I Guess We're Still Talking About Pandemic Weight Gain.

So let me say it again: The very last thing we need right now is a diet.

Welcome to Burnt Toast, a newsletter from Virginia Sole-Smith, which you can read about here. If you like what you read today, please subscribe and/or share it with someone else who would too.

Hello, it’s another week, and that means there is yet another hand-wringing article making the rounds about “the other pandemic” lurking just underneath (or behind? the metaphors get quite mixed here; the Washington Post decided on “intertwined with”) the Covid-19 pandemic: Ob#sity.*

Per the Washington Post (you can Google, I’m not giving them clicks for this): “Obesity is the biggest story that’s not being talked about.” And it is very strange that their reporters and experts don’t read any other news, or I guess, listen when other people speak? Because I have seen this exact same story reported several times each on NPR and in the New York Times. It’s also plastered all across social media. Ob*sity is absolutely being talked about — in ways that perpetuate shame and stigma and improve nobody’s health.

One reason we’re talking about it again this week is that the American Psychological Association published some new findings from their ongoing online survey, “Stress in America.” Their researchers interviewed 3,013 Americans in February, and found that 42 percent of participants said they had gained “more weight than they intended” since the pandemic started; the average gain was 29 pounds, with 10 percent gaining 50 pounds or more. Cue the hand-wringing!

Except, here are a couple of things to know about this data:

First, self-reported weight gain is one of the most unreliable data points you can collect. (It’s right up there with self-reported food or alcohol intake.) Are these people all hopping on scales before they take an online survey, or are they just estimating based on how their pants fit? Probably the latter. Even if they did use scales, they didn’t all use the same, carefully calibrated one, and no researcher came to their house to ensure systematic data collection. But more likely, they’re guessing. And one person’s five pounds is another person’s twenty if we’re talking about the very subjective metric of how tight your jeans feel.

Next, let’s think about the phrase “more weight than they intended.” Pretty much nobody ever intends to gain weight, because we live in a culture that tells us it’s the worst thing we can do. Yes, I know, pregnant people, body builders, and various other folks may embrace (certain amounts of) weight gain—but it’s unlikely that they account for a large portion of this sample. So I think the bigger surprise about this data is that only 42 percent of subjects reported unintended weight gain. Most of us are taught from childhood that weight gain is always to be avoided, which means anytime our bodies get bigger, we feel betrayed by this unplanned change.

Last, I want to underscore that these estimations cannot tell us anything about what’s happening with our own bodies. Someone else gaining weight, intentionally or not, does not mean you did, or that if you did, that it’s a problem. They also can’t tell us what’s happening to weight in our country as a whole; for that we need to wait for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to release their biannual data, a lot of which they were unable to accurately collect during the pandemic. (Please note that the CDC’s 42 percent ob*sity rate that everyone cites is actually from 2018.) 

But despite all of these data limitations, mainstream health reporters and ob*sity experts are off and running with the message that America needs a massive weight loss intervention. The only debate in their minds is how we achieve this goal. I appreciate Dr. William Dietz and others in the Washington Post story noting the existence of weight stigma, and framing high body weight as a societal problem, not an individual battle. Yes, great, let’s make healthy food more affordable and accessible and shore up our social safety nets and reimagine healthcare (because all of that will benefit people in lots of ways, regardless of whether they lose weight). But very quickly, the conversation turns to bariatric surgery and medication. And then because those are treatments that only “work” if you also make massive lifestyle shifts, we end up right back at dieting. Also known as an individual solution for a societal problem, and not an effective one, at that.

The very last thing we need right now is a diet. To protect and improve health, we need vaccines. We need safe in-person school. We need gun control.

We need to dismantle the system racism that allowed the police to kill yet another unarmed Black man this week.

We need to hug the loved ones we haven’t seen in so long.

We need to grieve for the people we can’t hug, and for all the other losses, large and small, that have stacked up during the past year.

If your body has changed, sure, it’s worth being curious about why that is, and whether it’s tied to a (perfectly valid) routine change that you’re looking forward to changing back as restrictions lift. Or it may be a symptom of an underlying issue you’d like to address, like depression or anxiety. Whatever the reason (and bodies also change without clear “reasons,” you don’t need to justify your size to anyone!), why not focus on that and leave body size out of it, as I wrote in more detail here

It’s so much more important to have compassion for everything your body has gone through in the past year.

And maybe even pride, for everything your body has helped you survive.

*A Note On Language: I use “ob#sity” or “ob*sity” as much as I can here on my newsletter out of respect for the fact that this term is widely considered pejorative and stigmatizing. I do not change the spelling when I’m quoting someone else using the word unless they have asked that I do so, because that would mean inserting my own perspective into their quote. But when I’m writing in my own voice, I avoid using any “o words,” and prefer instead to say “person in a larger body” or, you know, plain old fat.


ALSO

Inside the writing process: Sure, the new book is going great, why do you ask.


You’re reading Burnt Toast, a newsletter by Virginia Sole-Smith. Virginia is a feminist writer, and author of The Eating Instinct and the forthcoming Fat Kid Phobia. Comments? Questions? Email Virginia

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What If I Can't Say "Fat?"

If you feel like it's easier to talk to kids about racism than fatphobia, you are not alone.

Welcome to Burnt Toast, a newsletter from Virginia Sole-Smith, which you can read about here. If you like what you read today, please subscribe and/or share it with someone else who would too.

Q: My wife and I never talk about dieting, never say negative things about our bodies, and never use the words “thin” or “fat” to describe bodies (our own or anyone else’s), because we both struggled with body image issues growing up and we want to protect our 5-year-old from the same. But I’m realizing we do talk much more openly about gender identity (since she has two moms) and racism (she and I are Korean American). Why is this so much harder? 

A: It’s harder because you know that racists and homophobes are the ones with the problem. But when it comes to weight, we blame ourselves. 

First, an important caveat that I know conversations about racism, gender identity, and so on are still NOT easy for any parent, and especially not for queer folks and people of color who are feeling deeply unsafe right now. For lots of marginalized folks, explaining why fatphobia is wrong will feel way easier than explaining what your Black child should do if a police officer approaches him.

But I do think many of us feel like this question-writer: We are able to lean into conversations about sexuality and race because we know who the “bad guys” are there. But we fall back on the “say nothing” approach to weight because we’re much more aware of our own perceived shortcomings on this issue. We’ve been conditioned to think of weight as a matter of personal responsibility, and diet culture especially emphasizes that your body is only worthy of love if you’re taking perfect care of it and keeping it thin. It can feel easier to just not talk about weight (or fatphobia or why dieting is bad) to avoid showing our kids how much we’re struggling. 

The good news is that saying nothing is an effective means of harm reduction, as I wrote in this piece for the New York Times last April: 

“The research tells us that what you say matters more than what you do,” said Kendrin Sonneville, Sc.D., R.D., an assistant professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, where she studies eating disorder prevention. In other words, even if you’re dieting or feeling bad about your body, you can insulate your children to a certain extent by making a concerted effort to have a different conversation with them. “Don’t talk about losing weight, don’t label foods as good or bad and do communicate to your children that their body weight is not their worth,” Dr. Sonneville advised. “The words you use really matter.”

But, as I wrote last week, there are also important reasons to have more proactive conversations with your kids about fatphobia and diet culture, just as you’re already doing around race and gender. Calling out anti-fat bias when we see it (and your kids will see it, if they watch Peppa Pig or read Harry Potter or...) is a safe place for a lot of us to start. You don’t have to talk about yourself at all to do this. You can just say, “I don't like how Peppa makes fun of Daddy Pig’s tummy. There’s nothing wrong with having a big tummy and it doesn’t mean he has to eat less food!” (I have a longstanding beef with Peppa about this.)

From there, one of the most powerful things we can do is reclaim fat as a neutral body descriptor. I know you’re not saying fat (or thin) in an effort to take your child’s focus off body size. But it also makes weight feel like a dangerous, forbidden topic. Even more complicated is when you try to reinforce a broader definition of beauty by rushing in to say “you’re not fat, you’re beautiful!” to a larger child, says Jennifer Gaudiani, MD, an internist who treats the medical complications of eating disorders in Denver. “This puts fatness in opposition to beauty.” Which is the opposite of what you intended.

Instead, we need to teach our kids that making “fat” a bad word only perpetuates anti-fat bias. This can feel really, really hard, especially if the word “fat” was weaponized against you. If it just doesn’t feel safe or doable for you right now, you don’t have to push yourself to claim fat as an identity. But maybe you can start using fat in smaller, positive ways—you could talk about the nice fat tummy on her favorite stuffed bear, or, if you’re describing someone, you might say, “you remember Lizzie, she’s fat and has curly brown hair...” If you couple those benign-to-positive references to fat with your (excellent!) no body shaming policy, that could go a long way towards helping both you and your child redefine the word on your own terms. (If you’re not convinced that reclaiming fat matters, Aubrey Gordon's Just Say Fat essay is an important read.)

The tricky thing about all of this is that as much as we want to expand our children’s definition of “healthy” and “beautiful” to include fat bodies, we also don’t want them to think that either health or beauty are the most important things about having a body. Because both of those states can and will change (probably many times over the course of our lives). Our goal is the equal treatment of all people, regardless of their body’s appearance or ability. We don’t need to tell our kids that all bodies are beautiful; we need to teach them that all bodies are valuable. This is especially crucial with little girls, who are praised so constantly for their appearance, but it matters for kids of all genders. As my friends Lindsay and Lexie Kite, founders of Beauty Redefined, always say: Your body is an instrument, not an ornament.

Beauty can be fun. If your kids can see you enjoying your physical appearance from time to time—after a new haircut, or because you got cool new kicks—that’s great! (Maybe especially if they look like you.) And when beauty feels really important to a kid because that’s all their friends seem to care about, we never want to discount or invalidate that feeling. But you’ll do more for their long-term body image if they see you taking pride and even joy in what your body can do. Maybe you love that it lets you play basketball or take a family walk every day. But think beyond fitness too, since that’s also changeable. One way I love to reinforce “pride in what bodies do” is to read children’s books about how bodies work. It’s truly amazing to learn how our skeleton holds us up or how our lungs breathe, and you always end up explaining how poop happens, which kids adore. I shared a few good ones here.

If you’re still struggling with these conversations, share your thoughts in the comments, or hit reply and send me your questions and I’ll tackle as many as I can. Just remember: It’s okay to be a work in progress here. Very few of us show up to parenting with our body stuff all magically fixed. We can learn with our kids.


ALSO

Feeling trapped: In my latest article for the New York Times, I looked at how the pandemic has caused some people to develop disordered eating and caused others in recovery to relapse, straining already limited resources for helping eating disorder patients. The National Eating Disorders Association saw a 41 percent increase in messages on its telephone and online help lines in January 2021 compared to the year before. One factor is the uptick in quarantine-related diet and exercise talk, and shaming and fear around pandemic weight gain. Teens are particularly vulnerable. Read the whole thing here.

Watch your language: And Rebecca Onion interviewed me and others about how to thoughtfully talk about exercise and food on social media without being fatphobic or triggering anyone for this Slate piece. To start: Avoid body talk, and metrics (step or calorie counting, or run/exercise “streaks”). Read more here.

Book research call-out: I’m working on the chapter in my new book about kids on diets. So if you are currently raising a child under 18 and have put them on a diet, sent them to fat camp, or otherwise pursued intentional weight loss, I would love to chat—with zero judgment, I promise. I’d also love to talk to kids (meaning you are currently college-age or younger) who have experienced this. As always, I’m aiming to make this book as inclusive as possible, so non-dominant voices are especially welcome. Hit reply or email virginiasolesmith@gmail.com. (Non-parents who were put on diets as kids—I can’t use your stories this time, sorry. But stay tuned!)


You’re reading Burnt Toast, a newsletter by Virginia Sole-Smith. Virginia is a feminist writer, and author of The Eating Instinct and the forthcoming Fat Kid Phobia. Comments? Questions? Email Virginia

If a friend forwarded this to you and you want to subscribe, sign up here:

How To Explain Diet Culture to Kids

When and how to begin your counter-programming.

A lot of you are new to Burnt Toast this week, so welcome!

This is a weekly newsletter about how we navigate diet culture and fatphobia, especially through parenting. (But non-parents like it too!) I alternate answering your questions with short essays and rants. I’m also deep into research for my next book, so sometimes you get outtakes, behind-the-scenes peeks, and the little research snippets that I can’t stop thinking about. If you want more of my work, this is a good starting point, and here’s another personal favorite.

If you like what you read here, I’d love for you to share it! Forward this email to a friend or click the little “share” button next to my name (above) to post on social. Thank you.

Q: How do I respond when really young kids talk about dieting? 

A: I always know it’s time to newsletter a question when I get asked it a bunch of different times. One mom DM-ed me because her 8-year-old was on a playdate and came home chattering about diets. Another said her 6-year-old shared at dinner that a friend at school was on a diet and “it’s really working!” Another DM says “I heard two little girls (maybe 7-8 years old?) at the park today, talking about what size their clothes are.”  

I know. This is both deeply depressing and not remotely surprising. 

In case you are surprised: Research shows that kids begin equating “fat” with “bad” between the ages of 3 and 5. The first studies documenting negative attitudes towards weight were conducted in the 1960s; researchers showed children pictures of kids with various body types and found that they consistently rated the fat kid as the one they liked the least. If kids are worrying about fatness that young, it’s not a shock that they're learning about dieting, too. Adults around them are doing it and talking about it. Older kids they know likely are too. This is the world we give to our kids. 

But before we collectively panic: It’s important to remember that just because your child is talking about dieting, doesn’t mean they are dieting, or even that they really know what dieting is. I’d start by asking some friendly, curious questions: “What do you know about dieting?” or “Dieting, huh? What do you think about that?” They may think dieting is just eating vegetables or if they know a friend has been put on a diet by their doctor, they may think it’s something akin to taking antibiotics for an ear infection. Find out where they are before you tell them where you are.  

In my house, dieting came up for the first time a few weeks ago because my 7-year-old and I are reading Lisa Fipps’ beautiful novel in verse, STARFISH. It’s about an 11-year-old fat kid named Ellie, whose mom has been putting her on diets her whole life. When I got to the first mention of “diet,” I asked V if she knew what that meant. She shook her head, so I (took a deep breath and) said: “A diet is when people try to make their bodies smaller by eating less food. It doesn’t work and it can make you sick, especially for kids who are growing and need to eat as much food as they want.” She nodded and we kept reading. (If the book wasn’t already making this clear, I would have added something like “nobody needs to make themselves small” or “all bodies are good bodies,” which now elicits an eye roll because she hears it so often.)

I’ll be honest: It felt a little weird to read a book about dieting (even a book that is 100% anti-diet and fat positive) to my child who has not yet voiced any anxiety about her own body size or shape. I wondered if I would be inadvertently giving her a tool to use later when that all sinks in. And we don’t have good research yet on the best way to counter-program weight stigma in kids, so I can’t point you to a study that confirms that if we tell our kids not to diet, they won’t.

But we do know that kids are picking up on these issues even if they don’t verbalize that to us. We also know that when white parents don’t actively call out racism, they are more likely to raise kids who are racist. And that when parents don’t talk about sex, kids learn it from porn. So I’m extrapolating here, but it makes sense that we also need to talk about weight, call out fatphobia, and explain that dieting doesn’t work just like porn isn’t real. 

If we normalize these conversations early, it increases the odds that your child will have some tools to navigate fatphobia and diet culture whenever it does show up for them. They may internalize it all a little less, or at least, they’ll be aware that there is a counter-narrative available.  

But don’t worry if you think you’ve missed out on getting out ahead of this stuff. If asking your child what they know about dieting reveals they already know a fair bit, you can do damage control. Start by acknowledging the reality of fatphobia: “A lot of people think and say mean things about fat people. This is called fatphobia and it’s a big problem in our world that grownups like me are trying to fix.” Jeff Hunger, PhD, who is probably my personal favorite weight stigma researcher (what, you don’t have favorite researchers?) and also/more importantly an assistant professor of social psychology at Miami University in Ohio, suggests you further identify fatphobia in concrete terms a child will recognize by saying something like, “If all the toys you play with are thinner, and all the characters in your favorite shows are too, you might think you're supposed to look just like them. But everyone's body is different, and that is great!”

Then—and this part is crucial!—validate their feelings, especially if someone has made them feel bad about their own body or eating habits. “It really hurt when your friend said you shouldn’t have that cupcake, huh?” And give them space to explore and process those feelings. You might have to own something you’ve said or done in the past that contributed. It’s good to admit you were wrong. (If your child is being bullied for their weight at school or by other family members, a therapist can help.)

Last, reframe what they experienced: “Your body is not the problem. You don’t ever need to make yourself smaller by dieting.” Or in the case of your child noticing a friend’s diet: “Her body is not a problem. I’m sad her doctor told her that she needs to diet because I don’t think anyone needs to make their body smaller.” Yes, this could be awkward if your kid then runs back to tell the other kid you said that. If this is a family you have a relationship with, it may be worth opening up that conversation? If not, you can let your child know that it’s not polite to talk about other kids’ bodies or eating habits, but she should come back to you if she has any questions about what’s happening there.

And seriously, y’all, read STARFISH (with or without a kid). It’s so wonderful and I’m so encouraged to see more positive representations of fat kids in children’s literature. (I talked about a few more here.)

Got a question you’d like me to tackle about how to combat diet culture, feed your kids, and/or navigate fatphobia? Hit reply and send it over.


ALSO

While we’re on the subject: This month I’m working on the chapter in my new book about kids on diets. So if you are currently raising a child under 18 and have put them on a diet, sent them to fat camp, or otherwise pursued intentional weight loss, I would love to chat—with zero judgment, I promise. I’d also love to talk to kids (meaning you are currently college-age or younger) who have experienced this. As always, I’m aiming to make this book as inclusive as possible, so non-dominant voices especially welcome. Hit reply or email virginiasolesmith@gmail.com. (Non-parents who were put on diets as kids — I can’t use your stories this time, sorry. But stay tuned!)

The dirt on my garden: As Instagram followers all know by now, I’m a big fan of house plants and flower gardening. Growing kale and cabbage? Not so much. For Real Simple, I wrote about taking the bits of gardening that give me joy, and discarding the rest. Pick up a copy at newsstands today.

Proud to be a nerdette: I had a delightful conversation about BMI with Greta Johnsen of WBEZ Chicago’s Nerdette Podcast last week. Listen here.


You’re reading Burnt Toast, Virginia Sole-Smith’s weekly newsletter. Virginia is a feminist writer and author of The Eating InstinctComments? Questions? Email Virginia. If a friend forwarded this to you and you want to subscribe, sign up here.

Oh! Oh! Oreo

The cookies are not the problem.

Question: My 13-year-old would eat the entire box of Oreos. What should I do?

Answer: Pour a glass of milk so they can dunk them? 

Don’t worry. That’s not my whole answer. But it’s also not a bad idea. I don’t have any information beyond the sentence above, but I’m guessing that the person asking this question is expecting to get a strategy to reduce their 13-year-old’s Oreo consumption. It’s unnerving to see a kid eat a lot of cookies in one go—or to find the crumpled bag in the trash later. Our brains scream that can’t be healthy! Because it feels so...unbridled and out of control. And we’ve been taught, over and over, that binge eating, in any form, is bad. 

But I’m not going to tell you how to make your kids eat less Oreos. The thing we’re not taught about binge eating is that it most often happens in response to restriction. A 2008 study of 259 boys and girls aged 8 to 13 years old found that dietary restraint predicted the onset of binge eating one year later. “The more we try to limit the food we view as ‘unhealthy,’ the more our kids want those foods,” says Shira Rosenbluth, LCSW, a therapist who specializes in eating disorder treatment. “And then when they’re around them, they have a hard time stopping themselves from eating it. When we view all foods as neutral, our kids end up feeling a lot calmer and more secure around these foods, because they know they can have it at any time.”

You may think, “I don’t restrict my kids!” Because we often define restriction as a full-on eating disorder behavior. But if you pick up the empty Oreo bag and sigh, or if you comment on how many Oreos your kid is eating, or talk about how you need to workout tomorrow now that you ate some Oreos...those comments show your kid that you think Oreos are a food to be restricted, and that may foster what researchers call a “scarcity mindset,” where they fixate more on the foods they think they can’t have. 

Of course there are other reasons a 13-year-old might eat a bag of Oreos. Starting with: They are hungry! Remember that teenagers are growing as fast as toddlers. Even if you’re serving regular meals and snacks, they may just get hungry at random times and Oreos are delicious and this is not anything to get worked up about. 

13-year-olds stuck at home during a pandemic may also be eating more than usual because of stress, sadness, loneliness, or sheer boredom. For more on how the pandemic has changed kids’ eating habits, check out this piece and this one (geared more towards younger kiddos). If you think your child is “emotionally eating” in this way, first remember that using food to cope with big emotions is “a pretty benign coping strategy,” as Amee Severson, RD, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Bellingham, WA told me when I interviewed her for my last New York Times piece. “We wouldn’t be afraid of emotional eating if we weren’t afraid of weight gain.” So rather than trying to change how they’re using food, your job is to figure out what other forms of support they need to deal with whatever is causing the underlying emotions.

Now let’s get back to the restriction piece. Often when parents hear “stop restricting,” they assume that means they should let kids eat whatever they want, whenever they want and have absolutely no rules. But that’s probably not going to work unless your child is already a very solid intuitive eater—which, if they’ve been getting a lot of restrictive messages, they may not be right now. And that’s okay. Kids do need some structure to their eating days. The trick is to provide that structure in terms of their eating schedule, not their portion sizes. 13-year-olds can take a much more active role in planning and preparing meals than say, my 3-year-old can—so I like how feeding therapist Ellyn Satter approaches structure with adolescents in this post. And I also love this Instagram post by Katja Rowell, MD, one of my favorite feeding experts (who is currently parenting a teenager through the pandemic). You can and should require your older kiddo to sit down for regular meals and snacks, and you can continue to offer a range of foods at those meals. But you can let them be more responsible for some of the food prep and decisions around which foods to include. And yes, one of those foods should be Oreos. No, not every meal, but often enough that they don’t feel like every chance they have to eat them might be their last. 

If you have that kind of structure as your baseline, you don’t need to worry about how much they eat at any individual eating opportunity. If the Oreo snacking was a binge in response to restriction, this will ensure they aren’t getting so crazy hungry or feeling deprived and needing to binge. If you try this for a few weeks and they’re still eating a lot of Oreos, see above about, they’re hungry and it’s fine. 

Bottom line: If you make this a thing about the Oreos, it will definitely become a thing about Oreos. But Oreos were never the problem. (And I promise this newsletter is not sponsored by Nabisco.)

Got a question you’d like me to tackle about how to feed your kids, combat diet culture, and navigate fatphobia (your own and other people’s)? Hit reply and send it over.


ALSO

Pandemic panic: I’ll be joining Krys Boyd on KERA’s Think podcast to discuss weight stigma in scientific research and subpar medical treatment attached to high BMI, including during the Covid pandemic, live today from 2-3pm Eastern. Listen here.

(In case you missed the article I wrote about this for Scientific American, you can find it here.)

My unsolicited advice for food writers:

Finally, some “behind the scenes” of this writer’s workspace:

A post shared by @v_solesmith

You’re reading Burnt Toast, Virginia Sole-Smith’s weekly newsletter. Virginia is a feminist writer, co-host of the Comfort Food Podcast, and author of The Eating InstinctComments? Questions? Email Virginia. If a friend forwarded this to you and you want to subscribe, sign up here.

Making the Modern Ob#sity Epidemic

Scientists: "That's not what we claimed."

One of my favorite things about the ob#sity epidemic,* is the way certain statistics get repeated so often, by so many sources, that eventually they just sort of bake into our collective subconscious as truth… even though most people using the stat have no idea where it came from. One of the best examples of this is the claim that “ob#sity kills 300,000 people per year!” You’ve heard doctors say it. You’ve heard diet companies say it. You’ve heard Jillian Michaels, America’s patron saint of weight stigma, say it A LOT on “The Biggest Loser.” But is it true?

Now that we live in a real pandemic, I decided to find out. Because we’ve had over 500,000 deaths from Covid in the past year. And even when we were at the 300,000 mark, that number was big enough that even if you didn’t personally know someone who has died, you likely knew people who lost friends or family. On a purely anecdotal level, I just don’t think the same is true for high body weight; we often invoke weight to explain a tragic loss (and make ourselves feel more removed from the situation) but we don’t often name it as the singular cause. So I decided to chase down the origin story of this number while researching the first chapter of my upcoming book, and guess what: It’s not true.

In 1993, a study by researchers in the United States Department of Health and Human Services titled “Actual Causes of Death in the United States” combed through mortality data from 1990—yes, just that one year—and attributed 300,000 American deaths to “diet and activity patterns.” The only contributor with a higher death toll was tobacco with 400,000 deaths; in contrast, firearms only accounted for 35,000 deaths and illicit drug use, 20,000 deaths. 

“Diet and activity patterns” are important. And they can influence body weight. But they are not synonymous with weight. These researchers did not study weight. 

Nevertheless, the media, as well as many in the scientific research community, decided to equate lifestyle with body size. “Ob#sity kills 300,000 people a year!” became a kind of battle cry. In 1994, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop invoked the stat when he joined forces with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton to kick off their “Shape Up America” campaign. By 1998, the study’s authors were so fed up that they published a letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine saying, “you [...] cited our 1993 paper as claiming ‘that every year 300,000 deaths in the United States are caused by obesity.’ That is not what we claimed.”

But their research has continued to be misinterpreted and misreported for nearly 30 years. Other weight researchers have tried to get to a similar number; sometimes they come up with an even bigger one, sometimes they fall short. If you really want to geek out on the statistical math of it all, this 2004 paper by leading CDC researchers explains why it's so hard to attribute deaths to body weight. They also take on some of the research that tried to, um, find a way for that 300,000 claim to be right after it turned out to be wrong. “We urge caution in the use of current estimates of the number of deaths attributable to obesity,” the CDC researchers conclude.

Does this mean that zero deaths are attributable to high body weight? Of course not. But the relationship between body size and life expectancy is complicated. That’s because weight is a physical trait, not a behavior. Yes, if your weight goes too low, you can die. But we also know now that folks with restrictive eating disorders in bigger bodies can be just as sick as their “underweight” counterparts. (Often they’re even sicker by the time they get treatment because nobody notices that their diet became a disorder, but that’s a story for another day.) So we know that it’s the behavior of dieting that harms health, just like the behavior of smoking or the behavior of shooting a gun. 

But a small body weight isn’t always the result of dieting or disease, which is why not all thin people are sick or dying from starvation. We readily accept this nuance to the relationship between small body weights and health. It’s harder to wrap our heads around the fact that not all high body weights are the result of deviant or irresponsible behaviors. Some high body weights are the result of equally dangerous and more intractable social determinants of health, like poverty, lived experience of oppression, lack of affordable healthcare, etc. And some high body weights are just what they are, and not posing any added health risk to anyone. Weight may be a correlating symptom rather than the cause of death. It may even be entirely unrelated, until bias in weight research links these things together. 

Here’s what we do know: Inflated statistics like “300,000 deaths per year!” harm much more than they help. They offer no solution, nuance or empathy for the many complicated reasons that body size and health interact. And they strongly imply blame, especially when they are used to sell a diet—because if you don’t go on the diet now you are somehow contributing to this huge societal problem. 

You’re not. I promise. You are not causing the deaths of 300,000 people per year with your body size. And pretty much anytime someone makes a claim like that, you can be sure there is a scientist somewhere sadly shaking their head and muttering, “that is not what we claimed.”

*Here on Burnt Toast, where I get to make all the final copy editing decisions, I use that strategically placed hashtag when I write “ob#sity” in recognition of the fact that it’s now widely understood to be a derogatory term. As such, I actually try not to use it (or any other “o words” like ob#se and overw#ight) at all, unless I’m quoting someone who uses them, or discussing research, as in this post.


ALSO

There’s no such thing as “skort season:” Fashion failed to make “house dresses” and “napping dresses” a sartorial pandemic trend, so now they’re coming for your thighs. (I actually like a skort for its assistance in reducing chub rub, but you know what also does that is NORMAL SHORTS.)

This also means that the fitness and diet industries will be ramping up their messaging around “bikini bodies” and other such warm weather nonsense soon. (Just wear the swimsuit!) For that reason, and because gyms around the country will likely be opening back up or loosening restrictions over the next few weeks and months, it might be worth revisiting this (early, pre-Covid) 2020 story I wrote for Elemental on whether the fitness industry can every be really body positive. Read it here.

Help me report my second book: I’m still looking for people of color and/or low socioeconomic status who can speak to this topic.


You’re reading Burnt Toast, Virginia Sole-Smith’s weekly newsletter. Virginia is a feminist writer, co-host of the Comfort Food Podcast, and author of The Eating InstinctComments? Questions? Email Virginia. If a friend forwarded this to you and you want to subscribe, sign up here.

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