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3 Takeaways from “Fat Talk”

I’ve mentioned Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture by Virginia Sole-Smith a couple of times, but the book had so many great points that I wanted to share a few more of them. And if any of this resonates with you, I highly encourage reading the book, even if you don’t have kids.


1: Surprising predictors of weight gain and eating disorders

Despite what some people claim, how much you weigh is more complicated than watching how many calories you eat. Genetics plays a big role, as does what foods you have access to, your levels of stress, and more.


Eating disorders are also complicated. Kids might develop an eating disorder, or disordered eating, based on what they see at home, their use of social media, exposure to airbrushed ideals of what bodies should look like, etc.


Yet as Sole-Smith noted in the book, research has found that two things are the best predictors of weight gain and eating disorders – and they’re not what you might think. Those predictors are dieting and being teased about weight.


A lot of people are unwilling to accept that, but once I thought about it, it made sense to me.


Dieting is all about restriction and control, but that’s simply not sustainable for most people, especially kids and teens who are likely to be pushing boundaries and experimenting with rebellion. I know as a teen that I sometimes ate more than I might have otherwise as a way of rebelling against all the focus on my weight, and I don’t think I’m the only one.


The part about weight teasing, or simply a general emphasis on weight, was initially a bit more surprising, though also somewhat validating. I was fascinated to learn that a paper in JAMA Pediatrics in 2014 “found that being labeled ‘too fat’ in childhood was associated with higher odds of having an obese BMI a decade later, no matter what kids weighed when they were so labeled.” (p. 41, emphasis added)


How could simply being considered overweight, regardless of your actual weight, lead to weight gain? Unfortunately, as you probably know, kids can be cruel, and teasing a child or teen about their weight may lead them to look for comfort, sometimes from food. Kids who are teased may also eat in secret, or binge eat, actions that contribute to eating disorders.


These are just a couple of examples, but they give you some idea of how things that may seem harmless have negative and unintended consequences.


2: Weight loss and metabolism

One of the other reasons dieting can lead to weight gain is that it can change your metabolism. I’d heard of this before, but Sole-Smith’s description was one of the clearest I’ve seen.


Our bodies all have a base metabolic rate, which is how much energy you burn simply to keep your body functioning – keeping your body warm, heart beating, blood circulating, etc. This takes a surprising amount of energy. According to an online calculator I found, my base metabolic rate is about 1400 calories per day, which I think is fairly average.


Then if you exercise or are active in some way, that requires additional energy. For me, it comes to burning about 2000 calories a day.


But here’s the rub. According to research, losing weight reduces your base metabolic rate. “This means that a 150-pound person who was once 200 pounds burns energy more slowly than someone who has always been 150 pounds – and so the dieter will only maintain the lower weight if they continue to eat less than their new same-size peers.” (p. 63)


I think the magnitude of this may also depend on how quickly someone loses weight, and the change in metabolism is more extreme for those who lose weight quickly. But there’s likely some change either way, and it can last for years.


Thinking about my past, I know that I used to need less        and the fact that I can eat more now and maintain my weight, many years after weight loss, is likely due to my metabolism having slowly recalibrated to my lower weight.


All this means that it’s particularly maddening for those who go on diets, lose weight fast, and then find they can’t eat much of anything without gaining the weight – and more – back.


3: What fat kids need

I liked all of the book, but I especially appreciated the end, when Sole-Smith talked about what fat kids actually need. And this may come as a surprise, but it’s not fat shaming, forced diets or meal plans, prescribed exercise, or being made to feel that something is wrong with their bodies.


What fat kids need is:

  • to be seen and accepted as they are

  • to be treated with respect and dignity

  • the knowledge that parental love is not conditional on their body size

  • trust from others that the kids know what’s best for their bodies

  • seeing their parents advocating for them

  • support and empathy for the bias they experience

They also need to be allowed to be kids. Sometimes those who are bigger are also seen as older and treated that way, especially Black girls, as Dulce Sloan discussed with Vashti Harrison, author of Big, on The Daily Show.


But no matter their size, fat kids are still kids and need to be treated that way.


Acceptance is key

If people who read Fat Talk come away with only one thing, I hope it’s the importance of accepting fat kids – and fat adults – as they are. The emphasis on weight loss and being thin, with the accompanied shame and relentless diets and bullying, has not made anyone healthier or happier in all the years it’s been going on.


Being overweight is not a moral failure or a lack of self-control. Lots of factors contribute to it, but since research proves that dieting and telling kids they’re “too fat” doesn’t help, it’s time to try empathy, acceptance, and support.


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