Promoting the idea that people have a disease once they cross a line on the BMI charts doesn’t reduce weight stigma. But learning the facts about obesity may help bust deeply ingrained myths about weight and health.
Oct. 11 is World Obesity Day, sponsored annually by the World Obesity Federation. The purpose? To promote the idea that having a body mass index (BMI) in the “obese” range — i.e., above 30 — is a disease. Perhaps not surprisingly, members of the World Obesity Federation have strong ties to the dieting, weight-loss-drug and bariatric-surgery industries.
This year’s theme is “End Weight Stigma.” Sounds noble, given that weight stigma — being ostracized and subjected to derogatory comments based on negative, prejudiced attitudes about weight, otherwise known as weight bias — often leads to weight discrimination. For example, when someone in a larger body is denied an effective treatment for a health condition by their doctor, and instead told to “lose weight,” that’s discrimination born out of weight bias and stigma.
Trouble is, promoting the idea that people have a disease once they cross a line on the BMI charts doesn’t reduce weight stigma. Read the comments on any plus-size model’s Instagram post — even when the photo is of her exercising — and you’ll see plenty of people saying things like “But you’re not healthy.” That sort of “concern trolling” is on the kinder end of the spectrum. On the other end are death threats.
People deserve to be treated with common decency and basic respect regardless of their body size and health status. Why? Because no one has the right to police someone else’s body. Here are six more reasons:
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BMI is not a measure of health. Not only can you not accurately gauge someone’s health based on body size, but there is no research showing that people who move from the “obese” BMI range to the “normal” BMI range have the same health risks as people who’ve always been in the “normal” range. People of all sizes can be healthy or not healthy — and health isn’t just physical, it’s also mental and emotional.
Weight stigma kills. Weight stigma may be responsible for many of the so-called weight-related health problems. People subjected to weight stigma experience higher stress, are more likely to struggle with depression and anxiety, and less likely to engage in health-promoting behaviors like physical activity and getting preventive health care. You can’t bully someone into better health.
Appearance is not health. It’s ironic that if someone with an obese BMI loses the amount of weight that’s “associated with” (association can’t prove cause-and-effect) improved health — usually cited as 5 to 10 percent of starting weight — they’re still going to be in a body that does not meet our culture’s ideal. They’ll still be in the stigma crosshairs.
Diets don’t work. In more than 90 percent of people who lose weight from dieting — intentionally restricting calories — metabolic adaptations such as lowered metabolism, increased hunger and reduced physical satisfaction after meals stimulate weight regain. Some people end up at a higher weight than when they started.
Victim blaming needs to stop. The idea that if someone in a larger body doesn’t want to experience stigma and discrimination then they should “just lose weight” is wrong. Even if there were a guaranteed way to lose weight and keep it off, why should anyone have to alter their body to avoid bigotry?
Wellness is not weight-dependent. More and more evidence shows that nutritious food and regular physical activity improve health whether or not there’s any weight change. Tragically, eating well and exercising are so tied to weight loss that when those behaviors don’t result in weight loss, people are more likely to give up on them.