Today’s topic may stir some controversy. But that’s a risk I’m willing to take. Because when I came across this article, I was outraged that the following question was even considered worth asking:
When Do Obesity Public Health Messages Become Fat Shaming?
Personally, I don’t think they ever do. Obviously, it’s important to make people aware of the risks of obesity without resorting to personal attacks. But most overweight people know they’re overweight. And minimizing the medical consequences associated with that weight doesn’t do anyone any favors.
Yet here we are. Ambulance stretchers and wheelchairs keep getting bigger… and everyday medical costs for everyone have ballooned right alongside them.
I’ve written about this problem numerous times. But today, I’d like to tackle the question posed by the above headline directly.
An urgent public health warning
A little background: Cancer Research U.K. recently ran a series of ads that featured warning labels on food.
The labels mimicked the warnings on cigarettes, stating that obesity causes more than a dozen types of cancer. (And that’s just that we know of right now—at this point, obesity actually causes more cases of bowel, kidney, and ovarian cancer than smoking.)
Well, let’s just say there was some outcry. Academics and nutritionists alike chimed in, warning that the findings were flawed. And worried that now, obese patients might be too ashamed to ask for help losing weight.
First of all, this isn’t flawed research—the threat is very deadly, and very real. Both doctors and patients need to be aware of it. And if pointing these threats out makes a patient too ashamed to ask for help, then, frankly, they should explore those issues more deeply with a therapist.
Twitter rumbled with accusations of fat shaming, too, suggesting that “it makes people feel worse and responsible for their cancer.” But is that really such a bad thing?
Nobody asks for a cancer diagnosis, but knowing how to prevent one is pretty vital information to have—not just for your own sake, but for the sake of a society struggling under the increasing burden of rising healthcare costs. So in my view, there needs to be a conversation around it.
And of course, there was the backlash from plus-size models and other public proponents of body positivity. (Which in my opinion, just distracts from the real point here.)
For the record, I believe that everyone has the right to look how they want, and eat what they want. But this isn’t about meeting cultural beauty standards. With all the science we have at our disposal, we also need to take responsibility for our choices—and their consequences.
The time for change is now
Now, I realize we’re talking about the U.K., which is a much larger nanny state than we could ever be. But these same conversations are happening here in the U.S. And I think it’s time we started facing facts…
Let me be clear: I understand the sensitive nature of being overweight. I was overweight for many, many years. So I understand the struggles and the psychological damages it inflicts. And if you’re perfectly happy with your overweight body, I am genuinely glad you feel that way and applaud your great self-image.
But as a public health professional and as a physician, I’m still going to urge you to lose weight. Because I simply can’t condone the consequences it carries for both your personal health, and for the entire healthcare system as a whole.
And frankly, I’m sick of the excuse that “food isn’t like cigarettes.” You don’t have to smoke, but you do have to eat. And no one is forcing anyone to eat a bag of chips and wash it down with a bottle of Coke.
Unhealthy eating habits are an addiction. So why shouldn’t we treat it as such? And urge people to “just say no?”
It’s called choice. You can choose to make better decisions, and that starts with what goes in your mouth, plain and simple. I make healthy choices every day, despite my own history of food addiction.
So while this campaign’s message may be bold, people are either too sensitive or completely in denial. Because obesity is the new smoking in terms of public health risks. And it’s about time we started treating it that way.
When smoking policies changed, the number of smokers dropped. More people quit, and fewer people developed smoking-related cancers. And like smoking, obesity rates can drop with the government’s help. Because believe it or not, obesity puts millions of adults at increased risk of a long list of lethal cancers, too.
The time for change is now. And the only shame anyone should feel here is that such change hasn’t come sooner.
P.S. In the June 2017 issue of my monthly Logical Health Alternatives newsletter (“Healthy obesity is not a ‘thing’”), I discussed how obesity can increase your risk of heart disease. And some easy, beneficial steps you can take to shrink your waistline and improve your health. Subscribers have access to this and my entire archive. Click here to learn more, or to get started today!
“When Do Obesity Public Health Messages Become Fat Shaming?” Medscape Medical News, 07/11/2018. (medscape.com/viewarticle/915478)