Science Mom: ‘Fat’ Is Not The Opposite Of ‘Healthy’

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science mom sharpFat and healthy aren’t mutually exclusive. The idea that a person’s health can immediately be observed by a quick glance at the way they look is a pervasive one–and also a drastically wrong one. The all-encompassing focus on weight as the most important indicator of health, and the stifling atmosphere of fat-shaming around it, isn’t just foolish; it can also be dangerous–as many overweight people have found when trying to get medical attention for an illness, only to hear that their weight is the be-all, end-all of their problems. Forget busting calories; today we’re busting some big, fat myths.

Myth: Health and weight are inversely proportional.

Reality: You can be an overweight marathon runner. You can be a skinny Cheeto-and-Mountain-Dew addict. A person’s apparent weight has no direct relationship to their actual health, and unless you are Superman and can scan their internal organs and vital signs with a sweep of your X-ray vision, you can’t tell how healthy a person is just by looking at them.

In fact, some evidence suggests that focusing on weight loss can actually be harmful to an overweight person’s health by tying too much concern to how much weight they lose or keep off–and then making them relapse when the scale doesn’t budge despite their best efforts. Instead, better outcomes might be achievable focusing on “weight neutral” metrics. How’s your cholesterol? Are you eating enough fruits and vegetables? How many times did you exercise last week? These questions matter a lot more than How much do you weigh? Of course this is just anecdata, but my “sure, I can eat an entire carton of General Tso’s Chicken and then a dozen Oreos” college-aged body weighed 20 pounds less than my “I’m going to train my butt off and run 15 miles in a relay race” body. The version of me who stayed up till 2 AM playing Diablo II and binge-eating Goldfish crackers was not the healthier of the two, even if it did fit into a smaller jeans size.

And the focus on weight as an indicator of health is dangerous for thin people as well as healthy ones. I know a fat person who went to the doctor for a sore throat and left with a prescription to get more exercise instead of one for an actual antibiotic to treat her strep throat (which she got instead from a more helpful urgent care clinic). But how many of us also know or know of a thin person who suffered a heart attack out of the blue? Doctors often don’t think to monitor cardiovascular warning signs in a person who has the outward appearance we associate with health.

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