One hundred seventy-five centimeters and 83kg, Kathryn Griffith, a retired teacher in Oakland, California, counted calories for decades, trying everything from the grapefruit diet to a regimen based on cabbage soup. She also did Weight Watchers — 27 times. “I knew it wouldn’t be successful, but I went back anyway,” she said.
So earlier this year, just when Oprah Winfrey, America’s uber-dieter, renewed her resolve to snack on flaxseed, Griffith went the other way, joining a tenacious movement that is scorning the diet industry and what one pair of bloggers labels, “the obesity epidemic booga booga booga.”
This movement — a loose alliance of therapists, scientists and others — holds that all people, “even” fat people, can eat whatever they want and, in the process, improve their physical and mental health and stabilize their weight. The aim is to behave as if you have reached your “goal weight” and to act on ambitions postponed while trying to become thin, everything from buying new clothes to changing careers. Regular exercise should be for fun, not for slimming.
“Fat acceptance” ideas date back more than 30 years, but have lately edged into the mainstream, thanks in part to public hand-wringing by celebrities like Winfrey, Kirstie Alley and the tennis player Monica Seles, who said she had to “throw out the word ‘diet’” to deal with her weight gain. (Winfrey now cites her goal as being not “thin,” but “healthy and strong and fit.”)
Even television is bellying up to the bar, with Lifetime’s introduction of a hefty heroine in Drop Dead Diva and a show having its premiere this month on Fox that stresses the “reality” in reality TV. The show, More to Love, matches plus-size dates with a bachelor boasting “a big waist and an even bigger heart.” And elbowing the weight-loss guides on “health” bookshelves, is a spate of new, more diet-neutral books that track the sociology of obesity, including The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite (Rodale Books) by David Kessler, the former surgeon general, and The Evolution of Obesity (The Johns Hopkins University Press) by Michael L. Power and Jay Schulkin.
Adding credence to the “fat acceptance” philosophy, are recent medical studies that suggest a little extra fat may not be such a bad thing. Among the latest is a 12-year Canadian analysis in last month’s Obesity journal (www.nature.com/oby/journal/vaop/ncurrent/abs/oby2009191a.html) that confirmed earlier findings that overweight “appears to be protective against mortality,” while being too thin, like extreme obesity, correlates with higher death risk. Other recent studies have linked weight cycling (or “yo-yo dieting”) to weight gain, and to medical conditions often attributed to obesity.
Many appetite warriors have coalesced under the banner of “Health at Every Size” (or HAES), which is also the title of a book by Linda Bacon, a nutrition professor at City College of San Francisco. Bacon ran a federally financed, randomized trial to compare outcomes for 78 obese women who either dieted or were schooled in Every Size precepts. The results, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in 2005, showed that HAES participants fared better on measures of health, physical activity and self-esteem. Neither cohort lost weight.
Find it all too much of a stretch? You’re not alone. Antidiet advice defies a US$30-billion weight loss industry, a cultural obsession with thinness and the fundamental public health tenet that it is dangerous to be fat. In Obesity Guidelines first published in 1998, the US National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute blames obesity for everything from heart disease to cancer. Within a month of the Canadian mortality report, University of Wisconsin researchers announced in Science that calorie-restricted rhesus monkeys seemed to be outliving an amply fed control group.
“Virtually everyone who is overweight would be better off at a lower weight,” said Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health. “There’s been this misconception, fostered by the weight-is-beautiful groups, that weight doesn’t matter. But the data are clear.”
What remains undisputed is that no clinical trial has found a diet that keeps weight off long-term for a majority. “If they really worked, we’d be running out of dieters,” said Glenn Gaesser, professor of exercise physiology at Arizona State University and author of Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health.
Both sides agree that regular exercise, at any size, improves health. “If you want to know who’s going to die, know their fitness level,” said Steven Blair, a self-described “fat and fit” professor of exercise science, epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of South Carolina. His research indicates that “obese individuals who are fit have a death rate one half that of normal-weight people who are not fit.”
To eat well, go back to the basics
We all knew how to eat intuitively once: Infants don’t binge or starve themselves, and presumably, cavemen didn’t either. But instincts become twisted in an environment where you can hold a Twinkie in one hand and the remote in the other, surrounded by images of skinny starlets.
After near-lifetimes of restricted consumption, practiced dieters find it takes a concentrated effort to learn how to answer to their appetites through a practice often called “intuitive eating.”
Intuitive eating involves returning to basic drives, dispensing with the notion of “good” or “bad” foods and rules about when to eat. Absent a fear of deprivation, the philosophy holds, one’s hunger and taste cues — rather than cognitive rules — provide the most trustworthy guide toward balanced, healthy eating.
Kate Harding, an ex-dieter and an author of Lessons From the Fat-O-Sphere, said eating intuitively did not come easily for her at first. But eventually, she said, “If you’re actually listening to your body, instead of the voices in your head, you won’t be inclined to eat yourself sick very often.”
Intuitive eating works only when coupled with weight-neutrality, Harding said. “The first step is to take away all the moralizing and shame,” she said. To that end, she suggested, “Why not buy some clothes that fit you and turn off the TV a little bit?”
At bottom, eating is, or should be, “a basic process,” she said.
— NY Times News Service
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