Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Three Reasons Why You Shouldn't Judge Overweight and Obese People

A few weeks ago, I ran into one of my clients while dining out with a friend. My client, whom we'll call Max, was enjoying a burger (including the bun) with French fries. After saying hi to Max, my friend and I went to our table. My friend then made a comment about Max' meal being unhealthy and asked me what I thought. I answered honestly, saying, "I don't care about what he's eating...I just hope he's enjoying it."

Don't get me wrong - I care deeply about the health habits of my clients. However, my job is to help them when they ask for my help, not judge them 24/7. Perhaps Max eats a stellar diet six and a half days per week, then goes out for a "cheat" meal once per week...or maybe he eats bread and French fries twice per day, seven days per week. If I were to judge Max, I would be taking one observation and extrapolating it to represent his entire life.

Now, Max is far from obese, but judgements are judgements. Unfortunately, I hear people judge overweight and obese people way too often. These judgements are usually based on a small observation sample - a few seconds or minutes. I'm not a fan of judging others in general. When it comes to overweight and obese individuals, judgement is ill-advised for several reasons, including some scientific findings that people may not know.

Reasons to Avoid Judging Overweight and Obese Individuals

1. Fat Cells. We can gain weight through one of two ways: an increase in fat cell size or number. However, only one of those two options are reversible: size. Weight loss can only occur when fat cells shrink. Obese and overweight individuals may have too many fat cells. They can shrink the fat cells they have, but if they have a very high amount of fat cells, their greatest potential for leanness may be in an overweight or obese state (categorizing each state by body mass index, or BMI, measurements).

Between roughly one and 18 years of age, most of the fat we gain comes from our bodies creating more fat cells. As adults, the amount of fat cells we have are basically set. Research with rats indicates that eating and physical activity habits influence the amount of fat cells created during youth. If that holds true for humans as well, then obese and overweight adults may have more fat as a result of childhood habits, even if their adulthood habits rival those found in leaner individuals.

2. Longevity and Lifestyle Habits. Just because a person you see has more body fat than what's generally socially accepted, it doesn't mean he or she won't outlive you. According to NHANES research, which provides some of the best large population data, people in the overweight category (using a BMI classification) have the longest lifespan for those at least 60 years of age [1]. People in the "normal" and obese categories have the next longest lifespans. Weight category only has a strong negative impact on longevity when at extreme weights, being very lean or very obese.

A review of 36 studies showed that, in general, people who are obese and cardiovascularly fit/physically active have lower risks of heart disease, death from heart disease, and overall premature death than people who are lean but unfit/inactive [2]. In other words, when it comes to your health, your habits are more important than how you look.

3. Lack of Information. Observing an overweight or obese person and making judgements based on a few seconds or minutes of observation is ill-advised for the simple fact that you don't know what that person is doing most of the time. The truth is, I eat French fries or ice cream on occasion. A person who doesn't know me and happens to see me on one of those occasions could judge me. He or she could think that I'm lean because of genetics and lead an unhealthy lifestyle. How would that person know that I strength train four times per week, go for long walks, regularly sleep seven to eight hours per night, and generally eat a diet filled with wild salmon, sardines, free-range chicken, grass-fed beef, coconut oil, extra-virgin olive oil, and around 10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day? It's impossible to know that from 30 seconds of observation.

Taking one observation, one photo, or one story about a person and extrapolating that to represent a person's life is likely to result in a lot of inaccuracies. Overweight and obese people may have good health habits despite having a higher than normal amount of body fat. They may try to lose weight but have physiological limitations that can not be altered through natural methods. Finally, there's a good chance they will outlive their leaner peers.

My recommended takeaway is this: focus on yourself, specifically your lifestyle. Lifestyle has a much bigger impact on health than weight.


Tmmy said...

I have obese people in my immediate family. I myself am not, but I've seen their struggle. Not fun.

Unknown said...

I don't judge anyone based on their weight. If anything, I'm guilty of feeling lucky that it's not me in that situation. I know how hard life can be with obesity.