Monday, October 22, 2007

Who's Fat? Who's Healthy?

It is true that we are an increasingly sedentary and unhealthy nation. We work too hard, spend too much, and anesthetize ourselves with bad TV and even worse food. Long commutes and increasingly hectic family schedules make it nearly impossible to cram in any physical activity. Organic food is expensive and sometimes hard to come by. But high fructose corn syrup is cheap and ubiquitous.

Here's what else is true: Instead of addressing the ways that the American food industry, work culture and lifestyle is making us less healthy, we've become fat-phobic Puritans, quick to heap disdain on fatties who lack self-control and eager to try the latest diet, surgery or diarrhea-inducing over-the-counter medicine to find our own redemption. Our natural eating habits have been undone by endless rules about the right way to eat. Is it more carbs or fewer carbs? No white foods or raw foods? Gluten free or sugar free? Grazing or three squares a day? Gone too is our ability to realize that health comes in all sizes, and that appearance alone is not an accurate indicator of health.

BMI measurement has long come under fire as an indicator of "normal" weight. A 2005 article in Scientific American says:

One of those complicated realities, concurs Campos, a professor of law at
the University of Colorado at Boulder, is the widely accepted evidence that
genetic differences account for 50 to 80 percent of the variation in fatness
within a population. Because no safe and widely practical methods have been
shown to induce long-term loss of more than about 5 percent of body weight,
Campos says, "health authorities are giving people advice--maintain a body mass
index in the 'healthy weight' range--that is literally impossible for many of
them to follow." Body mass index, or BMI, is a weight-to-height ratio.


Kate Harding at kateharding.net has assembled an eye-opening slideshow labeling women "underweight," "normal," "overweight" and "obese" based on body mass index. Not only does Harding's "BMI Project" illustrate the folly of BMI standards as a sole indicator of healthy weight, it also challenges weight-based labels. Notice how uncomfortable it feels to see vibrant women with weight-related labels slapped across their images.

I'm still trying to figure out the weight thing, but I've been working on it long enough to have discovered a few truths:

  • Focus on healthy living, not weight and never dieting.
  • No food is inherently "good" or "bad," nor does eating a particular food make you "good" or "bad."
  • Drink water.
  • Eat whole foods and avoid processed junk. (Hint: When shopping. Stick to the perimeter of the supermarket.)
  • Listen to your body and give it what it wants. Eat when you are hungry. If your stomach is growling, your body needs fuel. Stop eating before you are full.
  • Get moving. Walk. Take the stairs. Do yoga.
  • Mediate and reduce stress.

But most of all, realize that you are perfect just the way you are: flabby thighs, junk in the trunk, soft middle, double chin and all. Don't wait until you reach some magical weight before you start living. Life is far too short for that.

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