3 Ways Focusing on Weight Loss Can Backfire
I’ve been reading the book “You Just Need to Lose Weight”: And 19 Other Myths About Fat People (Myths Made in America) by Aubrey Gordon, and even though I thought I had a good handle on fat-shaming and weight stigma, I’ve learned a lot. So I’ll be writing at least a couple of posts about that, but I also highly encourage everyone to read the book.
As the title suggests, the book covers many myths about fat people, and the first section is about the myth that it’s easy to “just lose weight”. That’s what we hear from many people, including those in the medical field, but as anyone who has been considered overweight or fat knows, it’s not that simple.
Losing weight isn’t easy
Back in college, I had a staph infection that resulted in getting painful lesions all over my body. When I went to see a doctor about it, I’ll never forget his reaction. He didn’t see this as a medical problem.
He assumed it was because my clothes were chafing and said, “We might need to shrink you.” And as if it wasn’t clear what he meant, he spread his hands apart to the width of my body and then brought them much closer together.
At the time, I weighed 240 pounds – but I had been very heavy for years by that point and had never had problems like these lesions before. They only started after I went to the hospital to have a cyst drained.
Me in college
And even setting that aside, how exactly would this magical “shrinking” work when, after every diet I’d tried, I had only ended up heavier?
He never officially said he was judging me based on my weight, but I knew he was. So did the doctor who drained my cyst, and I’m sure many other people who saw me on the street. That’s why Gordon’s words rang so true for me:
“We are expected to judge ourselves on what we’re told are the objective measures of our bodies, and we are reminded that others will judge us based on our bodies too.” (loc 293)
And yet, it’s now clear that people gain weight or are unable to lose weight for many reasons outside of personal choice or behavior. Some of these are medical, with conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome or type II diabetes, or being on certain medications, leading to weight gain.
Genetics plays a big role, too. My dad is overweight, his mother was heavy, and so was her father. I don’t know about earlier generations, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that pattern has existed for a long time.
Then there’s the question of hunger and satiety. Gordon pointed out that “fifteen hormones… are believed to shape our appetite” and that we still don’t fully know how they all work. Nor is it fully clear why, “regardless of our willpower, when we lose weight, our bodies seem geared to returning us to our highest weight.” (loc 494)
All of this means that no one knows how to “shrink” anyone, at least not in any significant amounts and not for the long term.
Not all calories are the same
You’ve almost certainly heard the expression, “calories in, calories out” – the idea being that if you take in a certain number of calories, all you need to do is to burn more calories and you’ll lose weight.
I’ve been suspicious of this for a long time, for a couple of reasons. One is that some people don’t seem to gain weight no matter how much they eat, even if they aren’t very active. I knew a couple of people like this in college, and it never seemed fair.
But there’s also the fact that, while nutrition labels may tell us how many calories a food has, they don’t tell factor in the number of calories our bodies can metabolize, which is known as caloric availability. This means that even if a good has a certain calorie count, you’ll only digest some percentage or portion of those calories.
So, while “calories in, calories out” sounds good, it’s not the way things actually work, at least not how we’ve been told to think about it.
Focusing on weight harms many, including kids
The chapter that struck me the most in the first section of Gordon’s book was Myth 3: “Parents are responsible for their child’s weight. Only bad parents let their children get fat.”
I could relate all too well to that one, from the perspective of being an overweight kid. But it never occurred to me as an adolescent that others would be judging not only me but also my parents because of my weight – or that someone might want to remove me from my home because my weight meant my parents were “neglectful.”
I’m not sure kids would have been taken away because of their weight in the 1990s, but it’s happened in more recent years. Here are some examples, all about kids whose only “problem” was being overweight (loc 660-693):
An 8-year-old boy was taken from his mother’s care in 2011
Two English teens were taken by social services in 2021
I also didn’t know that many schools send home “BMI report cards,” which requires weighing kids in school. That might have made me skip school.
What makes all these even more heartbreaking is how negatively children are impacted when they’re taken from their parents. Those impacts include reduced brain development in separated children, as well as increased symptoms of depression and anxiety. And once those kids grow up, they have a much higher risk of alcoholism, arrest, and gambling addiction, as well as making less money. (loc 752-758)
And that doesn’t even touch on the social problems like having to restart somewhere new, all while feeling loss and separation anxiety.
What the book didn’t say was whether any heavy kids lose weight after being removed from their parents, but I have my doubts. And it seems clear from all the negative results that this separation is not a good option. If the kids are well-adjusted and well-cared for, size should not be a reason to remove them from loving homes.
Focusing on weight won’t make you thin
Our society is obsessed with diets and trying to make people thin, but that’s clearly not working. And that obsession may be a reason for at least some people getting heavier.
No one has a foolproof method for everyone to lose weight and keep it off, but still, our society – and many people – judges those who are heavy. That judgment may make the heavy person want to lose weight, but that doesn’t help because so much of the time, trying backfires and you end up heavier.
So, instead of focusing on being thin, it makes more sense to focus on accepting yourself and others for who they are, regardless of their body size or shape. That might not sound easy, but just keep reminding yourself that acceptance is a much better option than yo-yo dieting, and it will make you happier.