Body differences and the weird logic of diets

There are a great many people who are not able to lose weight through diet and exercise. The standard response is to assume they just weren’t trying hard enough. We have no qualms about shaming people who can’t manage their weight by the means they are told will work for them.  As though the human body is a simple system, and always works in the same way, and as if what you eat and how much you move are the only factors involved in size.

To talk about this, I’m going to step sideways into the parallel world of muscle. Muscles are complicated, and we don’t all have it in us to build the same ones. Some of us are better suited to speed than lifting power. Some of us naturally have more stamina than others. Hit the limits on what your muscles can do, and the odds are good the people around you will assume it’s because you’ve hit your limits. It may be about how much glycogen your muscles can store – that may be genetic.  And of course muscles don’t work alone, there’s bone and tendon to consider, blood flow, reflexes, metabolism.

Get into the world of muscle even a little bit and you’ll find it is complex, and there’s no expectation that all bodies are going to work the same way. We don’t shame people for having sinewy strength rather than big muscles. We assume that difference is normal. This is in no small part because we have generations of knowledge that different bodies respond to exercise in different ways and that different people have different strengths.

On the whole, fat is a new problem for us as a species. Perhaps for much of human history, it was fair to assume that more often than not, fat went with how much you ate. That didn’t necessarily make it an unpopular thing, either. Historically, fat has equated to wealth and opulence – historic portraits of people have a lot of bigger people in them. The rich have carried their extra pounds with pride. However, this century has seen fat become a widespread issue for poor people, and that makes it a problem, and no longer desirable.  Perceived greed is something the poor are always punished for.

Sleep deprivation causes weight gain – the evidence is out there but it isn’t much publicised. Sleep deprivation is for the greater part a industrial ailment, made worse in recent years by 24/7 culture, shift working, stress, screens and time pressure. Hard to get enough sleep if you’re working two jobs, and this too is a modern problem.

We feed growth hormones to creatures raised for meat, but I’ve not seen anyone suggesting that there could be a relationship between weight gain, and eating something that was pumped full of chemicals to make it gain weight. We put all manner of chemicals into our food, and the long term experiments to discover the long term impact of eating them? We’re it.

We should be asking about the relationship between malnourishment and weight gain – if your diet is about filling up on not very nutritional carbs, what does that do? What happens when you can’t afford to eat good food? What does stress do to metabolism and body size? Some of us burn frantically in response to stress, but what if some of us stock up reserves? What if dieting just adds to the stress that has your body trying to store calories? Why should there be just one story about how we get fat and how to shed that fat? It doesn’t add up.

We need better research into the issue of weight gain, rather than this endless preaching about the imagined moral failure of being fat. We need answers that take into account body difference and that we’re no doubt not all designed to be exactly the same shape. We need to work out what healthy weight means – the Body Mass Index is worse than useless. We need health measurements that aren’t just about size and we also need to start recognising that if a large person is ill, it may not be simply a case that they need to lose weight and get more exercise. Perhaps if we were collectively slower to pathologise fat, we would be able to have healthier ideas about how to live with the bodies we have.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

12 responses to “Body differences and the weird logic of diets

  • Blodeuwedd

    There are no words for how much I love this!

  • Laura Perry

    I totally agree. Also, BMI was designed to study large populations en masse, not individuals. Its application to individuals is problematic, to say the least.

    • Nimue Brown

      Ah! That makes a lot of sense. Some of psychology is like this too – good for broad sweeps but not able to work at an individual level.

      • Laura Perry

        BMI on an individual level can be really stupid, if you ask me. For instance, muscle weighs a lot more than fat, so heavily muscled people end up showing as nearly obese on the BMI. That’s idiotic.

      • Nimue Brown

        yep, and there’s a gender bias here too, because a woman with a mix of muscle and fat will (if my experience is anything to go by) have a hard time persuading a doctor it isn’t all fat. I had a nurse tell me weight was a diabetes risk, and I asked if muscle weight represented the same risk as fat, and she didn’t seem to know, which was disconcerting.

      • Laura Perry

        She didn’t know? Wow, that’s kind of scary. I have to wonder how many health problems are misdiagnosed or simply dismissed because the health care professionals at hand don’t have enough training. I’ve seen it too many times to think it doesn’t happen.

  • jrose88

    It’s not just fitness, my brother was finally told in college that he had reduced blood flow in his collarbones that resulted in his poor coordination when it came to holding pencils or pens. His handwriting is pretty bad as a result — plus he never really had the patience with writing to become very good at spelling. It had nothing to do with his mental development, but that’s what everybody just assumed when he was little.

    • Nimue Brown

      Wow, never run into that before, so had no idea! these are things we all need to be aware of, so thank you for sharing. I only found out this year that the clumsiness I was blamed for as a child was probably due to the hypermobile joints…. we’re so quick to blame children… all the kids who were labeled as stupid when they were undiagnosed dyslexics… my lad as dysgraphia, which i hadn’t heard of until someone helpfully identified it in him…

      • Laura Perry

        I wonder how much of all this is due to the fact that so many health care professionals are overworked to the point that they simply don’t have the time or the energy to sit down and read the latest journals. The pediatrician we took my daughter to for years was an excellent doctor, and he talked to me a little bit about how hard it is to keep up – they’re expected to work a full 40+ hour week and then do their continuing education AND read up on all the latest research in their “free time.” If you’re that exhausted all the time, even if you really care about your patients, eventually that exhaustion is going to catch up with you and you won’t think of things you should, make connections you should. (And that’s not even counting the various health care professionals who *don’t* care and just want to thrust a diagnosis at you without really looking.) There are so many changes that need to be made if we’re really going to make sure everyone is properly taken care of.

  • Nimue Brown

    that’s a very good point, thanks Laura – a clearly impossible situation as it stands. No one can work 40 hours and have the energy to keep up with new research as well, especially not anyone at the broader end of health care, there’s just too much to know.

  • Wendy

    Thank you for this post – over the last few years, I’ve struggled with weight gain and was told by my doctor to not worry and that my blood work was fine. Her words: You’re as healthy as a horse! Very difficult for me to accept though when I don’t FEEL like everything is right in my body. Frustrating.

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