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Is Our Obsession with Weight Misguided? Here's What Really Matters When It Comes to Good Health

A popular author says that fitness, nutrition and socioeconomic status are far more important than weight in determining health risks.

"Lay off the fat people!" says author and professor Linda Bacon. With a PhD in physiology (specializing in weight regulation) and graduate degrees in psychology (specializing in eating disorders and body image) and kinesiology (specializing in exercise metabolism), Bacon knows more than a little about the impact obesity on health. Bacon's message -- that health is more important than weight -- goes against the grain of our country's current obsession with the "obesity epidemic." Yet her work is extremely popular, and the second edition of her book, Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, was recently released.

According to Bacon (who is aware of the irony of her last name), being overweight or obese does not put people at significant health risk. Rather, factors like fitness, activity, nutrient intake, weight cycling, or socioeconomic status are far more important in determining disease risk. Often these same factors increase disease risk and risk of weight gain simultaneously. However, when epidemiological studies control for the aforementioned factors and then examine correlation between weight and disease, increased risk of disease from being overweight or obese is significantly reduced or nonexistent. In other words, while Bacon encourages acceptance of people of all sizes, she's not giving us a free pass to spend our lives in front of the TV eating junk food. A healthy lifestyle is important, even if it's okay that most of us don't have figures resembling the cast of "Bay Watch."

Given these findings, Bacon calls on Americans to join what she calls "the new peace movement" by refusing to fight the "unjust war" against body sizes that are larger than what our culture deems acceptable. Bacon points out that humans have internal systems designed to keep us healthy, and to maintain a healthy weight. These systems include signals of hunger, fullness and appetite. If you can follow your body's signals, your body will in turn find the healthy weight for you. This is, of course, easier said than done. A recent study asked both French and American people how they knew they were done eating; the French said it was when they felt full, while the Americans said they were done when their plates were empty. This is just one of many examples showing how we fail to pay attention to our body's hunger and fullness signals and instead use external cues to determine what, when and how much we eat.

Despite Bacon's impressive resume and her findings -- and the findings of countless studies she cites -- that obesity is not our problem, the war on obesity is only gaining steam with First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution." Obama's campaign specifically states its goal as solving "the epidemic of childhood obesity within a generation." With the program comes a new foundation, Partnership for a Healthier America (with a mission of tackling childhood obesity) and a Task Force on Childhood Obesity. Using this frame, the problem is entirely defined as one of body size and success will be determined by weight loss.

Jamie Oliver's Web site and his petition to start an American food revolution focus more on providing kids with fresh, healthy foods and cooking skills, but his Web site still notes obesity as a problem (for example, offering "facts and figures about how obesity and diet is affecting America's health"). The same can be said of the first few episodes of his show. Mostly they emphasize eating healthy food and preventing problems like type 2 diabetes, but many feel that the show contains a strong fat-shaming element as well. Rather than blaming obesity itself as the main problem, there is an implicit (and sometimes stated) message that obesity is part of the problem. In fact, the city chosen as the site for Oliver's show, Huntington, West Virginia, was selected because it was named the "fattest and unhealthiest" city in America (implying the two terms are synonymous).