Are We Born Racist?

Inside the science of prejudice, stigma, and intergroup relations.

On Prejudice Against Fat People

New science suggests a way to rethink our anti-fat prejudices.

Anderson Cooper’s coming out was important for the shaping of the discourse around sexual orientation. Public figures’ attitudes around same-sex couples (including President Obama’s) have real psychological power to change the public’s own attitudes. A turn in attitudes in this domain is evident even in Robert Spitzer's apology for his support of a gay "cure," as well as this column by Craig Gross, who now bemoans his church’s resistance to accept that both gay people and fat people can have a place in heaven.

As I read this column, I did a double take— I didn’t know that heaven was formally supposed to be populated only by thin people! Many of my loved ones would not be allowed in.

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Now, despite Gross’s argument, prejudice against fat people continues to be one of the deepest and most widely shared prejudices that the public holds. Research has shown, for example, that even the parents of overweight children discriminate against them. In addition, the overweight suffer drops in self-esteem when prejudice is directed towards them, suggesting that overweight people themselves believe that somehow they are to blame for their condition (Crocker et al., 1993). 

At the root of these attitudes is a suspicion of flawed character-- namely, one is fat because one lacks self-regulation. In more biblical terms, one is guilty of gluttony and/or sloth.

But recently, a book by Gary Taubes, “Why We Get Fat,” (and the longer “Good Calories, Bad Calories”) uses science to dispel the notion of fatness as a moral failing. The traditional view of why we get fat, Taubes argues, centrally rests on the idea that one gets fat because one consumes more calories than one expends. If you eat more calories than you burn, in other words, you gain weight, and the virtuous among us are those who have the self-control to either control our food intake (by restraining from overeating) or maximize our caloric output (by exercising).

Taubes argues, however, that this paradigm— the model of what determines whether we get fat or thin shared by scientists and regular folk alike— is flawed. Taubes poses a question that simply does not have a place in the traditional paradigm— could it be that fat people eat because they are starving? In Taubes’ words, whereas the traditional paradigm will have us believe that we get fat because we overeat, there is data to suggest that the direction of causality goes the other way: we overeat because we get fat.

So how do we get fat? Taubes identifies (or rather, reports on the scientific evidence over the past few decades from endicronology) the central role that insulin plays in fat accumulation. Insulin is exquistely sensitive to blood sugar, and refined carbohydrates in particular (such as white rice, pasta, sugary drinks, beer, and even very sweet fruit) will cause a spike in insulin. As the son of two diabetics, this was not at all surprising. What was surprising to me is that one of the functions of insulin is to shuttle the sugar from the bloodstream directly into our fat tissue— even when other parts of the body need the energy. By Taubes’s account, the insatiable hunger that we feel even after stuffing ourselves with refined carbs is the hunger of cells and organs that are not getting the nutrition they need due to abnormally elevated insulin levels.

Photo: Joanna Servaes (Wikipedia Commons)
Taubes gives the example of a type of rat, a Zucker rat, that is geneticallly predisposed to get fat. When these rats are put on a very stringent diet, they actually continue to get fat at the expense of their other ograns. The rats balloon anyway, but their major organs, including their brains and kidneys, are smaller than normal size— that is, while their adipose (fat) tissue grows, the rest of their body starves. Taubes argues that when our insulin system is disregulated from having to chronically handle tidal waves of sugar into the bloodstream, our energy system is similarly dysregulated. Despite getting fat, in other words, we are starving.

I doubt many people would argue that starvation is a sin. By speaking out against the traditional “calories in, calories out” paradigm of nutrition science — and his impressive scholarship that spans medicine, endocrinology, and history of science suggests that his argument is well thought out and researched— Taubes helps dispel the notion of fatness as a sin of gluttony and sloth, and thus provides an invaluable tool in the fight against fat prejudice.

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 Copyright 2012 by R. Mendoza-Denton (MCN: BS8Y4-PNV7V-EVK9V); all rights reserved.

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Ph.D., is a social/personality psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

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