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…