Book Review: Fat Politics by J. Eric Oliver

Fat Politics: The Real Story behind America's Obesity EpidemicIf you want to fire people up, try talking about fat. Not spicy enough for you? Throw in some commentary about politics, money, society, exercise, diet and health. Now you've got the perfect recipe for controversy. We're talking about Fat Politics by J. Eric Oliver. You're either going to love this book or hate it with a passion. But either way, it's sure to stir up some strong opinions.

Oliver questions the existence of an obesity epidemic and whether fat itself should be labeled as a dangerous disease. If read with an open mind, his research certainly gives you something to think about (whether or not you end up fully agreeing with him).

"Consider, for example, what an obesity epidemic means for the following groups. For scientists researching issues of weight, an obesity epidemic inflates their stature and allows them to get more research grants. For government health agencies, it is a powerful rationale for increasing their programs and budget allocations. For weight-loss companies and surgeons, it is a way to get their services covered by Medicare and health insurance providers. And, for pharmaceutical companies it can justify the release of new drugs, and help inflate their stock prices. The very same people who have proclaimed that obesity is a major health problem also stand the most to gain from it being classified as a disease. For America's public health establishment, an obesity epidemic is worth billions."

In chapter two, Oliver explains How Obesity Became an Epidemic Disease. He demonstrates how politics and the media skewed our ideas about fat and health, and why labeling obesity as a disease actually holds us back from finding real solutions for lasting health.

The Link Between Metabolic Health and Disease

Oliver rightly points to overall metabolic action as the cause not only of obesity but also degenerative disease. He questions the idea that weight itself is the cause behind our more troubling health problems, and suggests that perhaps there is a bigger picture.

"And it is these other metabolic changes that are behind many of the diseases that are typically associated with being too fat. The reason that diabetes and some types of cancer are on the rise is not because Americans weight too much, it is because their metabolisms are out of whack. Fatness may result from metabolic processes that are behind these ailments, but it is the underlying metabolic processes, and not the weight, that cause us so much trouble."

Why We Hate Fat People

Have you ever thought about it? Why our society harbors such resentment and malice toward heavier people? We are afraid of fat. This has to do with numerous factors, according the Oliver, including our modern standards of beauty and propaganda from the medical community. But wherever it's coming from, the fear of fat is very real.

"For instance, more that a quarter of college students believe that becoming fat is the worst thing that could happen to a person."

Really? That sure says a lot about our priorities in life. Oliver suggests getting some perspective about fat in his chapter about genetics and obesity:

"Fatness is not a disease or a bodily dysfunction; it is a protective mechanism that evolved to survive fluctuations in our food supply. Judging someone's health by how much they weigh is like judging a camel by how much water it has in its hump--in conditions of privation, our extra weight, just like water, may be exactly what we need to survive. Our weight is merely an expression of this adaptive mechanism at work."

What We Eat and What We Weigh

Oliver challenges many beliefs about diet and weight. He's read the work of Gary Taubes (awesome, right?) but doesn't fall into the trap of blaming any particular macronutrient for our weight and health problems. His stance is that carbs are no more to blame than fat. Instead Oliver speculates that there are a number of dietary factors that could be contributing to obesity and disease. After all, a lot has changed in the last 40 years when it comes to what (and how) we eat. Oliver discusses everything from crop subsidies to the invention of the microwave, but in the end concludes that it's most likely the combination of all these things--rather than just one of them--that impacts our weight the most.

Being Thin Versus Being Healthy

This is always one of my favorite topics. In our pursuit of being thin, many of us have sacrificed our health. According to Oliver, it is the American way.

"Although most Americans value bodily fitness as a marker of social prestige, they value thinness more. And for good reason--in a culture in which obesity is so demonized, being fit yet heavy does little to remove the stigma of a large body size, particularly for women. For instance, if a woman is incredibly fit but still bulky or heavy, she is still likely to face size discrimination. The emphasis on female fitness is primarily concerned with being thin not necessarily being healthy. Because of our cultural obsession with thinness, any discussion of exercise inevitably becomes connected to issues of weight while concerns of health fly out the window."

I mean, think about it: how many people do you know that joined a gym to get healthy? Yeah, right. Most people exercise to achieve a particular physical appearance, not to achieve better health. Which is too bad, because research shows that exercise has a far more substantial impact on our health that it does on our waistlines.

But Are There Any Solutions?

My biggest beef with Oliver's book is that you aren't left with a solid idea of what we should be doing, perhaps because Oliver believes that his research doesn't point to there being a particular solution.

"In truth, the only way we are going to 'solve' the problem of obesity is to stop making fatness a scapegoat for all our ills. The means that public health officials and doctors need to stop making weight a barometer of health and issuing so many alarmist claims about the obesity epidemic. This also means that the rest of us need to stop judging others and ourselves by our size."

I personally couldn't agree more. There's far too much hate and melodrama surrounding our weight. But considering we're in a society that puts so much focus on being thin, at the end of the book you're sort of left standing with your hands up in the air thinking, "Well, what the heck am I supposed to do now?"

The answer: simply allow yourself to focus on more important things than weight. Whether or not you are at the weight you would like to be cannot be a determining factor in your happiness. If it is, then it's guaranteed you'll be miserable. Regard health as part of the bigger picture and not just in terms of your dress size. Live to be healthy and enjoy life, rather than living to be thin.

Buy Fat Politics by J. Eric Oliver today.

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