Tag Archives: fat

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.

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A brief selection of my stories about my body

On the one side there’s the issue of no pain no gain, and on the other is the Taoist notion of effortlessness – do without doing. For much of my life, my awkward body has meant that any kind of activity courted pain and I’m used to thinking in terms of having to push. Recently I’ve started questioning this.

The assumption that I needed to push through the pain has been with me for a long time, unquestioned. But, there are stories in my family about laziness and pushing, about not getting comfortable and not letting yourself off the hook. Or at least I’ve understood it that way.

How much pain for how much gain? And at what cost?

My fear is that if I don’t push myself hard all the time, I will be lazy and crap, and still fat. The relationship between fatness and assumed laziness has been an ongoing issue for me. The desire to prove that my body shape is not a consequence of lack of effort or lack of discipline on my part, has been with me since my teens.

Faced with the impression that there’s a crisis, my body stores fat. I am fantastically efficient in this regard. The impression of crisis can be created by missing meals, and otherwise reducing calorie intake. It can be created by sudden bouts of intense exercise, fuelled by shame and not sustained. Ironically it turns out that on a higher calorie diet, I am more likely to lose weight. No pain, no gain around the middle.

Do without doing suggests a state where how you are gets the job done. Getting more sleep has encouraged my body to think there isn’t some kind of emergency going on and to stop stocking up. There’s reason to think that stress caused by what happens when you’re fat can help keep you fat – again it’s about the feeling of emergency and what a body does with that. My physical survival method is clearly not to be able to run away easily, it is to be able to sit out the problem and have another go when things calm down. Doing without doing.

I’ve never really listened to my body. I’ve internalised the idea that expressing discomfort was just making a fuss, so when my body complains of pain or weariness, I have tended to over-ride that for as long as I can. Whatever gain there is seeming more important than the pain. Only in the last few years have I started listening to my body about what it might like to eat. Extra toast, and more protein have featured heavily. And yet I am not gaining flab. It’s almost as if my body knows what it needs to be a healthy size, and what it needs is not what I had been told it needs.

Trusting my body and going with it looks a lot like do without doing, to me. Not a big, sweaty push for change, but a softer acceptance of what actually works. Letting my soft animal body get on with things rather than trying to flog every last ounce of effort out of it. It’s possible that all the things I have done to try and overcome pain and fatness, have in fact been making the pain and fatness worse for me because it results in my body feeling threatened and under pressure all the time. But as a culture this is what we do to fat people, layering on the blame and shame and the pressure to force change and not asking why a specific body reacts as it does.

Fat, I am inclined to think, is really a symptom of other issues, and the key thing is to find out what the other issues are and deal with those. Comfort eating has emotional reasons driving it. Storing can be driven by all sorts of physical pressures. Body chemistry, malnutrition, stress… there are many reasons a person may store fat that have nothing to do with discipline and effort. Try to solve that by adding to the strain, and for some of us, there can be no winning.


Stories about fat

Trigger warnings: weight, diet, body shape. And I’m starting with a trigger warning because this is a subject that puts some people in a very bad place indeed. Like most people my age, I grew up ‘understanding’ that being fat was the simple consequence of eating too much fat. That’s not how it works, and while more information is out there all the time, it doesn’t always filter through. The default is to blame and shame fat, still, which is bloody unhelpful.

It looks increasingly like sugar and refined carbohydrate are a far bigger issue than fat in the diet, and that the sugar industry has led the demonising of fat.

Sleep deprivation encourages us to retain fat. We live in a sleep deprived culture. I don’t know whether it’s because lack of sleep denies us processes that would have helped, or because lack of sleep is a crisis, and in a crisis, some of us store fat. Which leads me to stress – which tells our bodies there’s an emergency going on. For some of us, routinely trying to starve yourself thin can create and emergency that the body responds to by frantically storing everything it can. This was me in my teens, often only eating one meal a day, retaining weight, malnourished and miserable. Stress, and most especially work induced stress, and poverty induced stress are recognised things, but under-explored. There is also a known correlation between poverty and obesity, but no public debate about whether the stress of poverty, contributes alongside poor nutrition, to weight gain. If there were, we’d have to look differently at workplace responsibilities and government policies.

Thyroid function, and water retention and probably a whole heap of other medical conditions I’m not up to speed on can go unnoticed if we obsess over fat in relation to diet. If ‘get more exercise and lose weight’ is the only diagnosis available for the more padded person, other medical conditions – conditions that might well be causing or adding to weight gain – go unnoticed and unchecked. It happens.

Yo-yo dieting is a thing, and a lot of people get trapped in it. Brief attempts at wonder diets that cause weight loss in the shorter term, and then don’t work. This is in part because diets don’t deal with lifestyle as a whole. Wonder diets are often faddy, under-researched and won’t work for everyone, our bodies are different. It’s not just about how we eat, but about what we do with our bodies, how much we move, sleep, rest, and stress is all part of the mix. A happier life may make weight loss very easy, dieting misery can move us towards weight gain. Unhappiness leads to comfort eating, it can make us less active, and adds stresses to life that can help convince our bodies there’s a crisis we need to stock up calories to get through.

I’ve spent much of my life hating and resenting my body shape. I’ve starved myself as a form of punishment for being so disgusting – this is how I’ve felt about myself. Followed by the inevitable binges and the self-loathing those create, leading to a cycle of misery and excess weight. It’s really tough to break out of that self-perpetuating loop. I’ve done so by keeping the focus on doing things that make me happy. I’ve paid attention to how my body responds to foods, and altered my eating to do what feels good. I eat with a view to powering my body for whatever activities I have in mind, not with reference to my stomach size. I feel better about myself. I’ve got out of the punishment cycles and into a process that is about wellbeing and feeling good, and that has made a lot of odds.