Fatties destroying the New Zealand Defence Force

Oh, sweet merciful mother of God:

The Defence Force has announced it will restrict sugary fizzy drinks and deep fried food as it emerges more than a quarter of its personnel are ‘obese’.

This story frustrates me so. I’ve criticised the use of BMI as a “health” metric for years, and the response is always the same: “Oh, but it’s a good measurement for populations as a whole.”

It simply makes no sense. If a metric doesn’t tell you anything useful about someone on an individual basis, what can it possibly tell you on a population-wide basis?

It might provide some information on how the population’s average-weight-divided-by-square-of-height is changing over time, but that’s equally meaningless in terms of “health”. Different ethnic groups have different body shapes (and different health issues). Older populations have different body sizes to younger populations (and different health issues). Why not measure those things when we’re talking about how healthcare costs are changing over time?

And what the apologists ignore is this: BMI is most frequently used against individuals. Immigration, access to certain types of healthcare, forcing fat people to buy two plane tickets: they target individuals for demeaning, inadequate, even harmful treatment, every time.

The supreme irony is that I’ve often challenged BMI-is-good-for-populations by saying “but how can it be a good measurement if you can’t even say for certain whether a high-BMI population is [a group of lazy fatties] or [a group of weightlifters]?”

And there is sneering and eye-rolling about how unlikely it is that NZ’s population-wide BMI is going up because more of us are weightlifting.

Well, here you go: a quarter of our military personnel are obese, compared to a third of the NZ population overall (according to the Ministry of Health, which also thinks BMI is good for anything). That’s a much smaller gap than you’d assume if you remember that the military is meant to be younger and fitter and the general population older and More Evil less fit.

(Of course, our military, especially our Army, is also a lot browner than the general population – remember what I said about different ethnic groups and different body shapes?)

We can either assume that our military training has really gone off the rails, or – hold onto your hats – that BMI, as an individual measurement, as a group measurement, is totally worthless for determining anything at all.

And next time you see an article screaming blue about how our “obesity rates” are “out of control”, don’t picture a gross, headless fat person holding a burger. Picture Richie McCaw, whose BMI, at 30, means he’s being counted as one of the terrible fat people destroying our health system.


PS: And of course, Stuff just couldn’t resist including a picture of Minister of Defence Gerry Brownlee, because get it, LOL, he’s fat.

QOTD: Beware that latest “diet breakthrough”

A must-read article at io9:

I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here’s How.

Other than those fibs, the study was 100 percent authentic. My colleagues and I recruited actual human subjects in Germany. We ran an actual clinical trial, with subjects randomly assigned to different diet regimes. And the statistically significant benefits of chocolate that we reported are based on the actual data. It was, in fact, a fairly typical study for the field of diet research. Which is to say: It was terrible science. The results are meaningless, and the health claims that the media blasted out to millions of people around the world are utterly unfounded.

Here’s how we did it.

The story of how they got their study published and turned into blaring, inaccurate, weight-loss-promoting headlines across the world make for fascinating and worrying reading.

But it’s not just about the reporting. There’s a hugely important message about weight-loss “science”:

I know what you’re thinking. The study did show accelerated weight loss in the chocolate group—shouldn’t we trust it? Isn’t that how science works?

Here’s a dirty little science secret: If you measure a large number of things about a small number of people, you are almost guaranteed to get a “statistically significant” result. Our study included 18 different measurements—weight, cholesterol, sodium, blood protein levels, sleep quality, well-being, etc.—from 15 people. (One subject was dropped.) That study design is a recipe for false positives.

So why should you care? People who are desperate for reliable information face a bewildering array of diet guidance—salt is bad, salt is good, protein is good, protein is bad, fat is bad, fat is good—that changes like the weather. But science will figure it out, right? Now that we’re calling obesity an epidemic, funding will flow to the best scientists and all of this noise will die down, leaving us with clear answers to the causes and treatments.

Or maybe not. Even the well-funded, serious research into weight-loss science is confusing and inconclusive, laments Peter Attia, a surgeon who cofounded a nonprofit called the Nutrition Science Initiative. For example, the Women’s Health Initiative—one of the largest of its kind—yielded few clear insights about diet and health. “The results were just confusing,” says Attia. “They spent $1 billion and couldn’t even prove that a low-fat diet is better or worse.”

The ironic thing about Attia’s “lament” is that the lack of clear evidence about diet and health didn’t stop him cofounding an organisation whose website cries out for proper research and funding – but still assumes that the “dramatic rise in obesity” in the US is a “crisis” and not a blip caused by changing the definition of “obesity” in the 90s.

The authors of this terrible study did it deliberately to make a point about bad science and bad science reporting. There are plenty of others out there doing it for a far worse reason: the ridiculous amount of money there is to be made from promoting health anxiety and fat panic.

Improve your lexicon: fat politicians

I’m on a never-ending quest to improve my vocabulary – both by expanding it, and by getting rid of some of the more objectionable, oppressive language which we all use without thinking.

But change can be difficult. The best solution I’ve found is to brainstorm alternative words in advance and think good and hard about them. Hence, these weekly posts – as much a tool for me as for anyone else!

I’m not perfect. Sometimes we can easily see why one word is objectionable, but the alternatives which immediately spring to mind may also have bad connotations which we’re not aware of. I may screw up during this process, but I’ll do my best to fix it when I do. All any of us can do is keep trying and keep learning.

ETA: Swear to god, I had this post scheduled before I saw the article which inspired this morning’s post! The Lord moves in mysterious ways.

Anyone who’s known me for any length of time knows how much it irks me when people attack rightwing politicians like Gerry Brownlee or Paula Bennett by going straight for the fat jokes.

I have so many objections to this kind of thing. Fat stigma is a real thing which causes serious harm to people. And politicians like Brownlee and Bennett are so easy to criticise for things which actually are bad, instead of their body size!

The thing is, it’s not just their body size. In our society, which takes a faaaaaairly negative view of fat people, fatness is a code for all kinds of terrible character traits – as Cynara Geissler puts it, “visual shorthand for lazy, undisciplined, incapable and out of control”.

And because many of those traits – laziness, greediness, out of control – align with what we assume about fat people, it becomes far too easy to see, say, Gerry Brownlee’s size as proof of his arrogance, bullishness, pushy-ness, and power-grabbing.

Yet they’re also attributes we might associate with, say, the Prime Minister – except he’s not fat. But fortunately our culture also associates many of those traits with being of Jewish descent, which at best makes it a little cringe-inducing the way many cartoonists whack a great big hooked nose on him in their caricatures.

That’s not a coincidence. After all, only 100 years ago diabetes – which we now associate very firmly with fat people who make “poor lifestyle choices” – was considered “a Jewish disease”.

This examining-our-unconscious-linguistic-biases thing is quite the rollercoaster ride, isn’t it?

And if none of those reasons convince you, I offer this: calling people “fatty” is so primary school, isn’t it? Let’s call people proper grown-up names, if we must.

So, alternatives to “fat” (or whatever other clever word you were going to use which means “fat”) which are perfect for rightwing politicians who oppress the vulnerable:

arrogant, vindictive, bigoted, anti-democratic, bullying,
dogwhistling, boorish, ungallant, uncaring, despotic
oppressive, individualistic, exploitative, sneering, self-serving

If you’ve got any suggestions of words to cover, pop them in a comment or tweet me!

Modern fat-shaming: how do I smugly put down my fat friends?

A de-coding of this NZ Herald “advice” column:

Is it ever okay to step in and tell a friend they are too fat? – Weight Watcher, Auckland.

“Too fat” is obviously a turn of phrase you should never use when talking to one of your friends (or even behind their backs when you’re trying to impress other people with how health-conscious you are) because it’s sounds too judgey – and the real question is how you can judge your friends without them being able to call you out on it.

After all, fat-shaming isn’t helpful – it sounds too much like actual bullying, and reveals you’re the kind of person who judges other based on their physical appearance.

But fat people are disgusting and unhealthy. Science says so, and by “science” we mean hilariously inaccurate measurements like BMI and studies funded by the weightloss industry.

A study by University College London found that telling someone they’re fat makes them eat more, not less (because as a fat person they’re obviously already stuffing their faces with baby-flavoured donuts at every opportunity), so the trick is to make it obvious that you think they’re fat and disgusting without actually saying so. Start a conversation by really subtly looking them up and down with a sneer on your face and then brag about how much weight you’ve lost on your diet.

Don’t make the conversation about cosmetic appearance (that would make it too obvious that you’re fat-shaming them.) Instead, talk about a range of diseases and medical conditions which are predominantly linked to genetic factors but are stereotyped as being “diseases of obesity”, and brag about how much better you/your friend/your coworker felt after their diet.

Basically, tell your friend that even though you’re not judging them on their cosmetic appearance, you are able to categorically diagnose them with multiple invisible illnesses, based on their cosmetic appearance.

Then, ask your friend if they have concerns about their health, because they clearly should, because they’re fat. Even though you would never say that you’re only asking the question because of their size, they’ll work it out pretty quickly when you never ask any of your thin friends the same question. If they say yes, tell them to go to a doctor who can tell them to diet while ignoring their psychological state or bothering to figure out if they’re actually sick. If they say no, don’t be brutal, but do remind them once again that you can tell they’re unhealthy because they’re fat. Again, I stress the need for empathy here, and by empathy I mean “pretending you’re not fat-shaming them.”

You might be met with hostility, because fat people are too stupid to know they’re fat, and they get bizarrely irritated at other people making assumptions about their health and fitness based on their size. You might get the opportunity to have the conversation several times because they’ve been socialized to accept your obnoxious fat-shaming. But if you persevere, you might actually force your friend into disordered eating and self-destructive behaviour which temporarilys make them thin, which means they’re healthy. Isn’t that what friends are for?

Related Reading:

The personal impact of fat-hatred

I woke up yesterday looking forward to a relaxing fourth-day-of-a-long-weekend.

And one of the first things I saw on Twitter was an article which panickedly declared that


And I could go through all the same arguments which rapidly lose me Twitter followers: about the fact that classifications about what constitutes “overweight or obese” are almost entirely unscientific, about the fact this research was done by a “global management consulting firm”, about the incredibly influence and resources of the weightloss industry, about the fact that being overweight, obese, or even deathfat does not put you at higher risk of dying, about the fact that fat is incurable.

But that information’s already out there and if people are refusing to look at it, they’re not going to change their minds. So, I present a personal Twitter whinge-fest about how this kind of unscientific scaremongering affects me, personally.

And in the context of all that, some facts: it has been proven that doctors and nurses are biased against fat people. It’s proven that fat people fear medical discrimination so much they’ll avoid getting important checkups. And inflating healthcare costs actually aren’t the fault of fat people.

Maybe, if we’re really worried about the ~costs of obesity~, instead of promoting more diets (and medications, and surgical procedures) that don’t work and more bullying disguised as “get active” programmes, we could get the medical profession to treat fat people with basic dignity, respect, and proper practice. Might cut those costs a little, you think?