This week's Sunday Long Read comes from HuffPost Highline's Michael Hobbes
as he breaks one of the final taboo medical barriers in America: the diagnosis and treatment of obesity. Everything we know about obesity and everything we prescribe for it are at such staggering odds that the cures are literally making millions of us less healthy every year, and it's time for a sea change.
About 40 years ago, Americans started getting much larger. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 80 percent of adults and about one-third of children now meet the clinical definition of overweight or obese. More Americans live with “extreme obesity“ than with breast cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and HIV put together.
And the medical community’s primary response to this shift has been to blame fat people for being fat. Obesity, we are told, is a personal failing that strains our health care system, shrinks our GDP and saps our military strength. It is also an excuse to bully fat people in one sentence and then inform them in the next that you are doing it for their own good. That’s why the fear of becoming fat, or staying that way, drives Americans to spend more on dieting every year than we spend on video games or movies. Forty-five percent of adults say they’re preoccupied with their weight some or all of the time—an 11-point rise since 1990. Nearly half of 3- to 6- year old girls say they worry about being fat.
The emotional costs are incalculable. I have never written a story where so many of my sources cried during interviews, where they double- and triple-checked that I would not reveal their names, where they shook with anger describing their interactions with doctors and strangers and their own families. One remembered kids singing “Baby Beluga” as she boarded the school bus, another said she has tried diets so extreme she has passed out and yet another described the elaborate measures he takes to keep his spouse from seeing him naked in the light. A medical technician I’ll call Sam (he asked me to change his name so his wife wouldn’t find out he spoke to me) said that one glimpse of himself in a mirror can destroy his mood for days. “I have this sense I’m fat and I shouldn’t be,” he says. “It feels like the worst kind of weakness.”
My interest in this issue is slightly more than journalistic. Growing up, my mother’s weight was the uncredited co-star of every family drama, the obvious, unspoken reason why she never got out of the car when she picked me up from school, why she disappeared from the family photo album for years at a time, why she spent hours making meatloaf then sat beside us eating a bowl of carrots. Last year, for the first time, we talked about her weight in detail. When I asked if she was ever bullied, she recalled some guy calling her a “fat slob” as she biked past him years ago. “But that was rare,” she says. “The bigger way my weight affected my life was that I waited to do things because I thought fat people couldn’t do them.” She got her master’s degree at 38, her Ph.D. at 55. “I avoided so many activities where I thought my weight would discredit me.”
But my mother’s story, like Sam’s, like everyone’s, didn’t have to turn out like this. For 60 years, doctors and researchers have known two things that could have improved, or even saved, millions of lives. The first is that diets do not work. Not just paleo or Atkins or Weight Watchers or Goop, but all diets. Since 1959, research has shown that 95 to 98 percent of attempts to lose weight fail and that two-thirds of dieters gain back more than they lost. The reasons are biological and irreversible. As early as 1969, research showed that losing just 3 percent of your body weight resulted in a 17 percent slowdown in your metabolism—a body-wide starvation response that blasts you with hunger hormones and drops your internal temperature until you rise back to your highest weight. Keeping weight off means fighting your body’s energy-regulation system and battling hunger all day, every day, for the rest of your life.
The second big lesson the medical establishment has learned and rejected over and over again is that weight and health are not perfect synonyms. Yes, nearly every population-level study finds that fat people have worse cardiovascular health than thin people. But individuals are not averages: Studies have found that anywhere from one-third to three-quarters of people classified as obese are metabolically healthy. They show no signs of elevated blood pressure, insulin resistance or high cholesterol. Meanwhile, about a quarter of non-overweight people are what epidemiologists call “the lean unhealthy.” A 2016 study that followed participants for an average of 19 years found that unfit skinny people were twice as likely to get diabetes as fit fat people. Habits, no matter your size, are what really matter. Dozens of indicators, from vegetable consumption to regular exercise to grip strength, provide a better snapshot of someone’s health than looking at her from across a room.
The terrible irony is that for 60 years, we’ve approached the obesity epidemic like a fad dieter: If we just try the exact same thing one more time, we'll get a different result. And so it’s time for a paradigm shift. We’re not going to become a skinnier country. But we still have a chance to become a healthier one.
Having struggled with my weight all my life, I constantly get reminded of my size and people's disgust with it. It's affected me professionally, personally, and in every relationship I have. Diets never worked for me. Having a job where I walk a couple miles a day around a manufacturing campus has helped make me fit, but it hasn't helped me lose weight in four-plus years.
My blood pressure and blood sugar levels are fine as of my last checkup. My heart rate is not horrible. I don't smoke, don't do drugs, barely drink socially, and that's when on the rare occasion I'm in a social situation.
It's not fun. It's been a problem all my life. The rest of my family is in pretty good shape. I weigh more than any two of them put together, and inevitably I get how they are "concerned".
So am I, but there has to be a better approach.