Why Isn’t Obesity Research Better Known?

CBC has an article on the part of obesity research that doesn’t always get talked about.

Tim Caulfield says his fellow obesity academics tend to tiptoe around the truth. “You go to these meetings and you talk to researchers, you get a sense there is almost a political correctness around it, that we don’t want this message to get out there,” he said.

“You’ll be in a room with very knowledgeable individuals, and everyone in the room will know what the data says and still the message doesn’t seem to get out.”

In part, that’s because it’s such a harsh message. “You have to be careful about the stigmatizing nature of that kind of image,” Caulfield says. “That’s one of the reasons why this myth of weight loss lives on.”

Stigmatizing.  How is it stigmatizing to know that being fat isn’t something that can be easily changed by anyone?  One theory: accepting that most fat people cannot permanently become thin implies that fat people aren’t fat “for now”. They may be fat forever.  For the fat people who are rationalizing “I’m fat but I’m losing weight,” the idea that they may not be able to fulfill their fantasy can unfortunately cause another round of self-hate.  Realizing that thinness may not be as controllable as they thought could be scary. But — my understanding is that most obesity researchers are thin. So let’s try another theory.

Researchers may not be fat, but they know fat people, and are probably influenced by implicit and explicit biases.  Adding awareness that fat people will probably stay fat — even the fat people you like, that might become friends?   That’s scary.  It implies that fat people may not actually be sabotaging their weight loss, may not be at fault for weight regain.  Why, fat people may not actually be deserving of hatred.  What, then, of your attitudes toward fat people?  What kind of person are you?

Or, y’know, it might be that researchers are just concerned that if they stop promoting weight loss they they’ll lose their jobs and funding.  In the book Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your WeightLinda Bacon discussed the funding for her HAES vs weight loss study.

[...S]tatistics clearly show that when industry funds research, the published results are much more likely to show beneficial effects than research conducted without industry funding.

[...] I follow a strict policy of never accepting research money from private industry. Not that private industry would have been interested in funding this research anyway—I mean, there’s no profit to be made if we show people getting healthier with lifestyle change, without worrying about weight loss, or if we show that weight isn’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to health.

Consequently, I’m limited to public funding [...] Given that Congress shares the general perception that Americans need to lose weight, that’s where much of the nutrition money goes these days. Plus, many (all?) researchers who sit on the panels that review the grant requests are on industry’s payroll themselves. In fact, some in my field jokingly refer to a group of researchers from the Universities of Colorado and Pittsburgh and Columbia University as the “obesity mafia,” given their control over National Institutes of Health funding.

With my HAES study, I managed to wrangle a relatively small grant out of the NIH [...] I’d like to believe we got the grant because of the outstanding proposal. But I’m not that naïve. The reality, I think, is that I took my name off the proposal as the primary investigator and substituted Dr. Stern’s, who is better connected to the mafiosi.

(emphasis added by me)

Others have also speculated that obesity researchers are afraid of losing funding.  To quote Melissa McEwan,  “Boy, it’d sure be sad if they lost funding. Almost as sad as if I lose my life [because] a deadly ailment is misdiagnosed as fat.”  The emphasis on thinness as a measure of health and the societal biases against fat people conspire to prevent fat people from getting proper healthcare.

And that, of course, brings the biggest reason this could be stigmatizing: If the “everyone can be thin” drumbeat is a lie, researchers are complicit in this lie.  You’re not just kowtowing to Weight Watchers, Congress or the NIH when you continue to encourage “just eat less and move more” — you’re a fraud.  That might, indeed, be stigmatizing.

5 thoughts on “Why Isn’t Obesity Research Better Known?

  1. You’re right. I think the stigma they are referring to, is their own. When the “sh#t hits the fan” they’re in big trouble. And considering that they’ve spent their whole lives promoting this, through the media, through society, they are sitting precariously upon a platform at the top of a stick.

  2. Pingback: Sunday links, 6/15/14 | Tutus And Tiny Hats

  3. “For the fat people who are rationalizing “I’m fat but I’m losing weight,” the idea that they may not be able to fulfill their fantasy can unfortunately cause another round of self-hate.”

    Surfed by from Twitter and just love this post, particularly the part I quoted here. I’m someone who was able to lose weight, and I felt it made such a big difference in my life that I got into the fitness industry and now work as a personal trainer. Despite knowing what I know, and despite working hard, I’m needing to understand that I may have reached my own limit (far short of my goals). On the professional side, time and time again I have clients who lament that they’re not losing weight fast enough. “Are you feeling good about your new habits?” I ask them. “Do you have more energy/sleep better/feel better?” The answer is almost always yes, but that feeling isn’t enough to sustain them. They need to see the numbers on the scale. So they quit, feeling like failures, not understanding that the healthy habits they’re learning are their own reward. I become just another bump on their roller coaster of self-acceptance, and it kinda breaks my heart.

    The sooner we get AWAY FROM “Exercise to lose weight” and move toward “Exercise to improve health”, the better.

  4. Reblogged this on Tiana the Health Coach and commented:
    Because this is a super good question that requires an answer. The research is out there, contesting the “exercise to lose weight” and “lose weight and stay thin” mentality, but few people have heard of it. Education is always the key to ending stigma, hatred and shame.

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