Fit or Fat, Fat but Fit, or Big Fat Lies

The latest study says you can't be fit and fat. Is that true?

Posted Aug 16, 2017

There it was, in my inbox. Someone had sent me the latest headline. Being healthy and obese is a myth, they say.

Green Mountain at Fox Run
Source: Green Mountain at Fox Run

“No such thing as fat but fit. Metabolically healthy obese are 50% more likely to suffer heart disease than those of normal weight, finds University of Birmingham study.”

Something like this and a strong cup of coffee was sure to wake me up and get the fingers typing.

You see, I’m one of those, fat and healthy. It’s taken me a decade to convince my family that I’m fine, that size is not a measure of health. I can’t wait to get this “new news” from my mother on Facebook.

There is some history to this story.

Obsessed with my weight, my undergraduate degree was in exercise science and nutrition. I was an athlete, albeit a fat one. I will never forget going to Oregon in 1985, a year after I graduated, to a certification program to teach Covert Bailey’s Fit or Fat program including the Target Diet, targeting fat as the problem. At that time I was playing in a women’s tennis league and doing some long-distance cycling, feeling particularly fit. But then things changed. I was weighed underwater. “I’m sorry, Miss Wolfe (my maiden name), but you are 30% fat, not fit.”

Jump ahead after a decade of restricting, bingeing and treatment, and I am now a psychotherapist treating eating disorders. Another book surfaces: Glenn Gaesser’s Big Fat Lies, The Truth about Your Weight and Health. He cites study after study that shows fitness is more important than fatness when it comes to health. I then join the Health at Every Size (HAES) professional community and slowly but surely begin to help de-stigmatize large bodies.

Jump ahead to today. People in positions of authority reacted to the “new news” above, announced at an obesity conference in Portugal earlier this week:

  • “The priority of health professionals should be to promote and facilitate weight loss among obese persons regardless of a healthy metabolic profile.” and,  
     
  • We need to “emphasize the urgent need to take the obesity epidemic seriously.”

Once again, living in large body, it feels like I’m being told, “Don’t rest easy, lady. You’re a ticking time bomb.”

But this time, I know better. I know enough to look beyond the headlines. And what I see is that the study brings up some serious questions.

Here’s what the study showed: Scientists examined 3.5 million electronic health records from 1995 to 2015 in the Health Improvement Network and 28% of those who started out being in “healthy obese” group ended up having heart disease.

Here’s what the study didn’t show: We don’t know what went on with the study subjects between 1995 and 2015. We don’t know what happened to their health during that time. Who knows, they may have been scared into going on a restrictive diet, shamed because of their body size, and ended up confused and demoralized, fatter and unhealthier than when they started. There’s good research that that happens.

It is also important to note that data and conclusions presented at meetings are usually considered preliminary until published in a peer reviewed medical journal. This study hasn’t gone through the rigorous process of being evaluated by other scientists.

Scare tactics don’t motivate people, it disheartens them.

Thirty-one years after being labeled obese, I am still obese. I take care of myself by eating and moving in a way that makes me feel good and managing my stress levels through mindfulness, which is probably the most influential factor to feeling my best. I have escaped my family history of diabetes and heart disease thus far, and I don’t take this for granted.

At the same time, becoming alarmed and reacting with a focus on weight once again is insane. It didn’t work for me the first time, and it’s not going to work this time.

Which is a lesson that many health professionals and the public alike recognize by now: Telling fat people to lose weight isn’t effective and diets don’t work. Scare tactics don’t motivate people, it disheartens them. Helping people feel good about themselves, so they take care of themselves is a much better approach and one to which I have dedicated my life’s work.

For more information regarding my work, visit our website at Green Mountain at Fox Run and our Women’s Center for Binge & Emotional Eating.