A few years ago, my special interest was based around the question of why people get fat. I read so much research on it, paper after paper, and I learnt a lot. But I realised that a lot of the research had an underlying anti-fat bias. The researchers would write in their conclusions that people should still be encouraged to lose weight, even though the data in their very own studies showed that this was not only unachievable, but harmful. I also realised that most people I knew simply could not understand scientific papers, that they might as well be written in a different language.
So, in this post, I’m going to try to write out what I learnt, in easy to understand language. A “literature review” as it were. It was always my favourite thing to do in university and I think I’m quite good at it. Reading research, taking the most important points, and paraphrasing them for a wider audience.
I’m not going to pepper this with a lot of links or citations. I may include some of the more important studies, but so many of them say the same things in different ways, it would get rather tedious to list them all. And anyway, I’m writing this post so you don’t have to go through all the studies yourselves.
Ok, so, let’s begin!
There are, broadly speaking, two types of fat people. There are those who genetically fall on the fat end of the bell-curve that is human weight. Just as there are some families where most people are tall, or have red hair, or are autistic, or any other genetic trait, there are some families that are genetically fat. Their ancestors were fat, going back many generations. Human weight, it turns out, is highly heritable.
It’s not that easy, though, to know if your family is one of those genetically fat ones. That’s because the other type of fat people, who have what I call, for want of a better term, “acquired fat” can also be multi-generational. This is because the cause of this type of fat, though not genetic, often tends to effect the history and environment of these individuals. So your parents, grandparents etc may be fat, not because it’s in their genes, but because the same factors that effect them are also effecting you. If these factors were removed, these people’s weight may be shown to be lower, genetically, than it is.
And what is this cause? What makes people fat, apart from their genes?
The answer may seem complicated and varied, but really it’s just one word: stress.
All the research that shows so many causes of weight gain, really boils down to the same thing. When the human body is under stress, mentally and/or physically (as you really can’t divide the two), it gains weight.
This stress can be caused by so many things: poverty, lack of sleep, stigma, bullying, loneliness, abuse, mental illness, physical illness, dieting, side effects of medication, endocrine disrupters (plastics etc), pollution, being targeted by bigots (racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc).
Each one of these things, on their own or combined, sends a clear signal to the brain “we are under attack”. And the brain’s response “we need to gain weight”. Weight gain therefore is a stress response. The fat organ is not simply an organ for storing energy. It is also a very important producer of hormones. And so many of these hormones are ones that are produced in response to stress. They are our stress-busting response. And so, to produce enough of these hormones to respond to increased stress, we need a larger fat-organ.
I need to emphasise this point, as it’s the main point of this blog post: gaining weight when under stress is a GOOD thing. It is your body behaving the way it needs to, to counter the stress. Yes, I know this sounds counter-intuitive. It requires a shift in thinking so great, it’s a paradigm shift. But really, truly, you need to trust me on this. And yes, I am expecting push-back on this point. It seems to be too difficult for people to accept. But I have spent years reading and thinking and reading some more, especially the very latest research that has not yet trickled into the mainstream.
One bit of research that has sort of made it into the open, is the “obesity paradox”. This is where it’s shown that the outcomes for people who have had heart attacks, have diabetes, or certain surgeries, is better if they are fat. Obviously, if you see being fat as a protective-mechanism of the body’s, then it no longer can be called a “paradox”. That word just shows the amount of anti-fat bias in the minds of the researchers and medical professionals. (This study concludes that the word paradox might need to be re-thought. Note the anti-fat bias in the language of this study though.)
One piece of research that I do want to link to, is this paper by Katherine Flegal in 2013. In it, she showed that “overweight” people live longer than “normal weight” people. People who fell into the “grade 1 obesity” range are just as long-lived as “normal weight” people. It’s only when you get to grades 2 & 3 obesity that you see a reduction in lifespans. But guess who lives the shortest lives? Underweight people. And this study takes into account things like smoking, pre-existing diseases (eg cancer can lead to being underweight) etc.
As I said before, the natural response of our brains to stress is to desire weight gain. We eat more, move less, and maintain this higher weight as best we can. People, misunderstanding this need for weight gain, and it’s protective effects, as well as being pushed and goaded by society and the weight-loss industry, try to counter this by dieting. Which is incredibly damaging. You are literally fighting your body’s survival mechanism. And this is also why over 97% of diets eventually fail in the long term. Because your body is fighting for it’s survival.
There are a group of people for whom this survival mechanism does not kick in. Our bodies/brains don’t react in the right way to stress. Our appetite-triggering hormone (leptin) levels decrease instead of increasing. These are the people with eating disorders, both diagnosed and undiagnosed. We lose our appetites when stressed. And this is not a good thing. We have the shortest life-spans of all.
And as for those who fall into the “grade 2&3 obesity” brackets? Well, there’s only so much stress a body can handle before stress-fighting hormones have no effect. The body keeps increasing fat levels, to pump out more and more hormones, but it’s not enough. And so much of this stress is due to fat stigma. The more stressed the fat person is, the more weight they need to gain to counter it, the more society stigmatises them, the more their stress levels rise, and so the cycle continues in an upward spiral. Fat stigma, literally, kills.
I hope the takeaway you get from this post is this: to improve the lives of fat people, the answer is not to force them to lose weight. It is to reduce the stress in their lives, so they don’t need to have as large fat organs to produce enough hormones to keep on living. Don’t fight fat. Fight poverty, stigma, lack of sleep, pollution etc etc. Accept that there are some things that you can’t fight directly eg genetic illness that stress the body/mind. But you can fight the ableism that makes this stress worse. Fight bigotry. Fight prejudice.
Fighting these things, incidentally, helps everyone, not just fat people. And is the right thing to do anyway. So, if you are “worried” about fat people’s health, think about what you can do, today, to reduce the stress in the world. This is the real fight. And we are all in it together.