Does fat acceptance mean we're giving up?

More overweight people are no longer trying to lose weight and the health implications are not good.

Last week I had a conversation with a friend after my studio cycling class. He remained in the room after everyone had left, his long legs burning calories while I cleaned the room. He’s my height—six-three—but easily has a solid 30 pounds of muscle over me, which makes sense given he spent years as a world-class rower and is currently a premier wife-carrier.

We talked about our respective obsessions with fitness. Turns out we both grew up overweight, with big ears—perfect targets for bullying, longtime victims of schoolyard taunting. At some point we grew quickly and thinned out, applying the frustrated energy of being a harassed youth into an obsession with movement that continues unabated—if anything, we’re more driven now—three decades later.

This obsession is why, 15 years ago, I decided to work in fitness. While I loved being a full-time journalist, office life left my body deflated. Since those days I’ve moved alongside and taught tens of thousands of people of all levels of fitness. Today I know a number of people who don’t have to work that hard to keep weight off and plenty of others who exercise daily and follow healthy diets yet still border obesity.

Attitude is of primary importance, which is critical in a media dominated by fad diets and workouts. Genes matter—some of us really have to work harder than others—yet body image begins with your mindset. While no one-size diet or fitness protocol is for everyone (as much as many holistic opportunists would like you to believe), your attitude about your body is important. And one disturbing trend is on the rise: giving up.

Models present creations for plus-size women by French fashion designer Jean-Marc Philippe on May 16, 2013, in the Palais Royal in Paris. (Photo: Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images)

That’s what a recent study published in JAMA discovered. Viewing trends from 1988-2014, the researchers, from Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, noticed that of the 27,530 participants analyzed, six percent fewer overweight or obese adults were trying to lose weight in 2014 than 1988. Fat acceptance is a driver of this trend.

Which, in some ways, is positive. We should be moving from the promotion of rail-thin models and steroid-fueled weightlifters to a more inclusive (and realistic) presentation of the human body. What fat acceptance offers us socially, however, it loses with potential health problems. As the NY Times reports:

Public health experts fear that this trend toward "fat acceptance" bodes ill for future well-being and the soaring costs of chronic weight-related ailments like heart disease, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes and more than a dozen kinds of cancer.

The problem is so pressing that JAMA published an entire issue addressing obesity in January 2018. In one article, economist Mary A. Burke, whose work centers on social norms, and Baruch College professor Frank Heiland, whose research in part focuses on health and obesity, write that the normalization of being overweight is a consequence and not a cause of growing rates of obesity. The economic and social environment, filled with cheap, processed food, has greatly aided our growing waistlines.

Given that we’re always influenced by and in interaction with our environment, the more overweight people we witness, the more we normalize it. Instead of gauging our own bodies based on a healthy standard, the bar is lowered as we commune with and observe the habits of others. Dangerously, these habits hold more influence over our eating (and exercise) patterns than does information we read on a credible website or hear from our doctor.

Stigmatizing the overweight and obese, the authors continue, is counterproductive. Given the psychological distress associated with this type of bullying, the overweight are more likely to binge eat, for example. It’s a tough line to walk, both inspiring people to lose weight but also not making them feel bad about their bodies. It involves a skill set that, in our current environment, many are incapable of honoring.

Yet complacency solves no problems. As the authors conclude:

Rejecting the stigmatization of overweight does not mean becoming complacent about the health risks associated with obesity, but instead means recognizing that stigmatizing weight is unfair and counterproductive. Rather than deploying negative social stigma to encourage weight loss, a more effective strategy might seek to harness peer effects in a positive way to promote and spread healthy behaviors.

In order for new habits to be implemented, the overweight have to take initiative. And that doesn’t appear to be the case. As the NY Times notes, while Medicare covers up to 20 weight counseling sessions each year, few are taking advantage. Add to this misinformation about nutrition. Another JAMA article highlights the confusing packaging labels designed to trick consumers. Anyone curious of the marketed “low fat” foodstuff, for example, might overlook the high sugar content.

Fitness instructor Jeremy Selan (C) helps 17-year-old Marissa Hamilton (R) balance on a ball during a fitness class at Wellspring Academy October 19, 2009, in Reedley, California. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

This epidemic might require intervention. As much as Americans love freedom fries, health care costs are also a public, not just an individual, concern—a tough lesson in an individualistic culture. Bariatric surgeon, Dr. Edward Livingston, at University of Texas Southwestern School of Medicine, believes we need more than a soda tax to address this issue. Even as soda consumption goes down obesity rates are increasing. Livingston instead endorses product taxes based on calories; the revenue could help make healthy foods more affordable. Instead of focusing on sugar, he believes a systemic overhaul of our entire food system is necessary.

As the Times mentions, “more fitness, less fatness” is another way to address this issue. Six days every week I watch students walk into Equinox. While everyone enters for varied reasons, the connective tissue binding us is the pleasure we collectively receive working together as a group. Community increases the likelihood students will stick to an exercise regimen. They’ve entered an environment where working hard offers an emotional, as well as physical, payoff. The experience brings with it a level of contentment and personal satisfaction not found while working out alone.

Yet there are challenges with this as well. First, you have to step inside. Many people are uncomfortable stepping into a gym, which is unfortunate. The term “group fitness” is also used in anthropology and evolutionary biology; it’s one of the reasons Homo sapiens transformed from mediocre apes to world dominators. When we work together, we evolve. We even thrive. Movement is our biological inheritance.

Considering the data, we’re not thriving right now. Yet we’re also acutely aware this path is not sustainable. The journey to optimal health does, in fact, begin with acceptance: accepting the fact that wherever you are, right now, is where you are. But it cannot end there. There’s simply too much at stake.


Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion and creator of Clarity: Anxiety Reduction for Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

Related Articles

Why birds fly south for the winter—and more about bird migration

What do we see from watching birds move across the country?

E. Fleischer
Surprising Science
  • A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
  • The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
  • Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.

The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?

While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.

In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?

Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."

The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.

What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.

Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.

How does alcohol affect your brain?

Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.

(Photo by Angie Garrett/Wikimedia Commons)
Mind & Brain
  • Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
  • Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
  • Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

Surprising Science
  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
  • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
  • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons

13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.