarkets, Big Sugar, commuting habits – whatever.
But if we’re going to change any of those things, then outright denialism and crackpot theories are the enemy, along with the kind of bullshit journalism that helped people into this mess in the first place. We eat shit, and until we confront that fact and reform the process by which food gets from the fields and factories into our big fat miserable gobs, no amount of fad dieting or five-a-day public messaging is going to stop our guts from getting bigger
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