Fear of Fat: Why Dieting Does Not Work for Weight Loss
Studies conducted here and in the United States over the past three decades show that we judge fat women harshly in the West. Whereas the fat man still carries a jolly or powerful image (for instance Father Christmas or Winston Churchill), fat women are seen as unattractive and pathetic.
This attitude is inculcated from a very early age. In a 1978 study, conducted by researchers at the Clinic for Eating Disorders at Cincinnati College of Medicine, pre-school children were shown a fat and a thin doll. Ninety-one percent of the children preferred the thin doll, including those children who were themselves fat.
And knew that they were so. In further tests, the children ascribed mostly negative attributes to the fat doll. Other studies have shown that fat girls are discriminated against in a variety of situations, from competing for university places to shopping in the supermarket.
Most women are acutely aware of the social unacceptability of being overweight and, to avoid this stigma, spend an enormous amount of time, energy, and angst on keeping themselves from the dreadful fate of fatness. But our fear of flesh has sent us over the top.
When 500 people in San Francisco were asked what they feared most, the choice of 190 of them was not nuclear war, unemployment, or violent crime, but getting fat. And the Royal College of Physicians in their 1983 report on obesity estimated that 65 percent of British women are on a diet at any one time.
Compare this figure with the findings of a popular survey done in August 1983 in an American women’s magazine: 75 percent of the women who replied felt that they were too fat and nearly half were moderately or very unhappy with their bodies – this even though according to the weight tables only 25 percent of them actually were overweight.
The desire to be thin is evidently a powerful one and not always related to reality. And it is not just Americans who are narcissistic: in England, a national opinion poll conducted in spring 1984 showed that one-quarter of already slim women – and an even higher proportion of the very thin – wanted to shed yet more pounds.
It has now become clear that, in addition to the two percent of women who are clinically anorexic (and women are indeed ‘in an anorexic state of mind’.
What is meant by ‘overweight’?
A great many women imagine they are overweight, and equate fatness with being ugly and therefore socially unacceptable. Being fat, they feel, puts them on the margins of society and makes them unlovable. But of those women who are overweight, how many consider the health aspects of being overweight?
A Which?? Survey founded that out of 1,001 people 58 percent of the women wanted to slim for cosmetic reasons (as opposed to only 19 percent of the men), whereas only 39 percent of the women wanted to slim for health reasons (as opposed to 76 percent of the men).
This is important because recent findings show that one in four women need to lose some weight for their health.
To know whether we belong to that 25 percent who need to lose weight for health reasons, we need to be clear on what exactly constitutes being overweight. Early weight tables, compiled by American life assurance companies and established on highly unscientific data, have since been found to be inaccurate and are now redundant.
They tended to set ideal weights too low, basing their norm on a selective proportion of the population. New weight tables have now been devised. But rather than here provide an essentially arbitrary ideal weight for you to aim for, it is much more helpful to demonstrate a difference between overweight and over-fat.
Every woman if she is honest with herself, knows when she is putting on weight, knows what it feels like to be the ‘right’ weight for her, and knows what it is like to feel fat. Because muscle weighs more than fat, a larger, sturdily built woman weighs more than a smaller-framed woman of the same height.
Yet that lighter woman may well be fatter (in the sense of having too much body fat) than the heavier woman. Weight is relative to and dependent on, several factors: energy consumed, energy given out, frame, height, age, genetic type, lifestyle, and metabolism.
The fact is that being underweight, or carrying too little body fat, can be as unhealthy as being overweight or obese. For women, having too little body fat affects their periods, their chances of becoming pregnant, and of miscarrying.
Statistics show that, for both men and women, being too thin may mean less resistance to disease and infection, fewer resources when fighting illness, deficient nutritional intake, and even risk from heart disease.
So instead of relying on the scales for guidance, think in terms of shape and the quality of your body tissue. Women often describe their flesh as ‘flabby’, and although this cruel adjective may sum up a picture of self-hate. It also accurately describes loose, untoned, unused muscle.
It is not our weight we should focus on, then, but the health of our bodies. Healthy, firm flesh has a glow and suppleness, the muscles have tone and resilience and the fat is firm and smooth, forming the natural curves and contours of the female shape.
Confusing Messages about Dieting:
Girls growing up today are exposed to – indeed, bombarded with – conflicting and confusing ideas about what it means to be a woman. We live in a period of great change and transition: more and more women go out to work and are taking positions of responsibility and power.
No longer do we automatically consider that a woman’s only destiny is to marry as early as possible and to become a stay-at-home wife and mother. Nevertheless, although a great many women now have broader horizons and seek employment or interests outside the home, most women still want to achieve a secure relationship with a man and to have children.
These two roles are very often conflicting, and the confusion, anxiety, and anger that this dilemma sets up are felt throughout every stratum of society, and by men as well as women. The problems set by the new choices, roles, and opportunities open to us, and the new demands made on us, are reflected in our general attitudes to the female shape.
The female body is still the chief icon in our culture and is used in advertising to sell everything from cheese to rust remover. Broadly, the types of female bodies admired fall into two categories: the full-busted, ‘sexy’ woman who features in beer adverts and girlie magazines, and the slender, cool, and elegant woman of the diamond and chocolate advertisements.
The implicit message of the first image is that she is the earthy, sexually desirable, ‘real’ woman, appealing to men on a fundamental level, and the second image leaves us in no doubt that there is a successful woman who will be admired and adored as a ‘goddess’ and who will attract rich and powerful men.
As women, we constantly see these stereotyped images and may come to accept them as the norm, yet at the same time recognize that our own shape does not necessarily match up. As a result, we may live with a nagging sense of inadequacy.
Advertisements also encourage us to look at our bodies not just as objects but in sections; on one page of the magazine will be a close-up of a girl’s hair, on another one of hands, and so on. Men often say things like, ‘I’m a legs man, myself,’ and women usually complain about specific parts of their bodies: ‘It’s my thighs, they’re so lumpy’, or ‘I’d be all right if it weren’t for my bust.’
Television soap operas encourage similar confusions. The women are mostly slender and glamorous; they are often quite independent and adventurous, but they tend always to be motivated by a man, and eventually to give up their freedom for love.
The message all too commonly is: develop your potential, be bright and clever and un-clinging, but this is all in aid of getting a man, and beware of being too brainy or independent or you may intimidate him. No man is ever confronted by such double messages.
Our attitudes to ourselves and the way we want to look are largely formed by the images we see around us and the standards that our society adopts, so it is important to think about these issues when considering the question of dieting and losing weight.
In the area of food and eating, the double messages continue. On one page of the magazine, for instance, might be a mouth-watering recipe for lemon meringue pie, and on the next, the latest tips on how to avoid eating desserts; one section will encourage the cook to concentrate her imagination on preparing delicious meals and another section will be devoted to teaching us how to get thin, how not to indulge in desserts and rich food.
Again becoming aware of this double-think is vital if women want to gain control over their eating habits and their weight.
Food and eating has a particular power for women since it is a woman who is the chief nurturer – the first food of life comes from her breast – and it is helpful to become aware of how much time and effort goes into shopping, preparing, and cooking food for others and how much energy goes into denying yourself the same nourishment.
Having looked at some of the powerful messages in society that shape our attitudes towards weight and eating habits, we must understand the physical consequences to the whole metabolism of going on a diet.
Why Dieting doesn’t Work:
When you go on a low-calorie diet – and all fad slimming diets, from pineapple eating to protein-sparing fasts, restrict calorie intake – your body reacts according to the principle of homeostasis. Homoeostasis is the body’s ability to retain the inner balance of its organs, nervous and digestive systems, and blood supply, in the face of a changing environment.
The body cannot distinguish between enforced starvation and a crash diet, or between famine and a long-term slimming regime. When you suddenly restrict the body’s supply of food, it reacts quickly and efficiently to maintain its inner balance (homeostasis) and consequently your health.
The First Thing That Happens about Dieting:
The first thing that happens, is that you slow down. Studies show that dieters become unconsciously lazier: they watch more television, take the lift rather than climb stairs, sit around more, and generally feel more sluggish. This is your body’s way of making sure you use less energy and is a part of the overall slowing down of your metabolism.
The basal metabolic rate (BMR) – the rate at which your body ticks over – is often assumed to be static. Since the turn of the century, however, research studies have proved this assumption wrong over and over and over again. Within quite a wide range, our metabolism is very active and volatile. It is affected by physical work, by our emotions, by stress and illness – and by dieting.
Sixty-four percent of the energy we consume is used by the body’s vital organs yet their weight totals only 15 percent of our body-weight. When you go on a crash diet, the metabolic rate of these vital organs slows down dramatically, by an amount that varies between 10 and 45 percent of their normal rate. So the less you eat the less energy your body uses.
Over a prolonged period, the body adapts to this state of under-nutrition. So if you go on a succession of diets, or live on a semi-permanent low-calorie regime, then if effect you train your body to be on a diet. Your metabolism remains permanently lowered and the whole process becomes self-defeating.
The Second Thing That Happens about Dieting:
The second thing that happens, when you go on a low-calorie slimming diet is that you lose weight. Great, you might think; that is just the idea. The dies books tell you that you can lose 10lbs in a week and you assume this to be fat loss. But that is wrong.
You cannot lose fat directly in this speedy way, only indirectly; fat stores take much longer to become mobilized for burning as energy. Those 10lbs you lose in a crash diet consist of water and, bound up in the water, glycogen (blood sugar).
Glycogen is the body’s immediately available source of energy, and it is stored in the muscles and other vital organs. It is essential to the body – providing the instant energy required for all action (from running to catch a bus to lifting a teacup) – and it is the brain’s food.
The body must replace glycogen quickly once it is lost, particularly after intense effort, illness, or a crash diet. Hence the cravings, thirst, and disturbed eating habits such as the ravenous hunger and gorging which often force a dieter to break her diet after about 10 days.
The body is protecting itself by responding to the altered blood sugar levels; when they fall too low the appestat (the hunger control center in the brain) is triggered and you feel hungry.
After a While on a low-calorie diet, and once the body has used enough of its immediate source of energy, glycogen, you will start burning fat.
The timing of this varies from person to person. However, the body will take its energy and nutrients from the best sources within itself and so will break down lean tissue as well as fat.
This particularly true of a sedentary person whose lean (muscles and organs) are not active and lively. In a particularly strict diet or fast, the weight you will lose will be about 65 percent lean tissue and only about 35 percent fat.
When you stop Dieting:
When you stop dieting and return to ‘normal’ eating, your body will first replace the glycogen and water as quickly as possible, and then its ‘food stores’. If you are a sedentary person your body has no great need for a lot of lean tissue (muscle burns more calories than fat.
Therefore need more feeding). So the body will replace the lost weight with fat rather than with lean tissue.
And, just as certain training regimes can develop the body to excel in sport, so dieting is a form of training your body – to expect and cope with, as efficiently as possible, food shortage. Fat is the equivalent of the camel’s hump; it satisfies the body-needs in times of famine. In this way, dieting can eventually make you fat.