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June 15, 2010 / Katie

The anti-gospel of weight loss, which leads to death (not life)

This summary of a study published by the International Journal of Obesity has been flying around the fat-o-sphere the last couple of days, and no wonder, because the conclusion is quite stunning:

Weight loss of 15% or more from maximum body weight is associated with increased risk of death from all causes among overweight men and among women regardless of maximum BMI.

What I want to point out here is that ultimately, we don’t know why this is.  Why would weight loss of this magnitude lead to a higher mortality risk (within three years, which was the length of the study) for all but obese* men?   Most of us would think that it would lead to greater health, or at least just be neutral.  Instead, it is actually dangerous.  Why?  We don’t know why.

We don’t know why because we are so busy hysterically** hand-wringing over body mass and weight.  Our scientific studies are sullied by our emotional biases—fear, loathing, and in some cases outright hatred—towards fat people.  Ultimately, we don’t understand metabolism and body weight.  We think we do, but we don’t, because studies like this show us just how disgustingly, dangerously, life-threateningly wrong we are in all our assumptions and “common knowledge” about fatness.

A few years ago, an energetic, beautiful, and filled-to-the-brim-with-love woman named Carrie died unexpectedly in her home.  She had diabetes and had been a fat woman, but had recently lost a significant amount of weight.  A pastor at her memorial service stood up and gave a moving tribute, except for one portion which made my blood boil.  He said something like this:

It is so terrible that Carrie died at this time.  She was young, she was vibrant, and she had just taken some steps to really improve her health.  With hard work, she had lost a lot of weight.  It is so tragically ironic that she worked so hard to improve her health only to die so soon afterward.

I could see everyone nodding at the pastor’s words, but my heart screamed NO!  NO NO NO!  That is NOT what happened!  What assumptions!  What gall!  How could that pastor presume to make those judgments about Carrie’s health and weight?  My mother had died recently of an extremely aggressive cancer, which was literally killing her as people complimented her on her weight loss.  Conflating weight loss with increased health seemed the height of ridiculousness, and I was not even a Fat Activist then!  To me, this pastor was saying that the daytime sky was actually black, that up was down, that love was hate.

I still get angry thinking about it.

I mean honestly, who knows what was going on with Carrie.  Maybe her weight loss was an unintentional side effect of her diabetes worsening.  Maybe her weight loss was intentional but somehow contributed to her death.  Maybe her weight loss truly did accompany greater health, and had nothing at all to do with her death.  But whatever the case, the pastor who made assumptions—who used her memorial service as a time to preach the anti-gospel*** of weight loss—was being anything but pastoral in that moment.

With this new evidence that we have that losing a significant amount of weight is actually correlated with a higher mortality risk, it throws his actions and the actions of all of us who preach that anti-gospel into an even harsher light.

Jesus said “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

Intentional weight loss does not bring life, it brings death—in every sense of the word.  Preaching it, espousing it, making it a goal, wasting precious and fleeting moments of our life on it, has nothing to do with living life abundantly.  Weight loss is an anti-gospel, an anti-Christ.  And we ought have nothing to do with it.

——

* the term “obese” was used by the study, describing folks who fall in the “obese” category of the BMI.  I do not typically use this word, because it is a non-medically-necessary word used to describe people based on subjective, rather than objective, assessments about their body and functioning.

** another word that I really hate using because of its history, but have not managed to find a suitable alternative

*** with “gospel” translating “good news,” I am using “anti-gospel” here to mean something like “fake good news that is actually terrible news.”  Or for the more theologically-oriented, “idolatrous news.”

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11 Comments

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  1. Salix / Jun 15 2010 4:45 pm

    (Long time listener, first time caller…sorry this got long)

    Re: hysterically…Of late I’ve been using ‘in frenzied angst’, but YMMV.

    Re: the post…have you ever searched for ‘Christian diet books’ or ‘weight loss religion’? It’s scary when you consider Western Christianity’s history of not eating (more to the point, its physical symptoms, including extreme weight loss) being the sign of women’s holiness.

    I totally don’t mean to conflate eating disorders and weight loss, or imply that weight loss and getting “healthier” always go together, but…there are several books out there on how EDs and weight loss become a substitute religion for people who are not being spiritually fed.

    It’s terrifying to think the faith we cherish is not giving us our daily bread.

  2. KellyK / Jun 16 2010 5:35 am

    The anti-gospel. Yep, you’ve nailed it.

  3. bananacat / Jun 16 2010 7:26 pm

    I intentionally lost weight about a year ago and I was surprised to find out there are significant health risks, and that these risks are well-known to doctors.

    I developed anemia even though my diet was fairly “healthy” and a drastic crash diet. My blood pressure actually increased. Even worse, I developed gallstones and had to have surgery to remove my gallbladder when I was just 24. What really amazed me though is that my doctor figured out the correct diagnosis easily, even though I would have never suspected gallstones since nobody ever mentions the risks of intentional weight loss.

    Now, I don’t know if the symptoms I had are the reason that cause of death increases in people who lose weight. My point is that intentional weight loss carries risks that are downplayed or ignored by the media. If I had suspected that weight loss could cause gallstones, I would have gone to the doctor much earlier rather than assume the pain was just gas, and it could have saved me some suffering.

  4. pattiredd / Jul 4 2010 6:02 pm

    Thank you for telling a different story (and correct, in my humble opinion) of the dangers of weight loss. 15 months ago I was a HEALTHY 158 pounds. Today I am 103 pounds because of an incredible illness which has only way out – death. Today I am grateful that at the start of this illness, I had some weight on me. If I had not, I would be way dead by now.

    Both my husband and I thank God that we had weight to begin with. It has extended out lives for long enough to pull together a plan, celebrate our love, and work through the reality of our dying (not that we will probably ever “really” do that!).

    I see people stress and strain over their “over-weight issues.” If your weight is causing you to be ill and die, then “yes, you need to get things under control” someway, somehow.

    However, I see a lot of folks sweating the small stuff. Enough already. Sometimes losing weight is a death sentence!

    Thanks for your posting!

  5. fivehundredpoundpeep / Jul 7 2010 5:25 pm

    Not only diets but weight loss surgery, you think you are anemic from the get-go? Well just wait. here is the problem, they know the diets do not work, severe obesity can be a sympton of inner problems–as I found out via the endocrine and other way and also cause co-morbs in itself, but someone needs to point out HEY PEOPLE THE DIETS ARE NOT WORKING, give us something that WILL WORK. And Im not talking about turning everyone into stickthin models but healthy, so no one is stuck in a scooter like I am, or having to to huff and puff up stairs. Still remember seeing 270lb grandmother congratulated losing down to 160lbs, via pancreatic cancer so relate to those comments.

  6. vesta44 / Sep 10 2010 2:41 pm

    I wonder if it’s because, when one is dieting, it’s not fat that is lost first – first you lose water weight, then you lose muscle mass, then your body goes after the fat stored. Could it be that the loss of water and muscle mass is the dangerous part of dieting and there’s no way to make your body reverse the process? Make it go after the fat stores first, then the water, then the muscle. Unfortunately, our bodies want to keep those fat stores for times of famine, which is what diets are – to our bodies.
    Just found your blog today, so sorry I’m late to this party…..

    • Katie / Sep 10 2010 2:49 pm

      welcome! I think you may be on to something, but I still think that ultimately we would be much healthier (in every sense, including mental/emotional) if we just let our bodies be. We have control over our choices, but we ultimately do not have control over the size or shape of our bodies. Trying to control something we can’t control is crazy-making. Focusing on what we can control—our choices and the beliefs we hold about the value of our bodies—is what will lead to health. For some, it might mean the burning of fat stores, but for others, it may not change anything about the amount of fat on their bodies. But either way, what will change is that our overall health markers will increase.

      Glad you found us :)

  7. Jenna / Jan 4 2011 10:59 am

    This made me think of my recent let down of once spiritual teacher Thich Nhat Hanh who I thought was a great Buddhist thinker… until someone told me he ALSO published a weightloss book. You can find the particulars here: http://www.savorthebook.com/blog/lilian/2010/07/14/mindful-movement-lose-weight-and-reduce-stress-incorporating-exercise-in-to-y

    Wow Thich… I mean you spiritual authority has really encapsulated how to lose weight (please note sarcasm) such as:
    * Take the stairs
    * Walk with a coworker for a short break
    * Stretch in the morning and at night and in between meetings, it will help you feel more active and sleep better
    * Ride public transportation. Its good for the environment and forces you to walk more
    * Walk to the grocery store, carrying a couple bags back is great exercise too!
    * Play with your kids- tag, hide and go seek- great for your heart, mind and body

    wow.. Thich… didnt make enough money and wanted the easy route of yet another weight loss book? Show me a thin depiction of Buddha first, what, you cannot find one? hmmm isnt that interesting

    • Katie / Jan 5 2011 4:35 pm

      wow… I…

      That is so disappointing. I mean seriously, that is one of the most depressing things I’ve heard in a while. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you shared this with me. But, oy. I love so much of what Thich Nhat Hanh has to say. :(

Trackbacks

  1. False Gospels « Kelly Thinks Too Much
  2. Thinness Is Not a Religious Duty « Kelly Thinks Too Much

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