Paul Campos’ The Obesity Myth

I just read an eye-opener called The Obesity Myth (by Paul Campos). In some ways, its thesis is quite obvious, but it also flies in the face of everything Americans have been told for the past 30+ years. Campos goes into quite a bit of detail debunking myths about obesity existing as an epidemic or disease, about BMI having any scientific or health value, about weight loss as an end goal making people healthier, or about studies actually showing overweight to be worse than underweight.

Sometimes I think he overlooks certain bits of truth in the anti-obesity propaganda that he alludes to without mentioning them explicitly. I just chalk that up to leaning into the wind so as not to be blown over. It’s great to stand up straight, but if there is a strong force pushing you in one direction, sometimes you have to push back just to be standing and not moving forward (or backwards).

Likewise, in this situation, there are so many messages the media, your friends and family, and the government send you every day about fat being bad and fat leading directly to bad health, that it makes sense to downplay any truth (however slight or indirect) there is in those myths, just to make way for other truths that so often get ignored.

Campos’ scholarship goes to great lengths to show how the available studies actually show that slight underweight correlates with bad health than significant overweight. He also makes a great case that yo-yo dieting is worse than just plain overweight or obesity.

Oddly enough, the penultimate chapter in his book talks about how he lost almost 70 lbs. while writing the book. Even though he spends considerable time theorizing as to why he lost the weight, the how he explains quite simply as exercising more (from only about 12 miles a week of casual running to 40 miles a week of serious training for road races).

There are many messages to take to heart from Campos’ book. There is a lot of unnecessary fat shaming in America. BMI is not a scientific indicator of health. Losing weight should not be a goal unto itself. If it does happen, it should be an accidental side effect of a healthy lifestyle (exercising regularly, eating properly). Nevertheless, the fact remains that exercise does very often lead to weight loss. I don’t think people should exercise to lose weight, but I think if people exercise more, most of them will lose weight. It doesn’t mean that a heavier person exercising X amount will end up looking the same as a lighter person exercising X amount.

Campos relates a story about how he spotted a fat runner in a road race speeding past a whole bunch of thin runners. That story is amusing for two reasons: 1. It shows that being thin doesn’t mean you are healthier or physically stronger, and I think that was his point in sharing the story, but also 2. It shows that being a fat fast runner is the exception and not the norm; otherwise he wouldn’t be surprised by the sight of that runner beating the other runners.

As a former serious (and now off-and-on) runner myself, I know running seriously (as Campos’ own story also shows) makes you lose weight. Unfortunately, some people run in order to lose weight instead of in order to be healthier or stronger, and I think this is why Campos doesn’t talk a lot in his book about how exercising does often lead to weight loss.

Weight loss should never be the goal.

If you exercise and eat right and you don’t lose weight, it shouldn’t matter. Exercise and healthy eating should be enough to make you healthy, and an active “overweight” person is usually healthier than an inactive underweight person. As someone who has satellite cable TV, a fast wireless internet connection, a soft and warm cat, and a comfortable couch, I can tell you it’s very tempting to live a sedentary lifestyle no matter what weight you are (and I am not currently overweight by anyone’s standards). But if I step on a scale, it’s just out of curiosity (I don’t own one, so it’s usually if I’m staying in a hotel or at a friend’s house in another city)—I don’t have a certain target weight. As long as I know I’m exercising five days a week and not putting a ton of junk food in my body, I feel pretty good about things, and I think if all Americans took that attitude, we’d still have a lot of “overweight” people, but we’d have a lot fewer health problems.

Unfortunately, people are still judging each other and themselves by size alone and not by exercise and eating habits. Of course, it’d be great if people would stop judging each other so much on physical appearance anyway…

8 thoughts on “Paul Campos’ The Obesity Myth”

  1. It is not just America that has the fat fobia it is very real in Australia as well. In fact all western countrys have the same problem. I agree that thin is not necessarily better than overweight as long as you are healthy.

  2. hmm, i wonder, what percent of obese Americans have a healthy lifestyle??.. although i agree with the book in general, there’s problem with it.. it just touches some more or less hypothetical portion of overweight people..

  3. There’s a major reason that doctors tell people to lose weight- most obese people do not live a healthy lifestyle.

    And as a doctor nearly a third of whose patients are clinically obese, I’ve felt that people tend to respond more to a suggestion to ‘Lose weight(or gain weight or quit smoking), it’ll make you look more attractive’ than to ‘exercise more and eat healthier, it’ll cut down on your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes etc’.
    The reason may be that while most people have suffered from the social consequences of being over/underweight or of smoking, relatively few of them have experienced heart disease or other lifestyle related ailments.

    People are more apt to follow the same advice(eat healthier, exercise more, don’t smoke, don’t drink too much, don’t work too hard, get enough sleep) if they think that it’ll help them be more popular or get laid a month or two down the line than if you tell them that it’ll stop them having a heart attack twenty years from now.

  4. I’m neither fat nor exactly svelte. Since starting a working homestead, I’ve put on maybe 20-25 pounds. But I’m healthier than I ever was during years of urban apartment-dwelling. I do manual labor almost every day, and feel physically stronger. I’m not as easily winded. My diet is better, because we grow and preserve a lot of food, and participate in our local food chain.

    There may be an element of correlation without causation in the obesity thing. Our culture of high sugar/fat processed foods makes it easy to put on lots of weight and easy to avoid exercise simultaneously. We can all think of examples of very robust and healthy overweight people, but it might be that being overweight coupled with being sedentary is sort of a dangerous mix.

    I would like to see people eat more wholesome food and go outside. Whether they lost weight or not, they’d probably be healthier.

  5. I see this as politically motivated. It’s like the guy who said that autism, ADHD, bipolar and other mental ailments are frauds and that the whole mental health industry is a concoction of the companies. They’ll ignore the studies and fact sheets of so many people and organizations who followed both scientific and experiential methods to show that these conditions are real.

    I think the real myth is that being obese instantly means you’re sick. I know obese people without any prevailing body conditions, as well as thinner people with a lot more problems than me. However, I do agree that having a balanced body and healthy lifestyle is certainly better, hands down.

  6. Way back in our history we adopted a standard of iodized salt to overcome a widespread problem with hypothyroid condition. Being cautious about anything we added that made it mandatory to consume, the amount of iodine in our salt was barely adequate to control hypothyroid condition if we consumed almost all of our salt as iodized salt, rather than the uniodized form so often used in prepared foods, and also provided we were not on a salt restricted diet.

    Those provisos are in general false. We have cut our total iodine intake by close to 50% from a barely adequate level 30 years ago. Net outcome is that most of us are taking in far too little iodine to take care of thyroid, breast, prostate, and several other glands.

    Well, just to limit discussion to obesity, our thyroid output is too low to sustain good health, but in particular this limits our ability to use up the calories we take in. We exascerbate the problem when obesity leads to heart health problems and we cut out almost all of the salt we used to use that was iodized.

    Our brains suffer from that hypothyroid condition too, rather severely if one is schitzophrenic or suffers depression. But the list of problems involved is long, very long.

    Hyperthyroid condition is a significant cause of obesity, but far more important it is a major cause of ill health, independent of obesity.

    Well, there are iodine supplements that are mostly potassium iodide, with a bit of selenium and a B vitamin needed to store the iodine in the glands.

    IODINE 2 is a brand name that works well, not so much to eliminate obesity, which it does, but mostly to give us back the energy our cells need to be healthy.

    The classic test for hypothyroid is that the waking temperature of the body is below 37C or 98.6F

    1. You’ve got it backwards. Iodine is used to treat hyperthyroidism, not hypothyroidism. Giving iodine to a hypothyroid person is the absolute last thing you want to do. It will eventually kill the gland dead. This is also why dosing and titration of iodine are so important. Too much is just as bad as too little.

      Plus, body temperature fluctuations are an unreliable way to measure thyroid function. If you’re really concerned, go get some bloodwork done to determine the levels of your various thyroid hormones.

      Last but not least, it’s hypothyroidism that can cause obesity, not hyperthyroidism. Hyperthyroid people tend to eat like pigs just to keep from wasting away because their metabolisms are running on warp speed, whereas in hypothyroid people it’s the exact opposite.

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