I may have alluded to this in comments or a previous post, and yet I feel that it’s an important enough issue to dedicate an entire article to. My concern is that the fitness industry, diet industry, weight loss industry, and perhaps even the world in general has it’s priorities wrong when it comes to the issue of obesity and how to offer the best advice and service to people who are considered overweight or obese.
The problem as I see it is that we play the blame game, naming all sorts of reasons why obesity exists and targeting the symptoms of a health problem rather than the actual health problem itself. To be fair, I can see why this happens. We see a problem in the bowel, so we treat the problem in the bowel. We see plaque developing in arteries, so we treat the problem in the arteries, and we blame all sorts of things from diet to smoking as if any one individual thing is the cause of the problem being treated. Research likewise focusses very narrowly because it’s impossible to test every possible combination of thousands of different conditions that are merely suspected of contributing to the cause of a problem. So we end up blaming one thing or another for obesity when the reality is that the problem exists no matter what the cause, and the treatment needs to reflect the actual problem itself and how to deal with it.
While I’m on the subject of blaming, who should we blame for the obesity epidemic? To start with, the diet and weight loss companies are to blame because they are all focussed so heavily on their products and their “weight loss is king” attitude, that they don’t provide anyone with a realistic approach to regaining their health. The food industry is to blame because it will use any cheap and unhealthy thing it can get its hands on in order to maximise its profit on the food it produces, bulking up foods using inferior and cheaper product in much the same way as drug dealers cut baking powder into cocaine. Governments are to blame for inventing “food pyramids” and “plates” that focus more on protecting the interests of the food industries rather than on the realities of each individual’s specific health needs. Schools are to blame for teaching children based on faulty and improperly researched information fed to them by the governments and food companies, and parents are to blame for not knowing any better, but only because they learned all of their unhealthy habits from school, or simply because fast, junk, and heavily processed foods are all that are available or affordable to them, thus perpetuating the problem to future generations. I’ll also blame the fitness & health professionals, TV shows and others who themselves blame weight as being the problem that needs to be solved, when it isn’t weight they should be focussing on at all.
Weight is something that I feel is the most abused and misunderstood health measurement. At some point in history, someone decided to look at a whole bunch of people, grouped them and build a statistical picture based on observed averages, so that if you were a certain height you’re expected to have a certain weight to be considered healthy. Never mind that there are all sorts of other factors besides weight that contribute to a person’s relative state of health! If you are obese, you are expected to lose weight, and if you are severely underweight you are simply expected to gain weight. The problem with using weight as a determining factor of the state of a person’s health is that weight itself is simply a measure of the state of a person’s entire body mass at a given point in time, and doesn’t take into account that person’s body composition. Are the bones thicker, thinner, hollow or dense? How much muscle, and how much fat and water is there? Weight doesn’t distinguish between any of these other factors, it just sums them all up together and assumes that everyone’s body composition will be the same, when the reality is that even amongst an entirely healthy population, there will be a great deal of variation in the composition of each individual’s body.
Now I’m not writing yet another “Don’t rely on BMI” article here. What I have to say goes much deeper than simply choosing one flawed system of measure for another. What I want to highlight is the emotional impact of weight, and the social stigma that seems to be attached to it. Even worse perhaps is the political correctness that I believe has contributed to the maligning of “weight” and its misrepresentation as a specific health problem. The BMI chart is a good example of what I mean when I mention political correctness. In adults, there are a series of Obese categories once you get past the overweight range, yet for children you would never say obese, you would simply say overweight. This is to avoid labelling children as being obese so that the child doesn’t develop a poor body image and the poor psychological state that goes with it. There it is again, we say people can be Overweight making weight the focus of the problem when weight itself isn’t the problem at all.
So what is a better way to view obesity if not using weight as a measure? How about undoing political correctness and simply using the word “FAT”. Yes, there, I said it. It’s all about FAT. In particular, the relative amount of body fat compared to the composition of the rest of a person’s body. Fat is the problem, not weight. You can’t be overweight if you don’t have excesses of body fat. Rather than saying that I have been overweight, I prefer to say that I have too much body fat. At my worst I had over 35% body fat, and with very little muscle mass. Even though I may have been considered technically only a little overweight at the time, the real problem was that I was unfit, had poor muscle conditioning, and I carried too much body fat for healthy metabolic functioning. Basically, I was Fat. Not overweight, just simply fat!
We need a certain amount of body fat, which is generally termed essential body fat. For men this is around 2-5%, and for women around 10-13%. For a good athletic build, you would normally expect to see about 6-13% body fat in men, and around 14-20% in women. So what about people who have nearly no body fat and who are considered dangerously underweight? I think a similar definition applies, in that it isn’t the weight that is the problem. When body fat reserves are depleted the body cannibalises muscle tissues in order to remain alive. When muscle conditioning becomes poor, and is accompanied by weakness, and tendon and joint pain, it isn’t weight that is the issue, but all of the things that have resulted in a body becoming gaunt and weak that are the problem, and not weight itself.
The myth that weight is an issue isn’t helped by all of these weight loss journey shows on the TV. Yes, I’m talking about shows like The Biggest Loser, and Extreme Makeover, and all of those other shows that make the result on a scale the ultimate goal of the obese people that the trainers are trying to help. Now please don’t assume I am criticising the trainers themselves, or the people who appear on these shows. I think that they do a marvellous job of transforming the lives of the people on these shows, yet the goal always seems to be to lose weight, and the numbers are all about the kilos and pounds of overall body weight. When small gains or losses are made, you hear emotional speeches about the diet and exercise, and while I agree that these are contributing factors, there are other factors that aren’t discussed or taken into account because it probably wouldn’t make good television.
When you are training hard, yes you are burning fat, and when you’re diet restricts your calories, your body will turn to its fat reserves. What seems to be forgotten however is that while you train your muscles and feed your body protein, the muscles use the protein to repair and build, and so you end up gaining weight that might have been burned off the fat reserves, yet added as muscle, and you need that muscle mass in order to effectively burn off more of the excess fat. When you are hydrating your body properly, you will use more water in your body tissues, and all of this will be reflected on a scale simply as weight, with no explanation to you as to why the weight is fluctuating and seems to go down more slowly than you would like. Replacing body fat with muscle is a good thing, yet is forgotten when the expectations are purely focussed on the scale. For those who are doing their journey on their own and who might not really understand why they can’t get the great results that they see on the TV, it can be soul crushing, and all because their expectations are set unrealistically high and based on the fairy stories that the world of television spins. Oh, and don’t forget all of home gym machine/contraption companies that show you how you will only get great results with their uber-expensive device, and by results they all seem to be focussed on losing weight and the perfect bikini bodies. You know their advertising:
“I lost 130 pounds using the ab-destroyer max 4001, and now I feel confident taking my shirt off!!”
As I mentioned earlier, the priorities are totally wrong. We should not be so fixated on weight. Seriously, put away your bathroom scale, and only bring it out if you are using the value to help you calculate something specific that is of value to you. Instead, focus on your ability to do something meaningful to you. Look at strength and stamina as a measure of your success. If excess body fat is causing health problems or leaves you with a poor body image, do something about the excess fat, and not your weight.
Aim for a healthy body fat percentage of somewhere between 14% and 22%, and find out what it is about your diet that causes your body to store so much fat. If you are too gaunt, look again to the diet and exercise to determine where you can improve to both increase your body fat percentage and your muscle conditioning. Set realistic targets that don’t rely on a single flawed piece of information that can’t possibly tell you whether you are healthy or not, and accept that the reality is that changes will take a long time to apply, and your end goal is more important than the successes or failures that you will encounter along the way.
For me, I’ll no longer be showing how much weight I lose. I’ll be focussing only on waist and hip size, body fat percentage, and the outcome of my fitness tests. I’m setting all of my goals based on achievable targets for these measurements only, and my journey will end only when I feel I have satisfied myself, not by reaching these targets, but when I feel I have learned enough while achieving them.