Almost every week, there’s a new study on the front page of Reddit that talks about some new way scientists have discovered that obesity is terrible and a major threat to public health. Lately, it’s often been about the future health risks for offspring of obese mothers.
I know from personal experience that one of the common responses to body positive ideas, including intuitive eating and stopping the cycle of trying to lose weight, is to say but what about the science that says being fat is bad? What about all these studies that show being fat is bad for you, your kids, and your neighbor?
The easy answer is that science does matter. I don’t dispute the fact that obesity is correlated to a lot of increasing risks to health. It’s important to remember that correlation means there’s a relationship; correlation doesn’t explain how the relationship works or what direction causality might go in. While correlation is a really important clue and concept in scientific study, it’s also very revealing that headlines, scientists, and readers alike all will assume correlation is enough to change policies and make health recommendations when it comes to obesity.
The danger is that public perception of science is not what makes good science or good health care; the press of cultural opinion of what is “healthy” can heavily affect individual doctors’ treatment of patients and wider scale policies. We also know that medicine and public health policies are susceptible to influence from companies that have monied interest in how their product is received, which means an industry with powerful lobbyists could push public health in a bad direction that may not reflect the best science.
The problem I have with most studies of obesity that say other ways fat is “bad” is that it does nothing to actually reduce obesity. Scary science and news about how terrible obesity is increases stigma and a lack of transparency about the lack of evidence for successful weight loss methods means that the same old “how about don’t eat so much crap” and “just exercise more” is the standard response of people who want to jump on the I’m Better Than A Fat Person Choo Choo Express.
I’m not a scientist or a trained researcher. I have a lot of bias – I want body positive ideas to grow because they’ve helped me be healthier and happier as a person. Making changes in my life and attitude has helped other people I know be healthier and happier. I’ve never seen someone shamed or bullied into better coping skills or being in tune with their body. From the extensive reading I’ve done, science knows this to be the case. Shaming and bullying makes health and coping skills worse in many ways, leading to depression and anxiety and avoiding medical care.
So why are there not more studies – or at least more headlines on studies – that actually investigate how to prevent obesity, and lower the health risks for folks who are already fat? My best guess is that it’s unpopular in the public eye and that the folks who are putting money into research don’t care about actually changing public health for the better. The public wants to keep believing fat is bad, and the companies that know that want to keep making their profits.