Fat shaming is not the way to go to beat obesity

The news keep flooding in.

The world now has more obese people than hungry people, according to a new study published in Lancet which assembled body mass index data of almost 20 million people over the course of nearly 40 years.

Diabetes, according to a recent report by WHO, is now the world’s 8th most prevalent cause of death. The world now has four times more people living with diabetes than it did just a quarter of century ago.The number of cases have risen everywhere in the world, most notably in low and middle income countries. The reason? Besides an aging population, most commonly inactivity and poor diets.

Diets are indeed changing. As people and goods move around the planet, locally adapted diets shift into a more generic, global diet, becoming abundant in refined carbohydrates, sugars, fats and animal source foods.

This global nutrition transition is taking place everywhere. A lot of it can be characterized as, well, Americanization. Not all of its effects are known, not all of its effects are negative, but often the case is that when this transition takes place, weight gain happens and that in turn has negative consequences on one’s health.

To tackle weight gain – and its concomitant side effects, such as type II diabetes, we are often offered promising easy fixes: superfoods, calorie counting, plank challenges, personal shoppers, body detoxes, and the ever-popular diet. Get rid of your fat! You can do it if you want to!

We have a strong culture, at least in the west, of shaming fat people. We are used to blaming individuals for their poor choices.

We scorn fat people and we laugh at them in our TV shows and movies. We feel sorry for them.We are less likely to hire overweight people. We are less likely to marry them. If only they had the wisdom and knowledge to eat better. If only fat mothers had more intelligence so that instead of that unhealthy crap they would feed their fat children more healthy food.

The culture of fat shaming, in my opinion, reflects our time which is that of a hyper-individual and hyper-shallow society.

Anyone can make it if only they give it their all, and failures are merely the result of one’s own lack of zest in life.

It is also a society addicted to looks – a person can’t be happy if he or she is overweight. How wrongly assumed that is, and how offensive and shallow it is to think that way (and I confess I have had these prejudices myself).

It is always easier to blame the individual because that provides a simple solution to an all but simple problem.

There are intricate social dynamics behind food consumption and behaviour and the current obesity-diabetes crisis.

For example, type II diabetes at least in the U.S. is about twice as common in Black, Latino and Native American communities , and if you live in a low-income community, you are more than twice as likely to develop type II diabetes compared to a person living in a neighbourhood with median incomes above the poverty line.

We know that mothers who have less money are more likely to feed their children processed foods simply because they can’t afford the food waste that follows with have-your-kid-play-with-food-so-he-grows-up-to-be-a-balanced-healthy-eating-adult-parenthood.

There are food deserts, also more common in poorer neighbourhoods, where fresh produce is simply unavailable. And yet, even fixing that problem by bringing a proper grocery store to the neighbourhood doesn’t always bring desired results. The problem is much more complex.

There are political decisions which enable an agricultural system in which the majority of subsidies are targeted for a few crops which in turn are often ingredients for ultra-processed foods manufactured by companies whose main task is not to promote public health but to make more profit for their shareholders.

Yet we most commonly blame the fat person.

What if, instead, we looked more at the human experience behind these phenomena called obesity and diabetes?

What if shame prevents people suffering from obesity to even get started with a healthier lifestyle? Could we learn something by talking to people, hearing about their experiences? Do they need or want help in the first place? What would help them in making better choices?

Blaming and shaming does not work.

Photo by Maurice Sway, Flickr Creative Commons.

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