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One Big Fat Lie

America is allegedly in the midst of an obesity epidemic, but our obsession with weight is the real disease.
 
 
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If you watch any mainstream news, you know that apparently America is in the midst of an obesity epidemic. Fear-producing news segments feature footage of overweight men and women, cut off at the heads like criminals, lumbering along the streets in Anytown, U.S.A. Ads with skinny women touting weight loss miracles as they look disdainfully at old pictures of their fatter, sadder selves run on a continuous loop on daytime television.

The scare tactics are working. Americans continue to pump billions, and blood, sweat, and tears into their "body projects," convinced that if they are fat, they are doomed.

Conflating fat with sickness is a dangerous delusion. The truth about fat, reinforced recently by a $419 million federal study involving 49,000 women, is that it does not automatically indicate unhealthiness. Many thin people, who don't exercise or eat balanced diets, are at a greater risk for disease than those with some extra padding who work out and eat relatively right. Your health can only be improved by movement and moderation. That's it. The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last month, concludes that low-fat diets do not, despite all of the hype, reduce a woman's risk of cancer or heart disease.

Being fat is not equivalent to being unfit. In fact, being underweight actually kills over 30,000 Americans a year. Equating weight loss, instead of lifestyle changes, with improved health is "like saying 'whiter teeth produced by the elimination of smoking reduces the incidence of lung cancer,'" argues J. Eric Oliver, author of Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America's Obesity Epidemic . Even a group of CDC researchers admit that "evidence that weight loss improves survival is limited."

So why do highly educated, media-savvy Americans continue to buy into the idea that the thinner one is, the healthier and happier one is? The mammoth diet industry, not to mention the exercise, beauty, fashion, and cosmetic surgery industries, certainly has something to do with it. In America, alone, we spend $40 billion annually on diet products, even though diets prove to be ineffective 95 percent of the time. Not only is our stupidity disturbing -- those stakes wouldn't even lure the drunkest of Vegas gamblers -- but the implications are foreboding.

There is a slippery slope from dieting to disease, as the 7 million girls and women suffering from eating disorders in this country will attest. Thirty-five percent of those who diet go on to yo-yo diet, dragging their bodies through a cycle of weight gains and losses far more unhealthy than just being overweight; 25 percent of those who diet develop partial or full syndrome eating disorders. Mindfulness advocate Susan Albers writes: "The dieting mindset is akin to taking a knife and cutting the connection that is your body's only line of communication with your head." There is little hope for long-term health improvement with this vital line severed.

Cut off from our ability to listen to our authentic hungers, we ride a roller coaster of marketed cravings and emotional upheaval -- overeating, then guiltily undereating, then overeating again. But unlike brief and thrilling amusement park adventures, we can't seem to get off the ride. The explosion of coverage on "the obesity epidemic," though well-intentioned, has not served as the emergency break nutritionists and doctors so hoped it would. Instead, the sensational news spots on the dangers of obesity have often fed misperceptions about the direct link between fat and unhealthiness, or worse, fat and unworthiness.

Hyperbolic reportage on the expanding waistlines of America's children, in particular, has created a damaging hysteria. Fat camps are flooded with applicants who are solidly within their recommended body weight. In 1995, 34 percent of high school-aged girls in the U.S. thought they were overweight. Today, 90 percent do. And those who really are fat, and yes, there are many, are subjected to increasing scrutiny and scolding. The fat kid in school, once the butt of mean jokes, is now the target of a societal assault. A recent survey of parents found that 1 in 10 would abort a child if they found out that he or she had a genetic tendency to be fat.

We are being brainwashed by sensationalistic news segments and the 250 ads we see a day that tell us, not only that fat is unhealthy, but a sign of weak character. In a recent poll by Ellegirl magazine of 10,000 readers, 30 percent said they would rather be thin than healthy. Over half the young women between the ages of 18 and 25 would prefer to be run over by a truck than be fat, and two-thirds surveyed would rather be mean or stupid. The single group of teenagers most likely to consider or attempt suicide is girls who worry that they are overweight.

The messages are coming in loud and clear, and they are riddled with disempowering dichotomies -- all or nothing, feast or famine, disgustingly fat or virtuously thin, deeply flawed or triumphantly perfect. There is no talk of what Buddhists describe as "the middle path," no discussion of the pleasure of walking, eating homemade food, slowing down. There is no permission to say "no" sometimes and "yes" sometimes, and have those no's and yeses be simple answers, insignificant scores on a Scrabble board, representative of nothing more than a mood. Instead our yeses and no's signify our desirability, our life expectancy, our self-worth.

It is not fat itself that is unhealthy, but our hypocritical attitudes and compulsive behaviors that are. We drive two blocks to the grocery store and then spend 20 minutes circling the parking lot so we can get a close spot. Once inside we load up our carts with low-fat, microwave meals and diet shakes filled with artificial everything. In the checkout line, we read about the latest fitness trend in Men's Health or Self, then get back into our cars, drive the two blocks home, and sit in front of the television all night eating Pizza Hut while drinking a liter of Diet Coke. We go to bed late, wake up early, head to work -- in our cars, of course -- where we will spend the next eight hours stationary and bored. Rinse. Repeat.

We don't need expensive, genetically engineered foods or state-of-the-art exercise equipment. We don't need fancy doctors or pharmaceutical drugs. We don't need the latest diet craze book or even the latest medical study -- they all seem to contradict each other anyway. We don't even need Herculean willpower.

We just need to leave our cars in the garage, stroll down to the park, and play some softball with our neighbors on a Saturday. We just need to enjoy every last bite of our home-baked birthday cakes, then have some oatmeal for breakfast the next morning. We need to resist the pressure to overwork and underenjoy. If we want to live long, healthy, happy lives, then we need to stop believing the hype. We need to rediscover our own wise instincts that know far more about well-being than a whole country of experts.

Courtney E. Martin's book, "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters," will be published by Simon & Schuster's Free Press in March 2007. You can read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.