Why We Should Fight Back Against Nonprofits That ‘Fight Obesity’

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In what is known as the “obesity paradox,” studies are increasingly demonstrating that, compared to thin people, fat people are just as healthy, live just as long, and are actually more likely to survive certain diseases. Meanwhile, dieting itself is shown to lead to serious health issues. Nonprofits and social enterprises that equate thinness with health thrive by exploiting socially acceptable prejudice, spreading bad science, and stigmatizing those they claim to help.

Table For Two uses images like this one in its promotional materials to demonstrate its "calorie transfer program."

Table For Two uses images like this one in its promotional materials to demonstrate its "calorie transfer program."

How do you fight world hunger? Fight obesity, says Table For Two (TFT), an international nonprofit that health and fat activists are calling misguided and offensive.

TFT’s mission is to address the “opposing problems” of malnutrition in developing countries and obesity in developed countries through a “unique calorie transfer program,” according to its director of U.S. operations, Fumi Tosu. According to TFT, “In our world of 7 billion, 1 billion lack access to adequate food and nutrition, while a roughly equal number suffer from obesity, diabetes, and other health issues related to ‘overnutrition.’”

“What an irony,” reads the organization’s website, “a world where many literally kill themselves by overeating, while an equal number of people are dying of hunger.”

TFT’s model is to partner with corporate cafeterias, university dining halls, and restaurants, which offer a low-calorie menu item and donate 25 cents to TFT for every meal served. TFT uses the donation to provide meals to schools in Africa and Southeast Asia. The nonprofit’s founder, Masa Kogure, was named the Schwab Foundation’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year for Asia in 2011.

“There is hunger in the world, and healing that is a noble goal,” says Golda Poretsky, body image coach and author of Stop Dieting Now. “But implying that fat people are the cause of it is disgusting. The two things have absolutely nothing to do with each other.”

Poretsky adds that “the model presupposes that fat people eat too much,” when studies show that fat people eat the same amount of food as thin people.

Linda Bacon—professor, researcher, and author of Health at Every Size—agrees.

“[TFT’s] model is beyond offensive and wrong on so many levels,” Bacon asserts. “There is more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet, so if fat people eat less, it will not solve the world hunger problem. World hunger is about poverty, inequitable distribution, and lack of compassion, not lack of food because others are eating it.”

Poretsky recently argued in a TEDx talk that there is a broad cultural misconception that thin equals healthy. Contrary to what the U.S.’s $60-billion-per-year diet industry would like the public to believe, recent long-term, large-sample-size studies have revealed that a healthy lifestyle increases lifespan regardless of weight. In fact, fat people live longer than thin people.

“The reality is, fat people can be healthy and thin people can be unhealthy,” Poretsky says.

Researchers have also discovered “the obesity paradox.” It turns out that fat people are more likely than their thin counterparts to survive type II diabetes, strokes, cardiac events, dialysis, and some cancers, and have better outcomes after being in surgical intensive care units. Obesity is also associated with lower rates of emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hip fracture, and tuberculosis.

Further studies suggest that weight is about as genetic as height, and that almost everyone who loses weight will gain it all back.

“Most fat people are fighting their own obesity all of the time and are failing,” Poretsky says. “Not because they’re doing anything wrong, but because diets, ‘lifestyle plans,’ and horrific bariatric surgeries don’t work in the long run.”

If fat is irrelevant to health, why the correlation between obesity and some diseases? New research suggests that the health issues that have been attributed to obesity are actually the result of dieting. Studies have found that losing weight actually increases the risk of death, damages the heart, and leads to long-term negative effects on the immune system—and that is to say nothing of gastric bypass surgery, which entails removing and rearranging a healthy digestive system so that it can no longer properly process food. Furthermore, fat stigma may create a self-fulfilling prophesy: self-loathing may lead to yo-yo dieting, fear of judgmental gazes may keep fat people from the gym, and the constant stress of being a fat person in our society may lead to stress-related health issues—both physiological and psychological, Poretsky explains.

“Fat isn’t the problem,” writes Bacon in the description for her book. “Dieting is the problem. A society that rejects anyone whose body shape or size doesn’t match an impossible ideal is the problem. A medical establishment that equates ‘thin’ with ‘healthy’ is the problem.”

Yet popular opinion seems to be sliding in the wrong direction. The American Medical Association decided to classify obesity as a disease in June.

“Weight is not an effective measure of moral character, eating habits or health,” Bacon continues. “Good health can best be realized independent from considerations of size, by adopting healthy behaviors. The only way to solve the weight problem is to stop making weight a problem.”

The diet industry has consistently engaged in fat-shaming campaigns to create a culture that fears and reviles fat people.

“There’s a socially acceptable bigotry toward fatness, and it leads to discrimination in schools, the workplace, and even in medical care,” Poretsky argues, alluding to studies that suggest that teachers have lower expectations for fat children, fat people (especially fat women) are paid less than thin people, and that obese patients are given a lower standard of medical care by doctors and nurses who knowingly or unknowingly harbor contempt for obese people, believing that fat people brought their illnesses upon themselves. Fat patients are told to lose weight when they come to the hospital with a broken arm, told they are too fat to have an eating disorder, or congratulated on drastic weight loss from an undiagnosed illness.

Nonprofits like TFT that conflate health with thinness contribute to the culture of stigmatizing and shaming fat people “for their own good.”

“When they say ‘fight obesity,’ what they are really doing is fighting fat people,” Bacon says. “Nonprofits use the idea of fighting obesity because it is the moral panic of our age. Anti-obesity campaigns not only perpetuate the stigma—they thrive on it.”

Bacon points out that charities like TFT have every incentive to ensure that the public is panicked about obesity, since their grants, donations and funding depend on the public taking the problems these organizations address seriously.

Asked whether TFT is concerned about stigmatizing fat people or implicitly blaming them for food shortages, Tosu responds, “We understand that obesity and malnutrition are complex issues, and that it isn’t just about eating too much or too little. But there is a fine balance to strike when promoting actionable programs for the general public.” Tosu seems to imply that oversimplifying the issue of obesity is necessary to garner public support.

Even Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign relies on fat-shaming to raise hysteria about the “obesity epidemic.” Let’s Move is “dedicated to solving the challenge of childhood obesity within one generation, so that children born today will grow up healthier and be able to pursue their dreams.” The First Lady may be right that fat people are unable to pursue their dreams—but not because they are fat, but rather because they are discriminated against thanks to campaigns like hers. At the campaign’s kick-off event, she warned that “the physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake.” Apparently, fat people are a threat to national security.

“The goals of Let’s Move—giving kids access to better quality of food and making sure they have safe places to play—are goals that we should have for all children,” Poretsky says. “Instead, this campaign singles out the kids who are most likely to get bullied, fat kids, and makes it about ‘solving the problem of them’ within a generation.”

Let’s Move—like Table For Two—is clearly well-intentioned. Yet, like all organizations that “fight obesity,” these nonprofits thrive by exploiting prejudice, spreading bad science, and, ultimately, hurting those they claim to help.

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