Focus on Fitness, Not Fatness
Critics and experts challenge the goal of thinness as unrealistic and unnecessary; they say fitness is better for health in the long run.
Aug. 9, 2004 -- Obesity is a real problem. But the myths we build around it
make the problem worse.
The first myth: Fat is bad; thin is good.
The second myth: If you weigh more than "normal," you must lose
weight to be healthy.
The third myth: Anyone who is overweight can -- and should -- become
That's the central theme of the new book The Obesity Myth: Why America's
Obsession With Weight Is Hazardous to Your Health. Author Paul Campos, JD,
is a University of Colorado law professor. He's not a medical doctor -- but he
can cite medical literature with the best of them. Perhaps more importantly, he
interviewed more than 400 people about their relationship with food, body
image, and dieting.
"We are in the grip of a moral panic," Campos tells WebMD. "It
is a form of cultural hysteria in which a risk is tremendously exaggerated.
Weight has become a dumping ground for neurotic behavior in the culture as a
whole. It is this tendency to think in eating-disordered ways that grips
Focus on Fitness
When we think about "getting in shape," the shape we think about is
thin. Being in good shape means improving fitness, but we focus on reducing
Campos points to several major studies often cited as proof that fat kills.
A close reading, he says, leads to a different conclusion.
"The crucial variable was not weight but lifestyle changes -- healthy
eating and exercise, which seem to be very beneficial whether they produce any
weight loss or not," he says. "When people do become more physically
active and are cognizant of their nutritional intake, they get real health
benefits. Just a little weight loss -- or even no weight loss -- was as good as
a lot of weight loss."
CDC data support this idea. CDC epidemiologist Edward W. Gregg, PhD, led a
team that analyzed data from some 6,400 overweight and obese adults. They found
that people who tried to lose weight -- and did -- live longer than those who
don't try to lose weight. That wasn't a surprise.
"What was unexpected was those who tried to lose weight -- but didn't --
those people had a mortality benefit," Gregg tells WebMD. "And our best
speculation as to the reason is there are behaviors that go along with weight
loss attempts that are good for you. These may have positive effects regardless
of whether a person is able to maintain weight loss. They adopt more active
lifestyles, they change diets. Over the long haul they are not successful at
losing weight, but these lifestyle changes seem to help."
Steven N. Blair, PED, president and CEO of the Cooper Institute, Dallas, is
perhaps America's leading advocate for a focus on fitness. He contributed a
blurb to Campos' book cover.