[TW: Fat-shaming, Eating disorders]
Our weight is often framed as something that we have control over and something that determines how much willpower we have. I’ve heard people say that they dislike fat people because they think that the very fact that they’re fat means that they don’t have any self-control.
But actually, the reality is that we have far less control over our own weight than we’ve been told, and being fat doesn’t say anything about a person’s willpower or self-control. Yeah, wild idea that you can’t judge someone’s entire character by their physical appearance – I know!
So we’re taught growing up that weight loss or weight gain is very simple: It’s calories in versus calories out. You need to eat less and exercise more – and boom! Weight loss!
But that’s actually a massive oversimplification – and, in fact, it causes harm to a lot of people who try to adhere to this false concept to the detriment of their health.
“But science!” types the angry Internet commenter.
Sorry, but science actually agrees with me here. About 60-80% of your “calories out” are burned by your just existing, and this can vary widely for different people. This is called basal or resting metabolism, and you have zero control over this. Another 10% is burned by your body eating food – and if you want to continue living, you need to eat food. That only leaves 10-30% to be burned by physical activity.
And physical activity isn’t just exercise, it’s walking around, fidgeting, doing whatever. So no matter how much you exercise, you never really have any control over more than 30% of what you’re burning, and realistically, you probably have control over much less than that – like maybe 10%.
Imagine that for any other scenario. If you were driving and only had control over 10% of the car, no one could blame you for driving in the wrong direction! If you had ten adorable kittens, but you only had control over 10% of them, it’s not your fault if nine of them peed everywhere and tore up all the furniture!
My point is: We frame weight loss or weight gain as something that people have a ton of control over, but scientifically, factually, that’s not the case.
Some people have a high basal metabolism, and they tend to be naturally skinnier – like me – and some people have a low basal metabolism, and they tend to be fatter. That’s just how bodies work. We’re not all the same. And you can’t hold everyone to the same standard when we all have wildly different metabolic rates.
At this point, I imagine people are saying, “But what about calories in? You still have control over that!” And yes, you do – to some extent.
First of all, not all food is accessible to all people. Millions of Americans live in what the government calls “food deserts,” which are areas of the country where there aren’t any grocery stores that sell fresh, healthy, affordable food. And to the surprise of literally no one, these tend to be low-income areas.
But also, even when folks do have access to whatever food they want, everyone’s caloric needs are different. And forcing people to eat fewer calories than they need has been scientifically proven to be ineffective in the long run – even if you’ve heard anecdotal evidence that says otherwise.
Most people who diet gain all the weight back (and more) within five years. Plus, it’s honestly irresponsible to put this pressure on people to consume as few calories as possible when we know that that contributes to eating disorders.
So I can already hear the strawman arguments against me: “Riley says that exercise is pointless and we can eat whatever we want! She wants everyone to get fat and die!” No, that’s not true. I know people are still gonna say it in the comments, but it’s not true.
Exercise is healthy. I would encourage everyone to exercise if they’re able to. But it’s not a good way of losing weight – and what that should tell you is that health is not connected to body weight in the way you were probably raised to believe.
Of course, we all know by now that the BMI is an awful and inaccurate way of measuring health because it only takes into account height and weight and literally no other factors, like exercise or genetic conditions.
But what that means is that fat people can be healthy and skinny people can be unhealthy. You can eat poorly and never exercise and be skinny, and likewise, you can eat great and exercise all the time and be fat. There are so many other factors when it comes to health that we ignore, and it gives us this very misguided idea that fat people are inherently unhealthy or weak.
And remember that correlation does not equal causation. So higher rates of type 2 diabetes in people the BMI classifies as “overweight” doesn’t mean that their weight caused diabetes. Lots of other factors could contribute to both their weight and their diabetes that we don’t know about. Plus, people who are “overweight” by the BMI scale actually have lower all-around mortality rates than people who have “healthy” BMIs. People with an “underweight” BMI are also at an increased risk for certain health problems – and yet fat people face significantly more discrimination and prejudice.
There are two main takeaways from this: First, people don’t have a lot of control over their weight. Basal metabolism is powerful and out of your control. Second, even if someone had all the control in the world over their weight, you still shouldn’t hate them or shame them for it. That also has scientifically been proven to not have any kind of positive effect.
So feel free to exercise, feel free to try to eat nutritiously – if all of that is possible for you – but I would encourage to do it in the pursuit of feeling better, rather than in the pursuit of weight loss.
And the relationship between food, health, and exercise is even more complicated than just your basal metabolism. So don’t think that this video covers the entire subject; I just wanted to highlight that one aspect.
This video is a part of a series called Feminism with Riley that I’m doing in collaboration with Everyday Feminism, a website dedicated to helping you stand up to and break down everyday oppression. There will be a link in the description so you can see the previous videos in this series.
Thanks so much for watching, and I’ll see you next time.