Weight wars

Nutrition expert says you can be fat but fit

Linda Bacon poses inside Enloe Conference Center before presenting a three-hour program for health professionals on Friday (Nov. 19). She spent the previous evening lecturing at Chico State.

Linda Bacon poses inside Enloe Conference Center before presenting a three-hour program for health professionals on Friday (Nov. 19). She spent the previous evening lecturing at Chico State.

Linda Bacon wants you to toss your scale, loosen up your exercise routine and stop dieting. It’s a convenient message to receive as Thanksgiving approaches.

Bacon, a physiologist and author who specializes in nutrition, gave that advice to a room packed full of students on the Chico State campus last Thursday (Nov. 18). The visit was one of more than 40 stops she’s made around the world during two six-month stints to share her thoughts on weight and the scientific findings outlined in her 2008 book, Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight.

The lecture kicked off with a slide showing an image of an ice-cream sundae.

“How many of you have ever looked at something like this and thought, ‘No, I really shouldn’t’?” Bacon asked. Not surprisingly, the majority of audience members raised their hands.

Bacon explained the “normative discontent” most Americans feel concerning their bodies. It’s a concept that describes the dissatisfaction most people feel about their weight and eating habits, despite whether they are fat or thin.

“There’s something wrong with the culture,” said the articulate and petite Bacon.

The war on obesity has been going on for decades, but it’s not working, she explained. It’s a battle waged by the government, the media, and other entities that profit from the fact that so many Americans are unhappy with their looks.

“The war on obesity is not effective. It certainly hasn’t made us all thinner,” she said, citing charts showing an increase in the number of fat Americans over the past few years.

Bacon rejects the claim that obesity is an epidemic. The rates at which Americans are getting fatter and the risks associated with being overweight are exaggerated to the general public, causing many people to buy into a series of myths, she said.

One of those myths is that the Body Mass Index (BMI) is meaningful for determining if one has too much body fat. What most people don’t know, she said, is that the government lowered BMI standards in the ’90s based on pressure from the World Health Organization—not on scientific evidence.

“One night everyone went to bed normal, and the next morning they woke up fat,” Bacon said. “Pharmaceutical companies, weight-loss companies and bariatric surgeons benefit from us thinking we’re fat.”

She said the BMI labels bodies as “obese” and “overweight”—terms that not only are applied too easily, but also imply disease and are poor ways to measure one’s body, health and self-worth.

“It’s time for us to throw out the measures,” she said.

Bacon described a series of other myths, including that obesity is becoming increasingly lethal to Americans. The myth originated, she explained, after the Journal of the American Medical Association published a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention article in 2004 that claimed obesity was becoming the leading cause of death.

However, Bacon discovered through her own research that, while obesity is associated with many diseases, it alone is not the cause of disease. She presented stats showing tobacco and alcohol top the list of leading causes of death, and obesity lingers a few numbers down between sexual behavior and motor vehicles.

She then described certain factors that explain why fat people may experience more disease, including that the body becomes susceptible when it experiences stress (caused by discrimination) and inflammation (caused by dieting).

Bacon explained that the “fat kills” myth ignores the fact that it’s possible to be fat but fit, and those who are fit are less susceptible to disease despite their weight.

“Telling people that they need to be thin to be healthy just makes them feel bad about themselves,” she said.

Near the end of the hour-and-a-half presentation, Bacon addressed the damage the war on obesity is causing. It causes a preoccupation with food and weight, eating disorders and reduced self-esteem.

But beyond those things, the fight against fat distracts Americans from what’s important in life. She described the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement, a weight-neutral peace movement that encourages people to honor their bodies and adopt habits for health and wellbeing, not weight loss.

“Self-love is a revolutionary act,” Bacon said. “If we want a different world, we can start by loving ourselves.”