Followup on “Fit but Fat” research news

dictionary entry for the word "research"-- careful study or investigation...

This week the mainstream news media rushed to publicize a conference paper given at the European Congress on Obesity that argued that there’s no such thing as “fit but fat”. I posted Wednesday night with some immediate reactions and questions– you can see them here. Many of my questions were about the details of the study, for which we must wait until an article is published.

However, since then, I’ve been thinking more generally:  What does this mean, the idea that there’s no such thing as fit if you’re fat?  Is this right?  And how does all this affect people with a BMI >30 (like me)?  So let me address each of these questions, and you can tell me what you think about my answers.

First, questions about meaning (sorry, it’s the first place philosophers tend to go, but I’ll keep it short):  What does “fit but fat” mean?

When medical professionals say this, they’re generally talking about people with BMIs over 30 (or even over 25), who don’t have any problems like high blood pressure, cholesterol or blood sugar readings, or various markers of potential future heart disease or potential future diabetes.  That is, fit but fat people are healthy people who weigh more than the BMI scale says they should.

Just for fun, when I looked up google images for “fit but fat”, I got this gorgeous picture of two sumo wrestlers locked in a lovely balletic grapple.  Wow.  Don’t they look great?

Two sumo wrestlers locked upside down, grappling, with legs in arabesque position.

Two sumo wrestlers locked upside down, grappling, with legs in arabesque position.

But there’s the “but” to deal with in the “fit but fat” message.  Why the “but”?  Why not “and”?  “But” is signalling that someone is fit, BUT all is not well– that person is also fat (which is not normal or good or healthy or… fill in the blank here).  Even we we say it about ourselves, we are putting ourselves down, as “fat” is often associated with being unhealthy or defective or sub-optimal in some way.  So being fit but fat is not exactly a position of great positivity to begin with.  And now it’s being challenged by this study (to be fair, there are other studies with similar results– BUT there’s not medical consensus on the issue).

And it gets worse.  Saying that it’s not possible to be both fit and fat seems to mean that BMI trumps ALL other factors (genetic, environmental, psychological, etc.) when it comes to determining health and risk for (weight-related) disease.  Is this right?  No– not as stated there.

What medical researchers say holds for a population or group overall does not necessarily hold for particular individuals.  As we say, your mileage may vary.  A lot.  Here’s what the researchers said (this is from Pub Med Health, which doesn’t make money from splashy headlines; for a clear and undramatic account, check it out):

Of the 3.5 million people in the study, 766,900 (21.9%) were obese – of whom 518,000 (14.8%) were obese with no additional risk factors (metabolically healthy).

The researchers found that, compared to people of recommended weight, metabolically-healthy obese people were:

  • 50% more likely to get heart disease
  • 7% more likely to get cerebrovascular disease
  • twice as likely to get heart failure

Metabolic risk factors raised the chances of getting any of these conditions, in addition to obesity.

Compared to recommended weight, metabolically-healthy people, those who were obese and had all three risk factors (diabetes, high blood pressure or abnormal blood fats) were:

  • 2.6 times more likely to get heart disease
  • 58% more likely to get cerebrovascular disease
  • 3.8 times more likely to get heart failure
  • 2.2 times more likely to get peripheral vascular disease

The researchers say their figures were statistically significant; however they were unable to supply the full data with confidence intervals, so we can’t check this.

We don’t know if this research is largely correct.  I have a whole bunch of technical questions about the study (all of which have to wait for the data and the article to be published).  Their work coheres with some studies and conflicts with others.  As always, we will have to wait to see how things go.  Science is complicated.

Now to my last question:  how does this result affect people with BMI > 25 and > 30?

In my view, there may be good news and bad news in answer to this question.  Shall I go with the bad news first?  Okay.

Uptake of the message that you can’t be fit if you’re fat could lead to more weight stigmatization, more fat shaming of people who seem larger than some idealized notion of a person.  This could lead to eroded relationships with healthcare providers and more money spent on useless diets and weight loss programs.  But most importantly:  it could mean less physical activity in the population, which translates into generally lower levels of standard health markers and lower levels of all sorts of features of well-being.

That’s my biggest problem with the news so far.  We don’t know if these researchers got the details right, and we don’t know how to interpret them if they did.  But what we do know is this:  studies consistently show that physical activity is a great predictor of health and a great mechanism for achieving and maintaining lots of features of well-being (e.g. less depression, better sleep).  And unlike body weight, physical activity (which isn’t the same as fitness, but hear me out) is something that a lot of us have some modicum of control over.  Becoming fit (in the various ways we understand that word) has a lot of benefits.  It’s not the only useful life goal, and it’s not of interest to everyone; fair enough.  You do you.  But I don’t want to see its value drowned out amidst the shouts of studies trumpeting the importance of having a lower body weight.  Especially since medicine offers no remotely effective tools for lowering and maintaining body weight over time (except gastric bypass, which as I’ve said many times isn’t designed or an option for most people).

Now to the good news:  if it turns out that scientific consensus develops around this idea– that the main thing that matters to my health (at least some features of it) is my body weight, then this might put pressure on governments to do something about our obesogenic food systems and infrastructure.  They could, for instance:

stop subsidizing corn production;

fund and promote public transportation;

tax sugar-sweetened beverages;

restrict food advertising targeted at children (or anyone, for that matter);

to name a few.

Are any of the actions above going to happen because of one research article?  No.  But it’s worth noting that as we learn more about the science of body weight and its relation to our health, we may find that more players are involved, giving us more options for promoting health and wellness in many ways.  Hey, an aspiring to be fit feminist can dream, can’t she?

a girl in tones of blue and silver, sitting on a cloud, gazing at a blue-gray hazy mountain top and sky.

a girl in tones of blue and silver, sitting on a cloud, gazing at a blue-gray hazy mountain top and sky.

 

 

 

 

Late breaking FFI news: episode 658 of “Don’t believe the headlines”

Breaking News logo

We at the Fit is a Feminist Issue news desk are committed to bringing you up-to-the-minute news, commentary and perspective on a variety of topics– no matter the day, no matter the hour.

So when co-editor-in-chief Samantha FB messaged me to get on this story, I got straight to it (after eating my dinner, that is; you can’t do good investigative journalism on an empty stomach).

The story is– what are we to make of the mainstream news stories claiming that “Fat but fit is a big fat myth”?  This was the headline of a BBC article, out today.  What’s the deal?

Here’s the upshot: At this year’s European conference on obesity, researchers from the University of Birmingham gave a paper suggesting that the notion that people could be obese, metabolically healthy, and therefore not at increased risk of heart disease and diabetes is false.

This reporter will dig into more detail for Sunday’s blog post, but for now, I’ll tell you what the news article says, and then what questions I have (as an academic who researches and writes about this medical and scientific literature).

First, here’s what an article by the Guardian has to say about the new study (which is not even in article form, much less submitted, much less reviewed, much less accepted for publication, much less published):

Several studies in the past have suggested that the idea of “metabolically healthy” obese individuals is an illusion, but they have been smaller than this one. The new study, from the University of Birmingham, involved 3.5 million people, approximately 61,000 of whom developed coronary heart disease…

The scientists examined electronic health records from 1995 to 2015 in the Health Improvement Network – a large UK general practice database. They found records for 3.5 million people who were free of coronary heart disease at the starting point of the study and divided them into groups according to their BMI and whether they had diabetes, high blood pressure [hypertension], and abnormal blood fats [hyperlipidemia], which are all classed as metabolic abnormalities. Anyone who had none of those was classed as “metabolically healthy obese”.

The study found that those obese individuals who appeared healthy in fact had a 50% higher risk of coronary heart disease than people who were of normal weight. They had a 7% increased risk of cerebrovascular disease – problems affecting the blood supply to the brain – which can cause a stroke, and double the risk of heart failure.

The article then goes on to foment panic among health care providers and consumers.  Well, I think the tone is a little frantic.  See what you think:

Susannah Brown, senior scientist at World Cancer Research Fund, said the study’s finding, “emphasise the urgent need to take the obesity epidemic seriously.

“As well as increasing your risk of cardiovascular disease, being overweight or obese can increase your risk of 11 common cancers, including prostate and liver. If everyone were a healthy weight, around 25,000 cases of cancer could be prevented in the UK each year.”

Right.  Now, let’s all take a deep breath.  As some of you know, I’ve posted often about how real science is complicated, so we should not take sensationalist news headlines as telling the truth about new, or controversial, or counter-intuitive, or nuanced research results.  So here are some questions I have:

When the researchers talk about increased risk that people with BMIs over 30 have for various illnesses, are they showing statistically significant increases or clinically significant increases?   What I mean here is this:  a researcher can find a shift in risk that ends up being irrelevant to the real-life clinical likelihood of developing particular conditions (this is complicated but important).  We don’t know, as there is no paper yet.

What sorts of risk profiles did the researchers find for people with BMIs under 25? under 20?  When one peers at the fine print in the data tables in medical and epidemiology papers (as I am wont to do), one finds interesting and potentially reportable risks for folks who are co-called underweight–  BMI under 18.5.  Are there increased risks in those groups?  Are they comparable to the risks in the BMI> 25 and >30 groups? We don’t know.

What about the same BMI in different age groups?  How do those risks vary over the life trajectory?  It turns out that at various life stages, different BMI groups have very different risk profiles for medical conditions and death due to medical conditions.  For instance, men in their 50s with BMIs <18.5 have a pretty high all-cause mortality risk (generally from cancer).  We don’t know anything about this yet.

Then there’s how they defined their terms.  Sounds pedantic (and yeah, it is, but this is my job), but it’s important to know very precisely how the researchers defined metabolically healthy in terms of blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar (e.g. Hemoglobin A1c), and then what clinical end points (that is, records of diseases people in the study ended up having) or surrogate end points (e.g. blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar) they used.

And last (until Sunday; consider yourself warned): it seems to me (and lots of scientists agree) that the jury is out, sooooo out, on a clear understanding of the ways in which both genetic and environmental determinants of human metabolic processes contribute to body weight change and maintenance.  Topics currently being investigated include:

  • the role of body fat
  • the role of body shape
  • the role of abdominal fat
  • the role of visceral vs. subcutaneous fat
  • how visceral fat and trigliceride levels interact
  • the role of body weight variation over the life trajectory
  • what science and medicine can do about the body weight of the population (since so far medicine has come up with nothing effective other than gastric bypass, which has its own problem)
  • And much much more.

One last comment: the standard view in medicine and medical research is that having  a BMI over 25 is bad for people, and a BMI over 30 is much worse (and don’t even get me started on over 35, over 40, etc.) Studies and articles that have come out challenging that assumption have been pilloried by a lot of public health and medical experts.  But, like any scientific paradigm, there’s research on the edges, and sometimes that research gives rise to a new paradigm.  I don’t know if we’re on the way to a new paradigm, but I know that the current paradigm has left a lot of important and foundational questions unanswered.  Of course, that doesn’t make for good headlines.

Three women reading the newspaper with shocked looks.

Three women reading the newspaper with shocked looks.

 

On gaining eight pounds and hating it: A rant in two voices

TW: This is a rant in two voices. It began when Cate and I started commiserating at spin class about our unexpected winter weight gain. We don’t do much other than complain. There’s no weight loss tips here. But if complaining about weight gain makes you sad, frustrated, angry, then please look away. We’ll be back to our regular body positive programming when the sun comes out, it stops raining, and we can stop being so grumpy.



Cate and I have lots of things in common. We both have PhDs. We’re both 52 years old. We do things together, like the bike rally, canoe trips, and the Music for Lesbians concert. We have friends in common, some who blog here and others too. We share a fitness activity that’s central to both of our lives, cycling. We both ride with a sense of adventure, though Cate’s more independent and ridden in more countries. I’ve raced and ridden faster I think though I know she’s ridden further. Oh, and on the bike rally we joked about being the “old ladies.’ No parties on our camp site. We were in our tents lights out by 10.

We’re both women menopause seems to have forgotten. But perimenopause, it’s here and making us grumpy.

This year we have one more thing in common. We both gained 8 lbs over the winter doing pretty much the same things we’ve always done. We both hate it. And we both hate that we hate it. We’re grumpy.

That about get it right, Cate?

I’m blaming Trump. You?

************************************

Cate: LOL — I so want to blame Trump. And I did read that that is a thing. Even Barbra Streisand apparently blamed Trump for her weight gain.

And I think there is some truth to the sense that this winter has been kind of bruising and disorienting on a political front — and that does make me curl up on my couch and make my own blizzards with fancy ice cream and girl guide cookies, or invite people over for comfort food.

But I have had a tendency to comfort food for a long time, and I’m not eating that differently than I have been for the last 10 years. And people have been warning me forever — “your metabolism will change when you’re over 50” — and I didn’t want it to be true. And bam, almost overnight, true. I run way more slowly, and the scale has just crept up in sneaky ways to a number that I haven’t seen since before I quit smoking and took up fitness when I was 29. And it makes me feel like my body has betrayed me. And add a dose of the raging PMS I now get and I’m just ANGRY. You got an earful of that when we went spinning together on Tuesday.

************************************

Sam: It’s not just the weight gain though that’s the visible thing you can see. For me it’s also needing more sleep, taking longer to get well after I’ve been sick, heartburn (that’s new and awful), not responding well to stress, and crying. It’s like everything has slowed down and gotten sad. And yes my metabolism is part of that.

Like you I haven’t been eating differently. I’ve been working out. Those things haven’t changed but my bodies response has. It kind of looks at the good food and the workouts and goes “meh.” I’m at a loss for what to change really. In a way, eight pounds, who cares? But a) it’s a trend I’m worried about and b) I’m already over the recommended weight for the race wheels for my bike.

I broke a spoke the other day and the bike mechanic helpfully suggested sturdier, heavier wheels. I didn’t swear in the shop but I did in the car. He’s right of course. I swapped wheels. But I’m not happy about it.

************************************

Cate: It’s all tangled up for me with the invisibility thing we’ve been talking about.  I’m very short; even 5 lbs is a significant difference to me and I have a fear of looking like this high school teacher I had who was quite round and short and tottered around on high heels to try to offset it.  I don’t want to look like Mrs G!  I want to look strong and athletic and *vital*.  And even when I know I can Do Things, it all makes me feel Not Vital.  And that’s what I’m trying to make sense of.

We were talking about how the dominant advice is always “eat less, move more.”  We both move a LOT now, especially for people whose jobs are about conversations and sharing what’s in our heads.  It feels like I have to undertake a massive revolution in how I eat, and I don’t want to be that person — I want to be the person who can eat fries if I feel like it.  I RESENT IT!

What are we going to do?

************************************

Sam: I agree with you. We can’t be people who never eat fries!

But the visibility thing is tough. For both of us, it’s being seen as who we are, athletic women. I had someone offer me their seat on the subway the other day and I thought, “Really! Do I look like I need your seat? I am the oldest person on this train? What?”

I realized he was likely just being polite in a gendered, chivalrous way (I was wearing a skirt) and so I thanked him and took his seat.

And some of the time I’m happy to be the person who blows other peoples’ stereotypes out of the water. I love passing people on my bike. Moving the weight up rather than down on the lat pull down machine at the Y.

But I also want people to see me, to recognize who I am.

I hate it when someone says I should get off the bus a stop early to you know, add more movement to my life. HAVE YOU LOOKED AT MY GARMIN FILES? Oh nevermind.

So what?

***********************************

Cate:  We keep riding.  And maybe think a bit more about the fries?

Sam: And we’re definitely not getting these for our bikes!

Is body acceptance ever wrong? More chiding research comes our way

quote from Henry David Thoreau: "I stand in awe of my body".

It’s been a busy spring for body weight researchers.  I’m still working hard to catch up on the latest publications.  A recent article to come across my (virtual) desk is one from JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), with the intriguing title “Change in Percentage of Adults with Overweight or Obesity Trying to Lose Weight, 1988–2014”.

If you’re in a big hurry right now (maybe you’re trying to get out the door to ride or run or walk or go somewhere, in which case I promise not to delay you), here’s the takeaway:

From 1988 to 2014:

  • More American adults are overweight or obese (that is, have BMIs 25–30 and 30+).  No news there.
  • Fewer of these adults with BMIs 25–30 and 30+ are now reporting trying to lose weight. Hmmm.  Possibly interesting.
  • The authors seem very worried about this trend.  They think it’s a potentially bad thing.
  • I am not worried about this trend.  I think it might be a good thing, or maybe just a thing.

Now, if you’re not on your way outside (it’s a gentle sunny spring morning here in Boston), here are some of the details (both about what they said and what I think about it).  If you’re a data person, here are some numbers:

From 1988–2014:

  • The percentage of adults with BMIs 25–30 and 30+  increased from about 52% to about 65%– from about half to about 2/3 of the population.
  • The percentage of those adults (BMI 25 and above) who reported trying to lose weight declined from about 55% to about 49%– not a big drop, but it’s notably lower.
  • The article reports prominently that group with the biggest decline in weight loss attempts is black women, with a change from about 65% to about 55%– a 10% drop in weight loss attempts.  It reminds us that this group also has the highest incidence of BMIs 30+ (55%).
  • White men as a group also declined in weight loss attempts– a 6% drop (46% to 40%).
  • Also found in the table and in one sentence in the article is the fact that white women as a group also declined in weight loss attempts, by a bit more than 10%.

If you’re still reading (in which case, thank you; I do appreciate it), here are some messages in this article that struck me full in the face (and not in a good way).

First, the article seems really worried about the suggestion that the range of socially acceptable body weight is increasing.  They say this explicitly:

If more individuals who are overweight or obese are satisfied with their weight, fewer might be motivated to lose unhealthy weight.

Later on, they try to explain this phenomenon:

This observation may be due to body weight misperception reducing motivation to engage in weight loss efforts or primary care clinicians not discussing weight issues with patients.6 The chronicity of obesity may also contribute. The longer adults live with obesity, the less they may be willing to attempt weight loss, in particular if they had attempted weight loss multiple times without success.

Body weight misperception?   In this context it means that people think their body weight is just fine, when really it’s not. The authors suggest that people might mistakenly believe their body weight is okay because their health care provider hasn’t told them that it’s not.  And people might accept their bodies as fine because they’ve tried to lose weight, failed, and thus given up that fruitless pursuit in favor of a more profitable one, namely accepting their bodies as they are.

If body acceptance is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

But the medical literature just doesn’t agree.

While looking over this paper, I came across a 2010 article called “From ‘overweight’ to ‘about right’: evidence of a generational shift in body weight norms”.  This article seems to say that if people stop trying to lose weight and accept that their bodies are “about right”, bad things will happen.  From the 2010 article:

Such complacency among overweight and obese individuals may limit the effectiveness of public health campaigns aimed at weight reduction and associated improvements in health outcomes, including efforts to raise awareness of BMI thresholds for overweight and obesity.

In fairness, they do add:

On the other hand, there may be health benefits associated with improved body image, such as higher self-esteem and, potentially, a decline in the incidence of eating disorders.

Ya think?  Why is that not in the beginning of the article?  Why are we not celebrating and taking advantage of what could reasonably be interpreted as a nationwide increase in body positivity among lots of demographic groups?

One more point, which I can’t do justice to (I promise to address this in a future blog post):  the authors emphasize the decrease in weight loss attempts among black women, when in fact the decrease among white women is almost exactly the same.  It is true that the the black women as a group have a higher incidence of BMIs over 30 than white women as a group, which the authors also pointed out.  The implication is that this means that it’s worse (medically) for black women to be body accepting than white women.

Argh.  There’s something really wrong going on here.  To unpack the wrongs will take some time and more research.  I promise here that I’ll do that and report back.  But you’ve been alerted– the ways research like this gets reported treats racial groups differently, and that has all sorts of ramifications.  I’ll leave this here for now, but will return to it soon.

Ending on a positive note, as it’s just too pretty a day to stay negative: This blog is all about the joy to be found in celebrating our bodies, taking them out for spin, and feeding and caring for them, as we want them to work for us throughout our lives.  Body acceptance helps us function in all sorts of ways– physically, emotionally, sexually, socially, intellectually, etc.

So readers, I love you all just the way you are…

 

 

Lightening the load of heavy weight research

There’s a new study out on weight and mortality risk this week.  What is it saying?

It depends on who you ask.

If you ask the press, they’ll say this:

Carrying some extra pounds may not be good after all

Or this:

If you're overweight at any point, you're raising your risk for an early death

Yuck!  That sounds just dreadful.  Why are they saying this, what does this mean, and is it true?

First, let me fill in some back story.  In 2013, prominent epidemiologist Katherine Flegal and co-authors published a paper examining relationships between body weight and all-cause mortality (risks of death from all causes).  What they found was a lower mortality risk in the so-called overweight BMI category of 25-30, and not-increased risk in the so-called obesity I BMI category of 30-35.  Their results ran contrary to conventional wisdom (so much for conventional wisdom…).  They also unleashed a furious and very rude backlash among prominent and heretofore relatively well-behaved public health  and obesity researchers.  Here are a few reactions:

“It’s a horrific message to put out at this particular time. We shouldn’t take it for granted that we can cancel the gym, that we can eat ourselves to death with black forest gateaux.”
UK National Obesity Forum

“You’d hate to have the message get out there that it’s good to be overweight. The reality is that people who are overweight very often become obese and that’s clearly not good.”
Mercedes Carnethon, Northwestern Univ. School of Medicine

Since the Flegal et. al. 2013 article, some researchers who disagree with those findings have been trying to explain how being “overweight” (I use the quotes because I’m referring to the BMI category of 25–30 here, not any description of a person’s body) can lower your mortality risk.  Andrew Stokes, a population health researcher at Boston University, has been working on trying to tease out what’s going on with weight changes over time and mortality (death by any cause).  In a bunch of recent papers he and his coauthors have looked not just at BMIs and death rates, but at maximum BMI of individuals and possible relationships between that max, trends in their BMIs over time, and death rates.  (side note: my friend Dan and I are working on an article addressing Stokes’ work, which is in progress.  I’ll certainly blog about our work when we have results).

This newest paper looks at population data from three very big longitudinal studies and concludes that we can explain the so-called “obesity paradox” (that BMI 25–30 confers lower mortality risk rather than increased mortality risk) by looking at maximum BMI.  Those with maximum BMI of 25 or greater had increased mortality risk compared to those with maximum BMI of <25.

Ah– so being fatter really is bad for you.  Whew; public health and medicine don’t need to change all that signage after all.

a mind map of phrases connected with risks of more rather than lessbody weight

Well, maybe they do.  Looking at this article, I found some complicated and interesting results (which I’ve seen in other such articles, but aren’t splashed across the headlines.)

Interesting result one:  being “underweight” (BMI <18.5) carries a much greater mortality risk than being “overweight” (BMI 25–30).  For a lot of age/sex categories, it carries a much great mortality risk than being “type I obese” (BMI 30–35).  For instance, for non-smoking men< 70 years old, the mortality risk was almost the same for <18.5 BMI as for >35 BMI (2.89 and 3.19 respectively).  That is, people at the far ends of the weight spectrum measured both had much increased mortality risk.  Again, we are talking about maximum BMI here (just to be precise).

Interesting result two:  the mortality risks from a particular max BMI shift as the population ages.  The details are pretty complicated, but here’s an example:  if my max BMI is say, 31, then these results show how my mortality risks may go up and down as I age.  This is interesting and important for patients and health care providers.  Given some max BMI, the medical advice might be different depending on the age of the patient (and other features of her medical history).  Of course, many medical practitioners act on this already by paying special attention to many features other than BMI in caring for their patients.

Interesting result three:  the results are based on three very large samples (about 225,000 people) of white people– they made up more than 91% of the sample.  We already know that BMI distributions vary across racial categories, so these results (if they turn out to be correct), would not apply in a simple way to other groups.

Interesting result four: In the article, the authors point out that their targeted group (BMI 25–30) is pretty diverse with respect to body fat percentage and waist circumference.  They’re also going to be pretty diverse with respect to their eating and physical activity practices (like every other BMI group).  The authors think that they can use max BMI to identify who in the BMI 25–30 group is at increased risk.  But to what end?  It’s not like medical practice has any currently effective procedures for bringing about and sustaining weight loss over time (except maybe some forms of gastric bypass, which aren’t indicated for the population targeted in the article).  So, what is an appropriate response to this information from patients and providers, other than more moral panic?

For me, my response to this article is to dig into the details, talk to my colleague Dan about our article, and attend to my health-as-I-define-it in the best ways I know how.  I’m not convinced these folks are right.  And I’m not convinced that we even agree on how their being right might reasonably translate into anything medically useful or practical.  However, we all know that science, medicine and health care are super-complicated, so while we’re waiting for the fog to clear, let’s just do nice things for ourselves.  So I’m headed out for a bike ride now!

 

 

Should university gyms have scales in them? Sam thinks not…

Image description: Clear snowflake against a blue background.

Image description: Clear snowflake against a blue background.

Carleton University is in the news these days for removing scales from the university’s fitness centre change rooms. Conservatives just hate this. Cue rhetoric about the snowflake generation and safe spaces. Brietbart even jumped in but I’m not linking there.

See Conservative news outlets slam Carleton University gym for removing scales.

And Carleton University comes under heavy criticism after gym scale removed.

Why did they get rid of the scale?

Gym officials made the decision to keep up with “current fitness trends,” Bruce Marshall, health and wellness manager at Carlton Athletics told the school newspaper The Charlatan.

“We don’t believe being fixated on weight has any positive effect on your health and well-being,” Marshall told the school’s newspaper.

“It takes weeks, even months to make a permanent change in your weight. So why obsess about it?

It reminded me of my big success getting rid of the scale at the London YMCA downtown branch. Now the scale I successfully had removed was in the family changeroom. It was being used by children. I wrote a letter to the Y after I watched little girls in my daughter’s swim lesson (approx age, 8-10) weighing themselves before and after class. They were standing around complaining about the numbers on the scale. “80 lbs! I’m so fat.” I wrote to the Y and said that given that they run healthy body image workshops and eating disorders support groups that having a weigh scale for children was inconsistent with their values. They agreed and wrote me a nice thank you note.

But of course university students aren’t children. They’re adults. You don’t have to use it, said lots of readers on our Facebook page when I shared news of Carleton’s decision there. I agree.

Some students think of the decision to get rid of the scale as pandering to those with eating disorders. Aaron Bens, a communication and media studies student at Carleton, wrote to CBC that he is “frustrated” by the university’s decision, which he argues is “the next escalation of trigger culture.” Others argue that the scale is necessary for boxers and rowers and others in weight competitive sports. Note though that varsity athletes rarely use the general student gym and fitness centres. Rowers, for example, have their own training rooms with a scale.

I hear the argument that students are adults and decide for themselves whether to step on the scale.

And yet.

I don’t like scales in change rooms at gyms. Here’s my two reasons why not:

  1. They perpetuate the idea of a connection between exercise and weight loss. There isn’t.
  2. Some people with a history of eating disorders may find it hard to resist the allure of the scale.  It’s why those of us who don’t weight ourselves talk about putting the scale away. It’s hard to walk by. I confess I step on the one at the university gym I go to occasionally. Why? Why?
Image description: Purple scale with a sticky note that says, "You'll never be pleased with the number I show you."

Image description: Purple scale with a sticky note that says, “You’ll never be pleased with the number I show you.”

What do you think about scales in lock rooms at university gyms? Thumbs up or thumbs down? Why/why not?

Why Sam wants to hug Oprah

Oprah is losing weight again. For those of us following and for Oprah, it’s been a bit of a roller coaster. Right now she/we are going down. So far she’s lost 20 kg, the headlines tell us.

This time though, she’s not calling it a diet. It’s a lifestyle change. Right.

Talk show queen Oprah Winfrey says she has lost over 20 kg, and is loving it. The 65-year-old joined a weight losing programme called Weight Watchers in 2015. “Nearing the 45-pound weight loss mark is a great feeling,” Winfrey said.

She said that the loss of her weight is the result of a lifestyle change instead of years of dieting, reports aceshowbiz.com. “After spending literally years on more diets than I care to count, I finally made the shift from dieting to a lifestyle change.

“Everyone is different, but for me what’s worked, is Weight Watchers… Today I’m more conscious about what I eat, balancing indulgent things with healthier options,” she said. “The Oprah Winfrey Show” host says she felt encouraged to take a holistic approach to health and fitness.

With an estimated net worth of 3.2 billion dollars Oprah is one of the world’s richest women. You can track both her wealth and weight through the years. Last year she bought shares in Weight Watchers and become a company spokesperson. So all of this is no surprise though it disappointed Tracy.

In 1996, Oprah Winfrey hired personal trainer Bob Greene, saying her roller-coaster weight saga was over. Here she is with Greene in 1997. Oprah said she controls her weight by working out daily using Greene’s guidelines. From http://www.accessatlanta.com/entertainment/television/photos-oprah-weight-through-the-years/MywJK3oWH9lwnIi0dYg4JO/#6

Now though she says she doesn’t care about the number on the scale. Again, right.

Oprah Winfrey says that after years of allowing her self-image to be influenced by her weight, she’s finally arrived at a place of equilibrium and self-acceptance. The former talk show host recently lost 42 lbs by following the Weight Watchers program, but says that her newfound happiness is less due to a number on a scale and more to a change in perspective.

Some people are critical of celebrity diets.

 Jean Fain writes, “With their intoxicating blend of impossible expectations, misguided authority and restrictive guidelines, celebrity diets are predestined to fail spectacularly.” Celebrity diets are expensive in terms of time and money. They hire personal chefs and personal trainers and devote a lot of time to their appearance.

See Tracy’s recent post about celebrity diets. And Catherine’s post about diet fallacies and the appeal to Oprah.

Some people are angry at Oprah.

See Dear Oprah, Shut Up About This Being the Year of Our Best Bodies Ever.

You told me in January that 2016 would be the year of Our Best Bodies. You gave your most inspired Oprah gaze that punched right through to my soul, and you told me my body is no good. It doesn’t just need to be better, it needs to be The Best. It’s OK, though, because you’re going to be the best with me, so no worries — as long as I join your weight loss club.

HELL. NO. This is my best body, Oprah. Right now. Full of stretch marks and cellulite, a perfectly-rounded belly and deflated breasts.

It does a fucking amazing job doing what it’s meant to do: SUSTAIN LIFE. It has sustained my life, my son’s life, traveled all over the world, climbed a volcano, played hard, planted gardens, given safe medical care to countless people, and created delightful edible art that is damn delicious.

Me, I want to give her a hug and tell her it will all be okay when she gains that 42 lbs back.

Why my fondness for Oprah? I find myself sympathizing with her. She’s like me, but with more money and a bigger audience. Like me, how? Well, we’re roughly the same size and shape. She’s 5’6, I’m an inch taller. Her lowest weight was 150 lbs, mine 155. And we both cop to a highest weight in the 230s. I’ve also lost and gained weight through the years. Weight Watchers, Precision Nutrition, personal training, etc etc.

She’s halfway between me and my mother–who also shares the same height and weight range–in age.

Sometimes I use Oprah’s example to feel better about my own failed weight loss efforts. If someone with Oprah’s resources such as personal chefs and trainers can’t do it, what hope is there for me?

But I feel sorry for Oprah regaining weight in the public eye.  The stories and photos about it all sound so sad. She’s such a terrific business person and has such a great voice and brand, why is she so fussed about her size? And yet I hear people saying the same thing to me.

Why does she care? Why do I care? See my past post On wishing for weight loss. In that post, from March 2015, I wrote:

Look, it’s not irrational in a size phobic society to not want to be fat.

Why? More clothes fit, you’ll get paid more, get higher teaching evaluations if you’re a professor (like me), be seen as smarter, be more attractive to a wider range of partners (don’t get me wrong, I’ve never had a shortage of people finding me attractive but I’m a bit of a niche taste), and more to the point, in my case, climb hills faster. Zoom!

Added bonus: It’d improve my running times a lot.

But it’s wanting the impossible that’s sad and hard. Wanting what you can’t have has never seemed a good game plan for life happiness.

How about we make peace with our bodies and love them the way they are?

And how about I give you a hug Oprah and then we can drink some tea together and maybe go for a run, not because it will help us lose weight (it won’t) but because it feels good to move our bodies. I’m admiring you from the sideline and hoping you don’t go down that road again.

Image description: Dark pink text on light pink background that reads, I workout because I love my body not because I hate it.

Image description: Dark pink text on light pink background that reads, I workout because I love my body not because I hate it.