Sweet Machine and I were discussing yesterday the Dan Savage-style “I lost weight by overcoming disordered (binge or compulsive) eating, so diets totally work!” argument. I pointed out that, by that logic, dieting also works to make you gain weight, since anorexics who normalize their eating patterns are generally able to regain and maintain their previous weight. Sweet Machine joked that we should change our refrain to the subject line of this post: “Diets totally work to make you fat.” And I laughed, and then I was like “well hell, diets DO totally work to make you fat!”
Brian at Red 3 wrote about this yesterday, when he was receiving a lot of emails saying things like “well what about the fact that people never used to be fat”:
There is something that our population has been exposed to for the last few decades which has been shown to induce weight gain.
Dieting. Nearly every fat person in this country has been on a diet. Most probably have dieted for most of their life. Not only do most people on diets gain the weight back, most gain back more than they lost. As our diet culture has expanded, its gripped more and more people who’d have never dieted before. And at younger and younger ages. I can’t tell you how many fat people I’ve seen bemoan how they thought they were huge when they were young, but looking back realize they weren’t much more than average. As fat has been hyper-stigmatized, its directed people into a system which has only ever proven useful for making people GAIN weight. You want to know why there are so many fat people around? How about blaming diets for once instead of doing everything possible to blame everything else.
Of course that’s leaving aside the fact that people certainly DID used to be fat, and that the actual average weight gain has been about 15 pounds over the last 25 years. But Brian is right on here: if there’s anything all fat people have in common, it’s a history of trying like HELL not to be fat. Insofar as there are more fat people than there used to be, I see no reason why gluttony and moral failure is more likely to be at fault than the obesity panic itself.
Okay, so the fact that people have gotten fatter as anti-obesity hype has gotten louder is merely a correlation — like the correlation between fat and ill health. The causation could run the other way, like everyone seems to think it does; the panic could be a reaction to so many Unacceptable Bodies running around. And while nearly everyone reading this blog would be able to attest to the fact that dieting makes you fatter in the end, that’s just anecdotal evidence — the other side has that too.
But consider this: We know that eating more cannot make you permanently fat if you’re physiologically inclined to be thin. We also know that fat-shaming and teasing from family members increases teen’s chances of eating disorders and simultaneously doubles their chances of being overweight. And finally, we know that dieting permanently alters metabolism, regardless of how fat you were to begin with and how much weight you lost — meaning that once you’ve dieted, eating the same amount of food will now make you fatter. (The link is to one of the first studies with that finding, but there are lots more — here’s a recent one.)
Imagine, then, a population in which there is no genetic or other physiological predisposition towards fat. Everyone is roughly 5’5″ and between 120 and 150 pounds. (If we’re going to throw out predisposition in weight, we have to throw it out in height, or it’s just too silly to contemplate. And the BMI doesn’t discriminate between genders, so neither will we.) Over time, portion sizes increase; food insecurity is reduced and replaced with improved access to low-quality, high-additive food; sedentary jobs and social activities rise in popularity. In troll parlance, everyone becomes a lazy glutton.
Now imagine the same population (remember, we’re totally laying aside genetic and physiological size predispositions, because we’re being deliberately simplistic). Over time, the physical ideal becomes smaller and smaller, although the average size does not. More people are shamed and teased for their size at earlier ages. A large percentage of the population starts restricting food intake even before puberty. Dieting and shame become lifelong projects, and prerequisites for moral value. Every so often, the physical and psychological ramifications are too much, and people go back to the calorie intake they used to have before extreme restriction. Sometimes they also overeat because semi-starvation has made them so obsessed with food.
Read the above links, and tell me which population you think would be more likely to gain permanent weight. Which one will have a greater number of fat people — the population where naturally thin people eat more, or the one where naturally thin people permanently fuck their metabolisms through cycles of disordered and restrictive eating?
Cliff Notes version for anyone who couldn’t be bothered to read the links: it’s the second one. In the first population, people can gain weight with difficulty if they’re eating vastly more than they need or want, but their metabolisms will speed up and they will need more and more food to maintain that weight. In the second, they will need less and less every time they diet, and any normalization of eating habits will lead to weight gain.
Now, naturally, things aren’t nearly as simple as the above scenarios. For one thing, there is variation in people’s natural body size and shape, and not everyone functions like the naturally thin subjects in the study Kolata discusses (though everyone’s energy expenditure is permanently slowed by dieting — except apparently those with anorexia nervosa, but I haven’t checked up on that). For another thing, I’m sure that in real life there are naturally thinner people who are constantly taking in energy far in excess of what they need, and who just eat more as their metabolisms speed up to compensate. And there are naturally fatter people who stay thin by eating less and less as they need less and less to survive. Both are disordered patterns, though as it happens one is seen as morally virtuous, the other as morally corrupt.
But even in this fictional, simplified universe in which everyone’s inclined to be thin, interspersing dieting with normal eating is more likely to make you fat than simply eating more. And we’re living in a complex universe, where you can be born with a tendency to gain and hang on to weight, and where even a small deviation above “normal” (not the same as average!) weight makes you more likely to experience teasing, forcible restriction, and lifelong cycles of dieting. And once that’s happened, normal eating — and yes, fat people eat the same as thin people overall — is going to make you gain weight. In other words, the more likely you are to be fat, the more likely you are to be made even fatter by dieting.
It may not be as simple as “diet culture makes everyone fat.” These things are never simple; we wouldn’t have over 500 posts on this blog if they were. But in this case, correlation and anecdotal evidence match up with research. For the “fatties eat too much and don’t move enough” hypothesis, they just don’t.