What’s Next, an Atherosclerosis Acceptance Movement?

The Hidden Danger of the “Fat Acceptance” Movement

You know the old say­ing, “If some­thing is too good to be true….” Well, the “fat accep­tance” move­ment is telling peo­ple some­thing that sounds too good to be true. They are insist­ing that peo­ple can be “healthy at any size” and some­times even that being over­weight is health­i­er than being slim. They’re wrong, and the smarter and more edu­cat­ed peo­ple among the “fat accep­tance” move­ment should know bet­ter. They “cher­ry pick” mis­lead­ing find­ings from a few stud­ies and ignore a vast sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture on the effects of diet on health. Such behav­ior is sick­en­ing, and the advice they give is dan­ger­ous.

Here’s the sim­ple truth: excess body fat is only one of the pos­si­ble bad effects of eat­ing the wrong kind of food. Eat­ing too much fat and too much ani­mal pro­tein can send you to an ear­ly grave even if you are thin and exer­cise a lot. The clas­sic exam­ple is Jim Fixx, author of The Com­plete Book of Run­ning, a 1977 best­seller that launched the run­ning boom. Fixx had claimed that his gru­el­ing exer­cise reg­i­men, which had enabled him to lose 60 pounds, allowed him to eat as much as he want­ed of what­ev­er he want­ed. When I read that in his book, I thought, “But what about cho­les­terol?” So I was sad­dened, but not sur­prised, when Fixx dropped dead at age 52 of a heart attack while run­ning. To my dis­gust, the media react­ed to his death by ask­ing whether run­ning was good or bad for you, ignor­ing the obvi­ous dietary angle to the sto­ry.

The sim­ple truth is that eat­ing the wrong kind of food can kill you, even if it doesn’t make you fat. Anoth­er sim­ple truth is that you can’t out­run cho­les­terol. As a mem­ber of the high-IQ club Men­sa, Fixx should have been smart enough to fig­ure that out before it was too late. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, he believed what he want­ed to believe, and ate what­ev­er he want­ed to eat, and in the end it killed him.

As I men­tioned, obe­si­ty is only one of the bad effects that is like­ly to result from eat­ing the stan­dard Amer­i­can diet–not just the heav­i­ly processed “junk food” that every­one knows is bad for you, but the meat and dairy prod­ucts and eggs and fish that the US Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture has been encour­ag­ing us to eat.

Col­lec­tive­ly, the bad effects of eat­ing the stan­dard Amer­i­can diet are called “West­ern dis­eases.” This is because med­ical doc­tors who had been trained in Europe and the Unit­ed States were stunned to find that these health prob­lems, which were com­mon back home, were rare to nonex­is­tent in Asia and Africa. Besides over­weight and obe­si­ty, they include heart dis­ease, dia­betes, var­i­ous can­cers, arthri­tis, vari­cose veins, mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis, etc. etc. etc. West­ern dis­eases were (and still are) the major caus­es of death and dis­abil­i­ty in the Unit­ed States and Europe because peo­ple there eat too much ani­mal pro­tein and too much fat. These dis­eases were rare in Asia and Africa because the pop­u­la­tions were eat­ing a low-fat, large­ly plant-based diet. A mon­u­men­tal study of nutri­tion­al epi­demi­ol­o­gy in Chi­na (http://www.thechinastudy.com/) showed in detail how close­ly the con­sump­tion of ani­mal pro­tein and fat were linked to many of these dis­eases. The less ani­mal-based food and fat peo­ple ate, the health­i­er they could be.

The good news is that if you eat the diet that will pro­tect you against the oth­er “West­ern dis­eases,” your weight prob­lem will solve itself. Peo­ple who eat a low-fat (<10% of calo­ries) diet based on unre­fined plant foods rapid­ly become heart-attack-proof (total cho­les­terol, <150 mg/dL) and can pre­vent and even reverse many of the oth­er West­ern dis­eases. It’s hard to stay fat when you are eat­ing a tru­ly healthy diet. When over­weight Amer­i­cans switch to a low-fat, pure­ly plant-based diet, they lose weight eas­i­ly with­out hav­ing to count calo­ries or lim­it their por­tions. They can eat to their hearts’ con­tent and still stay slim. The “fat accep­tance” advo­cates over­look that obvi­ous fact.

The “fat accep­tance” advo­cates are right that thin does not equal healthy. But they are wrong when they say that you can be healthy at any size. Rather than wast­ing their time try­ing to make peo­ple feel bet­ter about being fat, they should work toward edu­cat­ing peo­ple about a tru­ly healthy diet, which will enable peo­ple to improve their own health and main­tain a desir­able weight with­out feel­ing hun­gry. The activists should also use their polit­i­cal clout to improve the nutri­tion cur­ricu­lum at med­ical schools, which has been shown repeat­ed­ly over the past 40 years to be inad­e­quate.

On one point, I do agree with the fat accep­tance advo­cates. I think that peo­ple should be treat­ed with respect regard­less of their size and state of health. How­ev­er, I feel that over­weight peo­ple deserve to be told the truth about how their weight affects their health and about how their food choic­es affect both their health and their weight.

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