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For years Americans have been scolded for being fat because “evidence” has proven that being overweight increases the chance of developing serious illnesses and dying. However, we know that many Americans have not taken the message to heart because surveys report that about two-thirds of adults are considered overweight or obese. Part of the problem is the way the media and health community have approached the subject—mostly through trying to change behavior rather than thinking—and part is due to the don’t-tell-me-what-to-do-ness of the human spirit.
Lately we’ve been hearing “news” that really isn’t new to people who struggle with overweight and those of us who treat them: that the subject of health and weight is far more complicated than previously thought. There have been a recent spate of books and headline articles that tell us that being fat does not automatically up the chance of developing life-threatening illness. Take a recent New York Post article that included this bit of information, “Being overweight boosts the risk of dying from diabetes and kidney disease but not cancer or heart disease, and carrying some extra pounds appears actually to protect against a host of other causes of death.” The article continues with experts both challenging and defending these results.
This debate calls to mind another ongoing one about the cause of overweight. Whereas we’d been told for years that overeating and putting on pounds was due to lack of self-control and will power, in the last decade science has finally acknowledged that the issue is far from simple and that we have to throw into the mix of understanding factors such as genetics, environmental toxins, sleep deprivation and increased stress. Once again, we’re finding that truths about eating and weight may not be truths at all.
My pointing in bringing up the contradictions inherent in these complex subjects is not to take sides, but to encourage all of us to use our critical thinking skills when it comes to eating, weight, and health. In truth, it is hard to know what to believe; for every new theory that comes out or is debunked, we have to figure out how it applies to us. Does the fact that genetics is a contributing factor to overweight mean we should give up trying to become “normal” eaters? What does a decreased risk for cancer or heart disease mean regarding the food choices we make? What are other motivators we can use to attain and maintain a comfortable, healthy weight other than fear of illness?
Gaining knowledge is vital to well-being, but it should not take the place of finding our own reasons—aside from scientific pronouncements—for wanting to be fit and healthy.
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