So yesterday, I posted my immediate response to the “Fat Is Contagious!!!!” story on a fatty e-mail list. And someone there rightly pointed out that I ignored one crucial point: we do know how to make people fat.
Just put them on a diet.
Now, I do stand by what I wrote, which was that we don’t know how to make a naturally thin person fat. I was thinking specifically of the prisoner study, where a bunch of men ate ridiculous amounts of food and stopped exercising in order to deliberately gain weight, but the weight gain didn’t last; as soon as they went back to eating normally, they went back to right around their original weights.
A smug asshole could point to that study as evidence that all fat people must be sitting on the couch stuffing their faces 24/7, and if they just knocked it off, they’d get thin — but of course that’s not the case, and if one attempted to support such an argument with science instead of smugness, one would fail rather spectacularly.
What that study does point to is the existence of a stubborn natural weight range in every individual. Anyone who’s dieted and gained it back (i.e., pretty much everyone more than 5 years out from the last diet) will recognize an incredibly familiar pattern in the prisoner study — it’s the reverse of what we’ve lived out, but the elements are all the same. They tried to push their bodies beyond their natural weight ranges, and their bodies resisted mightily. Their metabolisms changed to account for the changes in diet and exercise and try to force them back into their natural weight ranges. And as soon as they stopped the unnatural diet, their bodies returned to what was normal for them.
That’s exactly what happens to dieters.
But because it’s a weight range we’re talking about, and because dieting is akin to starvation as far as the body’s concerned, when dieters go back to normal, they often end up fatter than they were — presumably at the top of their natural weight ranges. Dieting, as a rule, not only doesn’t make you permanently thin — it makes you fatter.
If you want a source on the above, take the advice I’ve given you eleventy billion times and read Rethinking Thin. I know a lot of people are mad at Gina Kolata right now for the Times article yesterday, and I don’t blame you. (I also don’t blame you for making me fat, despite the stupid fucking headline, which of course she didn’t write.) But at the same time, she is the only journalist I’ve seen covering this lunacy who made an effort to sincerely question the findings, talk to people like Kelly Brownell and Stephen O’Rahilly for opposing viewpoints, and end on an appropriately skeptical note. The fact that the article began on a press release-regurgitating note is probably not her fault — though Fillyjonk’s point that maybe she should have known better than to take the assignment in the first place is not a bad one. (On the other hand, if she hadn’t, we’d have ended up with one more totally uncritical article exactly like all the others. So…) In any case, I still like Gina Kolata, and gettin’ caught in the rain, and her book explains exactly what I’m talking about here in all the scientific detail you could hope for.
Now back to the important point here: this fact that I overlooked offers one simple, plausible explanation for the “fat is contagious” findings: friends recommend diets to each other. And diets ultimately make people fatter. And if those people started out at the top of the “overweight” BMI category, dieting could very easily have pushed them into the “obese” one.
It’s unlikely that that fully explains the correlation they found — but frankly, it’s a much more plausible theory than the one that has fat people calling each other up and saying, “Hey, you know what? I overeat and never exercise, and I feel great! You should try it!”
So far, I’ve avoided getting into personal anecdotes with regard to this story, because I wanted to discuss the absurdity of it without opening myself up to “The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data!’” criticisms. And of course, that’s true. The plural of “anecdote” is “anecdotes.” I have an English degree; I’m pretty sure about that one.
And here are a few anecdotes I think are relevant.
Before I got into fat activism, I never had many fat friends. In fact, I can only think of 2 fat people I considered good friends over the long term before I started writing this blog. And I only talked to one of them once or twice a year. None of us got fatter for knowing each other.
I’ve had three fat boyfriends, one skinny one, one insanely buff one, and one completely average one.
My best girlfriend since high school is a mad foodie who would probably rather give up sex, books, dog snuggles and her firstborn than quit cooking rich, flavorful food. She’s thin, always has been.
I’m still friends with several other people I went to high school with, too. They’re all thin.
My best friends from college? Thin.
The friends I hung out with regularly in Toronto? Thin.
The majority of my best friends from grad school? Thin.
I’ve never had a problem making friends with thin people, Dr. Christakis, you fucking knob. It doesn’t rub off.
And not a one of them has gained weight from talking to me, even since I started actively telling people that it is okay to be fat, and it is sensible to stop dieting — exactly the things you seem to fear.
Most of the friends I’ve made in the last year have been internet friends, and most of those are fat, for obvious reasons. As far as I know, I haven’t made any of them fatter. At least one reports having lost weight in the time we’ve known each other (and it should be noted, we’re keeping our fingers crossed that that’s not because of a goddamned intestinal disorder).
If I actually wanted to make my friends fatter? I would tell them to diet. Of course, most of them have already figured out for themselves that that’s the best known way to make yourself permanently fatter. They don’t need me to tell them.
And, despite what these recent findings suggest, I have no interest in telling people how to get fat. That’s not what I do. What I do is this: I tell people that dieting will almost certainly not improve their health in the long term and might very well harm it. I tell them they don’t have to hate themselves because they’re fat. I tell them how much I love yoga and walking and swimming, and broccoli and spinach and asparagus — and burgers and fries and bacon. I tell them that a Health at Every Size approach has been proven to have much longer lasting physical and mental health benefits than dieting, and the only “drawback” is, it probably won’t make you thin. I tell them that fat is largely genetic, and if they have fat genes, it’s better to work on loving themselves the way they are than forcing their round bodies into square holes. I tell them that being fat does not mean no one will ever love them. I tell them that they don’t need to wait to start living their lives until they magically become thin. I tell them they are welcome anywhere I am. I tell them they are awesome people.
And if those new fat friends are listening intently to every word I say, taking it all to heart, and changing their lives accordingly? I’m okay with that. I can sleep pretty fucking well at night, actually.