If you’ve read or heard some of my press interviews, you know that Fat Head didn’t actually begin as a response to Super Size Me. My intention was a shoot a demo for a TV show I wanted to produce: funny but thoughtful guy examines issues of the day. The topic I planned to explore for the pilot episode was the ridiculous prejudice we have against fat people in modern society. I watched Super Size Me as part of my initial research, became very annoyed, and decided to produce Fat Head instead.
Last week, Newsweek’s online edition ran a two-part article that’s related to my original idea. The Fat Wars: America’s Weight Rage is a good read, with one exception: the author believes too much fatty food has made us fat. The second part is titled Fat and Healthy: Why It’s Possible – another theme I touched on in Fat Head. Here are some quotes, with my comments.
Cintra Wilson, style columnist for The New York Times, recently wrote a column so disdainful of JCPenney’s plus-size mannequins that the Times’ ombsbudman later wrote that he could read “a virtual sneer” coming through her prose.
I haven’t seen the plus-size mannequins, but I’m glad to know JCPenny’s has them. When I walk through a mall and see stick-figure mannequins in every store window, it annoys me. Most women will never look like that, even if they’re not fat, for the simple reason that most women don’t have bones the size of toothpicks. Sending the message to teenage girls and young women that they should all be this skinny is a prescription for bulimia.
Fatness has always been seen as a slight on the American character. Ours is a nation that values hard work and discipline, and it’s hard for us to accept that weight could be not just a struggle of will, even when the bulk of the research-and often our own personal experience-shows that the factors leading to weight gain are much more than just simple gluttony.
If being lean were simply a matter of being disciplined – usually defined as eating less – there would be very few obese people in America. People don’t eat because they’re gluttonous or compensating for a lousy childhood. They eat because their cells run out of fuel and they become hungry. Starving yourself may work temporarily, but it goes against your deepest, most primal instincts. It can also depress your metabolism and make it more likely you’ll gain weight when you finally give in to the hunger and eat more.
The real problem, of course, is that we’ve been told to eat lots of high-carbohydrate foods that tell our bodies to store fuel as fat … which in turn makes us hungrier than we should be.
“There’s this general perception that weight can be controlled if you have enough willpower, that it’s just about calories in and calories out,” says Dr. Glen Gaesser, professor of exercise and wellness at Arizona State University and author of BigFat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health, and that perception leads the nonfat to believe that the overweight are not just unhealthy, but weak and lazy.
The funny thing is, most of the lean people I know don’t count calories at all – because they don’t have to. At mealtimes, my naturally-thin wife does the same thing I do: she eats until she’s not hungry anymore. So does my son, who eats like a horse (that is, if horses liked potato chips and Coca-Cola) but literally can’t gain weight – he’s tried, both while playing high-school basketball and during boot camp.
“A lot of people struggle themselves with their weight, and the same people that tend to get very angry at themselves for not being able to manage their weight are more likely to be biased against the obese,” says Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. “I think that some of this is that anger is confusion between the anger that we have at ourselves and projecting that out onto other people.”
Been there, done that. Before I understood that carbohydrates were making me fat, I’d try eating less, lose a few pounds, then stall, then give up. Then I’d look at myself in the mirror after my morning shower and think, “You fat @#$%! Why don’t you just stick to a diet and get rid of this blubber?” This is what 40 years of bad dietary advice has done to millions of people.
What is it about fat people that makes us so mad? As it turns out, we kind of like it. “People actually enjoy feeling angry,” says Ryan Martin, associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, who cites studies done on people’s emotions. “It makes them feel powerful, it makes them feel greater control, and they appreciate it for that reason.”
I’ve said it more times than I count: some people aren’t happy unless they’re angry about something. You can usually spot those people by counting the number of bumper-stickers on their cars. If you count more than two, for Pete’s sake, don’t do anything the driver could construe as cutting him off in traffic – especially if you’re fat.
Think of health care: when president Obama made reforming health care a priority, it led to an increased focus on obesity as a contributor to health-care costs. A recent article in Health Affairs, a public-policy journal, reported that obesity costs $147 billion a year, mainly in insurance premiums and taxes … So the overweight, some people argue, are costing all of us money while refusing to alter the behavior that has put them in their predicament in the first place.
Here’s a crazy idea: maybe the people who make that argument are attacking the wrong end of the equation. If we didn’t make everyone pay for every else’s health care, it wouldn’t be an issue. And of course, it’s not obesity that drives up health-care costs – it’s high blood sugar. Obesity is a symptom, not the cause. Both of the type II diabetics in my family are lean as rails. They use a lot more medical resources than I do, and I’m considered overweight.
A study published last month in the Annals of Surgery supported this “obesity paradox.” The report, which looked at more than 100,000 patients who had undergone nonbariatric general surgery, found that overweight and moderately obese patients had mortality rates 15 and 27 percent lower, respectively, than normal-weight patients.
That’s it, then … the next time I run into a skinny person on the street, I’m going to grab him by the arm and scream, “Stop wasting my health-care tax dollars, you scrawny @#$%! Go grab a donut and a soda, then sit your skinny @## down and gain some weight! Discipline, Man! Discipline!”
The point is that not all fat people are unhealthy or out of shape, and not all thin people are healthy and in good shape. But it’s amazing how many people make those assumptions.
Years ago, I had a good friend in Chicago who’s one those naturally-lean types. One day he got a guest pass for the health club where I was a member and joined me for a workout. As we huffed and puffed our way around the Nautilus circuit, I could tell by his expression that he was frustrated to realize he couldn’t lift nearly as much weight as I could. (He more or less admitted as much later.) Until that day, he’d assumed my belly and love handles were a sign that I was in lousy shape.
But I wasn’t in lousy shape. I worked out regularly and walked 15 to 20 miles per week. I was actually in pretty good shape. I was also fat.
To close, I put together a sequence of clips from my interview with Dr. Eric Oliver, author of “Fat Politics,” who spoke about some of the same issues brought up in the Newsweek article. If you bought the Fat Head DVD (and bless you if you did), you’ll recognize some of this footage from the bonus tracks.