No, Explaining the Risks of Obesity Is Not 'Fatphobic'

Obesity is a ballooning epidemic, with its prevalence climbing from 30% to 42% of the US population in the last 20 years. It costs the health care system a staggering $150 billion per year. Sadly, these figures continue to grow in Canada as well. As health professionals work tirelessly to attenuate the rate of this progression, some are getting thrown into the fire by being labeled as ‘fatphobic’. While this negative stereotype is an unfortunate reality in our culture, there is a clear line that we must draw when it comes to obesity-related care.

I’m tired of hearing the ‘fatphobia’ label being thrown around in places where it doesn’t belong. Explaining the risks of obesity (when done correctly) is called health care. I do understand where this tension is coming from, however. The truth is, we as a society need to do better. We must converse with empathy. We must educate with wisdom. We must treat each individual as a person, not a health problem.

It’s time we realize that fatphobia is a real societal issue, and it's only propagating the speedy incline of obesity.

The Reality of Obesity

Before we get too deep into the negative effects of fat-shaming, let me be very clear. Obesity is bad for your health. There is simply no getting around it. Although I’m whole-heartedly against the mistreatment of overweight people, I’m also against sweeping health issues under the rug. That would be doing everyone a disservice.

Obesity is defined as excessive fat accumulation that results in a BMI (body mass index) of >30. There are three main categories: class 1 (30–34.9), class 2 (35,39.9), and class 3 (>40). The higher the class, the more severe the health risks will be.

Please know that BMI is a ‘crude’ health marker and it won’t always be a strong predictor of health risks. For example, a professional athlete may be considered obese due to his or her specific body composition, but in reality, they’re generally healthy and fit. If you ever have questions about your risk for obesity, please talk with your health professional.

For those who are obese, there is an increased risk for…

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)

  • High LDL cholesterol

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Coronary heart disease

  • Stroke

  • Osteoarthritis

  • Sleep issues

  • Cancer

  • Mental illness, such as clinical depression and anxiety

  • Decreased functionality and quality of life

Fortunately, there are many things we can be doing to decrease the health risks associated with obesity. Increasing physical activity, improving nutritional habits, fine-tuning sleep hygiene, and lowering stress will all go a long way to improving one’s health and quality of life (just to name a few).

The key to educating about obesity is knowing that there’s a right and wrong way to broach the subject. The line is very thin, so we must do everything in our power to discourage fear tactics and fat-shaming, and instead, use evidence-based care and empathy. Before we can understand how to achieve the latter, let’s look at what’s gone wrong in our culture.

The Social Stigma of Obesity

Don’t you think it’s funny how so many of us are dedicated to social justice and equality, yet we frequently turn a blind eye to fatphobic tendencies in our culture? Perhaps you’re not even sure what the definition of fat-shaming or fat-phobia is. This is not your fault, as these issues can frequently get thrown under the rug. Here’s a clarification:

Fatphobia = the fear/hatred of fat bodies, which can often evolve into the fear of gaining any weight due to ‘societal consequences’.

Fat-shaming = the act or practice of subjecting someone perceived as fat or overweight to criticism or mockery. E.g. blaming one’s composition on ‘laziness’, ‘gluttony’, etc…

The sad truth is that this social stigma is all around us, permeating every corner of our world. The fashion industry is pushing ‘plus sizes’ into smaller numbers. The porn industry is creating an absolutely unrealistic and damaging expectation of what women and men should look like. Even the fitness industry has its struggles with being far too niche.

“Fat-shaming is as ineffective as it is cruel.” — Bill Sullivan

Sadly, fat-shaming and fatphobia accomplish absolutely nothing. In a 2013 study by Florida State University, it was discovered that people subjected to weight discrimination were 3 times more likely to remain obese. Additionally, many of these individuals find themselves with psychological baggage, as body-shaming has a direct correlation to increased anxiety and depression.

Like anything else health-related, obesity is extremely complex. Sure, our modern-day diet and sedentary behaviours are heavily linked to the increasing number of overweight individuals, but that’s just scratching the surface. Here’s a quick list of the ‘other’ factors related to obesity:

  • genetic predisposition

  • prenatal + postnatal influences

  • environment (weather, access to healthy foods, exercise options)

  • increased screen time, decreased shut-eye

  • …and yes, fat-shaming and other societal stereotypes

To people who are not obese, it can be easy to assume that overeating is strictly a failure of willpower and discipline. With the evidence above, however, we now know that this mindset is both faulty and counterproductive. It is only when we realize this can we begin to understand how to navigate obesity properly.

How We Can Do Better as a Society

You’ve already completed the first step! Becoming educated on the complex realities of obesity is absolutely critical to stifling fat-shaming and turning this ship around. If you’re interested in learning more, here are three great resources: What is obesity? Is the obesity crisis hiding a bigger problem? Obesity — CDC

Weight stigma is likely to drive weight gain and poor health and thus should be eradicated. This effort can begin by training compassionate and knowledgeable [people] who will deliver better care and ultimately lessen the negative effects of weight stigma. — Tomiyama et al.

As you grow more knowledgeable in this field, it’s imperative to understand that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to obesity. Everyone’s physiology, environment, and priorities are completely different. You cannot expect to barge in to someone's situation and fix anything. This is why I’ve created a simple checklist for broaching obesity in the right way. One that will create a lasting impact, whether you’re a health professional, friend, or family member.

We need to have this discussion, and we need to do it correctly.

3 Important Factors for Talking About Obesity

Trust Before you attempt to bring up the topic of obesity with someone, ensure you’ve built a rapport with them. What does this mean? You’ve put in the time, you yourself have been vulnerable with them, and you’ve clearly established the relationship as a safe space. Trust is absolutely critical to having productive conversations around health. Heck, you may not even be the right person to talk about this with a certain individual. Don’t let that encourage you, but instead, find people you can influence for the better.

As a kinesiologist and personal trainer, I’m always stressing to my clients that their opinions around health are extremely important to our society. Sure, you can see an ‘expert’ coach you on social media and that may sway you to do something. What’s much more powerful, however, is when we build each other up towards a culture that promotes wellness. The truth is, you have much more influence over your circle than any health professional could because you can reach people they can’t.

Timing You can absolutely have the right conversation at the wrong time. If someone isn’t in a place to talk about obesity or take action, that’s totally ok. Life is crazy, and everyone’s priorities are different. This is where we can often go wrong, as we attempt to force someone into a decision they don’t want for themselves. This isn’t healthy in the slightest, and will often be counterproductive. When the person is ready, you can dive further into a conversation about action…but only when they round that corner.

I do feel like there can still be education in this ‘pre-contemplative’ space, but you must take great care in how you deliver it. This is where you could fail to use the correct language or intentions, and come across as ‘fatphobic’ instead of the caring person you’re striving to be.

Tone Your tone is absolutely everything. This is not the time for shaming, forcing the issue, or offering your ‘5 tips to weight loss success’. I honestly wouldn’t recommend that you get overly scientific either, at least not at the get-go. Instead, speak honestly about your concerns and do it out of love and respect. Remember that many people struggle with their weight for a variety of reasons, and it’s often not their fault. Use empathy when you converse and remember, remember, remember… this is a person, not some kind of project that needs fixing.

In Closing,

Fatphobia is all too real, and it’s driving obesity rates to an all-time high. Furthermore, the polarizing stereotypes we permit are leading to countless psychological and social issues. We as a society cannot sweep this issue under the rug any longer. It’s time to take action because this condition is putting millions of people at risk every day.

By becoming educated and sensitive around obesity, we can broach this topic constructively. Furthermore, we can begin to empower others in a way that fosters health and wellbeing, all while stifling the toxic views of our culture.

If you’re as tired of the ‘fatphobic’ label as I am, let’s take action. Let’s treat people as people. Let’s promote health and wellness in every avenue of life. Lastly and most importantly, let’s stop pretending like we don’t have a fatphobic culture, and start doing something that goes against the grain.