Is "This Is Why You're Fat" why you're fat?
Food Issues Book Club - Weighing In, Chapter 5

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Weighing In, Chapter 5: Does eating (too much) make you fat?


The idea of "calories in, calories out" is a fallacy that fuels healthism and sizeism, and is counterproductive to a better understanding of obesity.  The so-called "energy balance" model serves to shift the matter completely to a question of personal responsibility and self-discipline, and in doing so ignores any other possible obesogenic forces.

Is it, though?
"[I]t is critical to think about the body as a site where the biological and the social constantly remake each other."  A number of alternate theories have emerged to explain the country's increasing BMIs; the frontrunner is the effects of a group of environmental toxins referred to as obesogens.  These may include pesticides, prescription drugs, and "many other substances and stressors" that result in endocrine disruption.  So-called Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) "can interfere with genetic expression in ways that permanently transform bodily form and function, and these changes can be passed on to offspring.  Epigenetics could thus account for the genetic contribution to the abrupt increase in obesity."

While typical toxicology looks at dose-response, the toxicity of EDCs is not directly proportional to dose; moderate doses can have the worst effects.  The timing of exposure also strongly informs effects.  And to further complicate matters, genetic variability can make different people more or less susceptible to the effects of an EDC even when all other variables are constant.  Finally, the effects of EDCs can be delayed for years or decades - or even generations, as is the case with synthetic estrogen prescribed to pregnant women in the 1950s.

The main culprit seems to be EDCs that affect estrogen, a hormone found in both men and women.  EDCs that affect estrogen seem to be able to suppress or stimulate fat accumulation, depending on the timing of exposure and the sex of the person exposed.  These EDCs may come in the form of medicines, food additives, and various types of food and beverage packagings.

The "probable effects" of EDCs are "significant and lasting, and can work independent of caloric intake and expenditure."  Numerous EDCs are found at every stage of food production, processing, and sale.  It is foolish, then, to ignore how "various food substances affect bodily ecologies" both in adiposity and in other possible ways.  "Putting all of the evidence together creates a strong case that the increase in size is not all about soda, fries, and video games."  While overeating or eating poor quality foods may be one factor in increased body size, ignoring the many other possible influences renders us incapable of viewing increased obesity from a full food system perspective.

Random awesome internet image

I'd like to start here by eating some metaphorical crow.  I wouldn't eat real crow.  Y'all know I'm vegan.  Anyway, I used to be a "calories in, calories out" person - and not that long ago either.  I'd preach it on the internet and in real life to anyone who'd listen.  The math made sense!  I was in control!  I used it to make charts and graphs of how many calories I'd taken in vs. how many I'd burned.  I also used it to feel bad about myself when I slipped up and ate too much - or worse yet, when after all my counting and measuring and expending, I didn't lose a single damn pound.  If it's not working for you, you're not trying hard enough, amirite?!  You'll be healed if you truly believe; so says the Church of Healthism.

If I ever directed this nonsense at YOU, dear reader, I wholeheartedly apologize.  Please forgive me.  I could not have been more wrong.

Good ol' CiCo does seem to make sense on its face.  It's based on the laws of thermodynamics!  It's SCIENCE!  (Sure it is... except that the laws of thermodynamics are profoundly misunderstood by the general public and don't apply to bodies this way.)  So then, why could it be that so many people eat well and exercise and don't lose weight?  And so many other people eat so poorly and don't exercise at all and remain svelte?  Could it be that - GASP! - there's something going on here that's beyond our personal control?  We all want to be in control of our lives and our bodies.  And the Powers That Be certainly want to be able to direct all blame at us, the individuals.  The reality, though, is that many things are out of our hands (and mouths) - and that often includes our weights.

BEWARE!  They say it dissolves ANYTHING.
Now, to the text.  I want to point out that the summaries of this book's chapters are vastly simplified from the original text.  This is a highly academic work with easily 3 to 6 cites to peer-reviewed articles on each page.  Which is to say that Guthman is not making this stuff up; she is reviewing credible science and drawing reasonable conclusions.  She is not wildly pointing fingers at "scary chemicals" as the source of all our woes, like some more... ahem... popular and visible folks are fond of doing.  I assure you that this author is interested only in real science.  To that end, she admits that "this research is in its infancy" and does not answer all of the questions we have about what causes unwanted weight gain.  If nothing else, though, the research indicates that the picture is much bigger that what people eat vs. how much they exercise - which means that as long as that's the only aspect we're looking at, we won't ever find answers as to what's happening.

For some added credibility, here are several of the articles cited in this chapter (all links to articles are full text).  Be warned, vegan / AR friends - these studies depend heavily on animal testing.
And one book:

If you're still clinging to the "calories in, calories out" theory, not to mention the idea that being fat is a crisis-level situation that must be rectified at any cost, ask yourself these questions:
  1. Who truly benefits from these beliefs?  Is it the people who remain overweight because now they have an "excuse" (yet often feel terrible about themselves and/or are constantly being told that their bodies are wrong)?  Or is it the insurance companies who refuse to cover treatment for obesity, and/or the food companies who spend billions marketing "healthy" foods with specious health claims to us, and/or a variety of other rich and powerful entities that make more money when people behave according to these beliefs?

  2. Do you really believe that over a third of the adults in the US - more than 1 out of every 3 people you know (and 7 out of 10 if you're counting just overweight) - are just SO lazy and irresponsible that they could be a "normal" weight and choose to remain obese despite it being soooooo unhealthy (crisis!) and despite it being soooooo simple to lose weight?
Personally, based on experience, observation, anecdote, scientific data, and a million pieces of information in between, I think it's clear that, though food choices do obviously affect weight and health, the picture is far more complicated than the dominant paradigm would like us to believe.

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