Debunking Five Common Arguments Against Weight-Neutral Health
Today I thought I’d share five common arguments I hear from people about weight neutral health. Sometimes those asking are truly asking from a place of curiosity - which is reasonable in a world with so much weight stigma. Other times the person actually knows better, but is using these arguments spuriously, hoping that they’ll be able to confuse others and prop up the weight loss paradigm.
5. Intentional weight loss works, it’s just that people go back to their old habits. Also sometimes stated as “You shouldn’t say that Weight Watchers doesn’t work, I’ve done it six times and it worked every time.”
Let’s talk about the definition of “works”. One of the main reasons the diet industry continues to be so successful is that they have found a way to take credit for the short-term weight loss, but blame their client for the long-term weight regain (two parts of the same biological response to intentional weight loss attempts.) They know that almost everyone can lose some weight in the short term on almost any diet. They also know that their 5-year success rate is around 5% but they have managed to convince us that about 95% of people over the last hundred years just didn’t do it right, and should buy their product again.
It can be instructional here to replace the phrase “people go back to their old habits” with “starvation is unsustainable” because that’s the actual situation. Intentional weight loss is about feeding your body less fuel that it needs to perform the actions you are requesting of it so that it will consume itself and become smaller. That is not sustainable (it can also drive disordered food relationships and eating disorders.)
All of this is also propped up by stereotypes about how fat people eat vs how thin people eat (which don’t hold up to scrutiny.)
You can think about it this way:
If 100 years of studies showed that a pill only worked 5% of the time and that it had the OPPOSITE effect up to 2/3 of the time, would we be telling people to keep taking it but try harder?
If I paid Weight Watchers six times and I’m still fat, then unless my goal was to lose weight and then gain it back six times, then Weight Watchers did not, in fact, work.
4. Weight-Neutral Health is just an excuse to justify your fatness.
Fat bodies do not require justification. When we talk about our fundamental rights to be affirmed and accommodated equally, including in healthcare, we aren’t asking for anyone’s approval we are insisting on our basic human rights and giving those who are doing it the opportunity to see that they are operating from prejudice, bigotry and stereotypes.
3. Fat bodies are my business because they cost me tax/healthcare dollars.
We aren’t trying to justify our fatness, but it seems like some people are trying to justify their fat bigotry. As far as taxes and healthcare costs go, unless someone can whip out their itemized list of everything their tax/healthcare dollars pay for, broken down into what they do and do not want to pay for, including a list of the interventions that they are involved in for every single item they’re not happy about, then let’s just call this what it is: a way to try to justify weight-based bigotry and discrimination. For more details head to this post.
2. I know eat less/exercise more works because my [sister’s cousin’s babysitter’s friend’s aunt’s co-worker’s daughter’s school bus driver] lost 20 pounds and kept it off for 5 years.
When his parachute refused to open and his reserve parachute got tangled, Michael Holmes fell 12,000 feet and lived. That doesn’t mean that jumping out of planes without a parachute is a safe choice. “Anecdotal evidence” around weight loss is mostly anecdote, very little evidence. Besides which, there is a vast difference between a statistical anomaly and proof of concept. That’s why we have research. Which leads us to…
1. I get that weight loss fails 95% of the time, but that’s no reason not to try.
This argument only holds if we assume that there are no negative consequences to a failed attempt. To fully evaluate the decision we need to factor in downside risk. The worst- case scenario for weight loss is that it I fail, I weight cycle and am subject to the dangers of weight cycling which include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, depression and cardiovascular disease. [EDIT: As Amy H. pointed out in the comments below “the worst case scenario is not limited to weight cycling. People can get eating disorders and even die from them. The mental/psychological impact of international weight loss associated with accepting the stigmatizing narratives of diet culture, as well as the time devoted to it that can’t be allocated to other pursuits are a huge negative impacts too.” That is absolutely right, thanks for the correction Amy!)
I am a fan of evidence and math, so my decision not to engage in intentional weight loss is based both on an analysis of the likelihood of success (taking into account that “success” in terms of weight loss is not the same as better health) and an analysis of the risk of failure, of which there is a 95% chance.
I hope that clears some things up. If you have other arguments or questions (either that you personally have, or that you’ve heard,) please feel free to leave them in the comments for a future post! For the record, I truly don’t mind when people who are truly curious ask questions about these things or anything else. (I do mind when people who know better throw these spurious arguments around.)
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*Note on language: I use “fat” as a neutral descriptor as used by the fat activist community, I use “ob*se” and “overw*ight” to acknowledge that these are terms that were created to medicalize and pathologize fat bodies, with roots in racism and specifically anti-Blackness. Please read Sabrina Strings’ Fearing the Black Body – the Racial Origins of Fat Phobia and Da’Shaun Harrison’s Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness for more on this.