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Should Everyone Be Put on a Diet Due to COVID-19?

I was going to write about something else today, but then I saw Bill Maher’s New Rule from his show on Friday, about the so-called Quarantine 15, and I wanted to respond to it.

You may have heard that some people are gaining weight while we’re in lockdown, and unfortunately, those carrying extra weight seem to be at high risk for becoming severely ill and dying if they get COVID-19. I’m not going to argue with the study showing that connection, although I do wonder how much obesity itself is the cause.

Also along those lines, I find it interesting that even though Maine has the highest obesity rate of any New England state, and we tie with Virginia in position 28 for obesity in the nation, we have among the lowest rates of COVID-19 infections and one of the lowest death rates.

But setting that aside, my main concern is how Bill Maher talked about this and some assumptions he seemed to make.

Good Health is Not the Same Thing as Being Thin

At the beginning of the segment, Maher talks about problems with obesity. Then later he shifts to talking about the need to have better general health, and how a good way to do that is to improve your diet.

I agree that getting proper nutrition is a good thing, and I even wrote a post about why the pandemic is an important time to eat mindfully.

The thing is, eating good food doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with your size. You can eat nutritious foods and be heavy, or eat junk food and be skinny.

Similarly, health and size aren’t the same thing. Not all heavy people are unhealthy, and not all thin people are healthy. Additionally, I wrote another blog post a while back about the book Big Fat Lies by Glenn Gaessar. In the book, Gaessar points out that in some cases, being heavier is healthier for you, with a notable example that women with a BMI of 28 or higher are less likely to get lung cancer.

Finally, for many, the obsession with being thin leads to eating disorders, and those are deadly. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and 1 out of 5 deaths for those with anorexia is death by suicide.

This makes it even more important to remember that thin does not automatically equal healthy and fat doesn’t guarantee that someone is unhealthy.

Not Everything Is in Your Control

Another aspect that bothered me was when Maher implied that people could simply lose weight and get in shape if they tried. It almost sounded as if he was saying that anyone who decided to lose weight could do it, but we all know that’s not true.

Or even if you take weight out of the equation, it’s not always simple to suddenly change your eating habits or activity levels, and in many ways, the pandemic makes this even harder. As I wrote earlier, trying to become healthy right now has many challenges, including less access to fresh food, limited time and energy, and not having places to exercise.

I agree with Maher that we should focus on getting nutritious foods to all communities, but not everyone knows how to use those foods. Plus, if you’ve grown up eating a certain way, changing that now could make this time feel even more difficult because you’re giving up one of the few things that’s comforting and familiar.

So – I don’t think it’s as simple as he implied.

Donuts Aren’t Napalm

Maher also mentioned that Krispy Kreme had given some donuts to healthcare workers and that it was like “giving napalm to firefighters.” I have to disagree. Donuts aren’t napalm, or even close.

And it’s not just donuts. Putting that kind of judgment on any food is bound to backlash. That’s why diets don’t work. Eventually, you resent the feelings of restriction and being told that you’re not good enough or that you’re bad for eating something, and intentions to change your eating habits go out the window.

I’m not saying that everyone should have sweets all the time, but saying that people shouldn’t have any sweets is going too far in the other direction.

Body Positivity Isn’t a Bad Thing

Towards the end of the piece, Maher mentioned that body positivity “shouldn’t be a third rail anymore.” But I don’t think it’s a third rail to begin with.

Body positivity is about feeling good about your body. It doesn’t mean you’ll never want to change things, but if you do, you can do it from a place of acceptance.

Dr. Michelle May, founder of the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating program, likes to say it this way: “We care for what we care about.”

She means that when we care about ourselves and our bodies and accept them as they are, we’re more likely to take care of them – and that includes eating more mindfully.

Putting Everyone on a Diet Isn’t the Answer

I agree that the recent studies about obesity and COVID-19 are concerning, but having everyone go on a diet right now isn’t the answer. It wouldn’t work, and it would stress people out in other ways that would also harm their health, both mentally and physically.

Rather, I think it’s a good time for everyone to remember that we need to stay careful and follow guidelines and do what we can to keep the disease from spreading in the first place.

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