Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Earth is Flat and Other Truths and Heresies

The earth is flat. We all know that. If the earth weren't flat, the level you or your handyperson used to hang that picture in your living room or install your new kitchen cabinets just wouldn't have worked.

If the earth weren't flat, people living in the prairies wouldn't be able to see for "miles and miles" (as The Who used to sing).

If the earth weren't flat, people in Tierra del Fuego would be standing on their heads all the time. For that matter, so would we, seen from the perspective of Tierra del Fuegans.

Right? Right! Wrong.

The thing is, any four year old (at least living in the First World) has seen a 3D version of our world in the form of a globe and knows for a fact that the world is round. Although some people still belong to the Flat Earth Society, I think there is a very broad consensus shared by both lay people and scientists alike that our planet--the world we live in--is actually round.

Notwithstanding this truth, I suspect that over the years, many people were even burned at the stake for daring to say that the earth was round and not flat.

In fact, it took thousands and thousands of years for humankind to admit to this simple fact. Why? Because our eyes don't lie...even though they do.

Controversy is a normal part of the human condition and today's controversial, "out of the mainstream opinion" often becomes an accepted, scientific fact, though it may takes centuries to do so.

Take global warming, for instance. It seems quite obvious to me that global warming is a real phenomenon. As I look out my window this January morning and see the brownish lawn and leafless trees that forty years ago marked the beginning of winter--not the middle, as is the case today!-- I feel quite sure that global warming is something to worry about. But then again, for many (including, I suspect, some of you reading today), global warming is still just a theory--and a very questionable theory at that.

What does all this have to do with weight?

Here's my opinion, based on what I see as the most serious, honest science: when it comes to asserting that losing weight is the only legitimate path to good health, we're still living in the Middle Ages and the world is still definitely flat.

"Common sense" tells us that the lighter we are, the healthier we are. "We all know" that obesity is a sure sign of ill health. "Everyone knows" that there is an obesity epidemic raging out there, and that "for the first time in human history" our "significantly fatter" children are set to live shorter, sicker lives than their parents or grandparents. "You can't deny" that people just weren't fat a hundred years ago.

So says the mainstream. So say Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, Dr. Dukan, the myriad of weight loss companies out there, the newly slim stars who shill for these companies, the newly re-fat stars who now shill for their own weight loss systems that THIS TIME will make them finally and irrevocably thin because WE ALL KNOW without a shadow of a doubt that SLIM = HEALTHY.

If I had a penny for every time that I read or heard, "I'm losing weight to get healthy", I'd be a rich woman indeed.

In fact, if I had a penny for every time I repeated this mantra to myself, I wouldn't be worried about paying for my kids' education or making sure I have enough money to retire without having to live on dollar-store pasta, canned sauce and cheap, yellow, chemical-laced margarine on white bread.

Unfortunately, and despite a growing body of research to the contrary, our society has reached the apex of the slim = healthy mania. We are bombarded with this message. The media, the "experts", our mother-in-law, our doctors, our friends and neighbours all know the truth. And the truth is that you are fat because you are a lazy, ignorant, weak-willed Twinkie eating slob and you are unhealthy (if not today, then tomorrow or next year) because you are fat.

Remember: all the above is TRUE. And please keep in mind: the earth really is flat.

Tonight, I'll be attending a talk by Dr. Steven Blair, a professor in the Department of Exercise Science at the University of South Carolina and winner of the "Bloomberg Manulife Prize for the Promotion of Active Health". The talk is entitled "How 30 Minutes a Day Could Save Your Life". I'm really looking forward to going and intend to take copious notes. Then I'll report back on why when it comes to weight and health, the earth is actually not flat, no matter what our eyes (and the media and our friends and neighbours) tell us.

Stay tuned.


  1. Ah yes, you are so right. The world seems to be full of flat-earthers. I look forward to reading your report-back.

  2. In my opinion, the problem is that there is no concrete proof of many things and people tend to "choose sides" when that is the case. There are facts, but they get generalized or explained away.

    To use your example, there is definitely global warming going on. This is a fact based on temperature data. However, the cause of global warming is in question. Is it a natural warming of the earth much as there was a natural cooling (a "mini ice age") in the 70's) or is it the result of human activity? We can only guess at the cause. My feeling about these situations is not to assert that I know the cause, but to choose the least destructive path regardless of causation. Does it hurt to reduce my material and energy consumption and therefore act in accord with the possibility that human activity is the cause? No, it is a good thing independent of the effect on global warming. My life is less comfortable, for sure. I would like to be as warm as I like in winter and as cold as I want in summer, but I put up with it because there are many good reasons to do it. I consume fewer limited resources. My costs are lower, and IF global warming is affected by such things, I'm diminishing my impact. My behavior is good even if global warming is a natural thing, so I do it.

    The same can be said of the weight/health issue. Weight and health cannot be 100% proven to be correlated, but there are certain facts. If you are lighter, you put less pressure on your joints, bones and muscles which reduces the chance of wearing them out faster or having certain types of pain. Back pain often diminishes or disappears with weight loss. This is a fact.

    Additionally, it is a fact that people who are inclined to develop type 2 diabetes who are overweight will see a normalization of blood sugar numbers and a remission of their condition if they lose weight. Obesity does not cause type 2 diabetes, but for those who are obese and develop it, they can solve this issue with weight loss. Again, it is accepting a less comfortable situation (eating less food than one might like) in order to solve a problem. Both my husband and brother-in-law had dicey blood sugar numbers at one point because they had put on weight. Both saw dramatic improvement through weight loss. This is simply the way it works as visceral fat puts pressure on glands that brings on Type 2 diabetes. Denying the problem's cause and solution seems pointless. This isn't a problem that is fixable with HAES. It's solvable with weight loss.

    I am all onboard with saying that health and weight are not correlated. However, if you are sick and it is because of weight (too much or too little), then I'm not going to jump on the denial bandwagon. Health isn't about weight, unless it is. And it sometimes is and sometimes isn't. One problem is the prejudice and the pat decision-making that oppresses fat people and makes them engage in more destructive behaviors, but another is flat-out denial of proven relationships between health and weight.

  3. Once again, SFG, I think that you are perhaps misunderstanding my point of view, or at least taking my words in a direction they are not meant to go.

    On an individual basis, a weight gain or loss may be correlated to certain medical issues, however looking to weight loss as the primary solution for a health issue is wishful thinking for the vast majority of people. In addition, when we put all our faith and hope in a solution which very rarely works (95% failure rate) and indeed often leads to further problems (not only regain but additional pounds on top of those initially lost), we find ourselves compounding rather than in any way solving the issues.

    Yes, weight loss can be correlated with better joint health. But so can exercise--even of the gentlest kind. Indeed, one of the basic problems for people with joint issues is muscle weakness. If the individual learns to work the muscles around the affected joint in a way that protects it and enables more movement with less pain, great strides (pardon the pun) can be made. And as we know, when pain is reduced, people move more and it becomes a virtuous cycle of pain reduction accompanied by an increase in healthful movement, leading to better cardio-vascular health, and the beat goes on.

    Let's compare this hypothetical program of physiotherapy and increased movement to a simple admonition to "eat less". The dieter is in pain, has trouble moving and now, to top it off, is pretty much in a constant state of low level hunger. The stress of hunger compounds the stress related to pain, and finally, in the vast majority of cases, the dieter gives up and possibly eats even more to soothe both the physical and emotional pain.

    Inasmuch as a person wants to do the best for their health (and far be it from me to impose that desire on anyone), the last thing I am advocating is to stuff oneself with chemical-laden or sugar-laden so-called comfort food. What I AM advocating is doing something positive (exercise, learning to move more and better while protecting the joint, the back, etc.) rather than negative (basically what amounts, from a physiological point of view, to starving).

    The same can apply to diabetes, or a pre-diabetic state. A change in the types of food one eats and increasing physical activity have been shown over and over again to regulate blood sugar. But no, we look to weight loss as the universal panacea, and the vicious (not virtuous cycle) continues.

    I'll discuss this all further when I make my report on Dr. Blair's talk. Coming up soon...

  4. Eagerly awaiting your report Wendy...
    Meanwhile, another anecdote from my "experiment of one": when I was diagnosed w/thyroid carcinoma @ age 25, I was the veritable picture of "health"**. I weighed 50 lbs than I do now (22 yrs after thyroidectomy), jogged 3 mi daily, etc etc.
    However, I'm certain my nutritional status & overall well-being is better these days - I have not been felled by the flu or seasonal sinusitis attacks (which used to involve several wks of congestion, cough, & low-grade misery) - for several yrs now since I've improved my DIET & supplementation regimen.
    **Many friends/family of course reacted w/horror to the dreaded diagnosis; imagine their confusion when instead of wasting away, I grew stouter & even more "substantial" over the yrs!?! not yr typical "cancer patient" ;-)

  5. I wish our focus was able to be consistently on "eat real, good, clean food" and "Hey, go and walk a half hour a day!" Instead of the "I wanna look like Jen and Angelina in a swimsuit."

    But, I have to face it that for me, obesity WAS disease-impacting. At 299 and 250 and 230 pounds, I was prediabetic and hypertensive. At 182, I'm not on any meds for that and sugar and blood pressure are normal. Energy is better. Quality of life is DRAMATICALLY better--from sex to mobility to liking how I look in a dress again. My plantar fasciitis cleared up and while obesity messed up my lower extremity joints, less weight means less pain.

    So, while I totally accept that the marker shouldn't be totally weight dependent--what one eats, not just how much should matter a hella lot--for me, weight correlated. As I lost, I felt better. As I lost, meds got ditched. As I lost, my acanthosis cleared up, showing I was regaining insulin sensitivity.

    I exercised 2 years before losing weight. The exercise alone didn't fix my issues. It improved some things (flexibility, strength), but it didn't resolve it.

    I had to lose fat.

    So, for some, obesity is not affecting them as much or at me, it was leading to T2 Diabetes...and early death and disablity from THAT would have been a no-brainer.

    Weight matters to some, perhaps many of us. But yeah, weight ain't the is influenced by a lot. Genetics, activity, quality of food, rest, destressing, etc.