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The Fat Of the Land by Jim Ganley

Sun, Feb 16, 2014 at 10:45PM

If I had a weight problem, in addition to being obese, I would also be fighting mad. One of the last groups to still receive no respect are the obese. While I’m unsure of how this extant situation has come to be, it would appear that in 21st Century America people cannot be taken to task for their, race, gender, or sexual orientation. Discrimination against the above listed groups is prohibited by law. Fat people, on the other hand, are still fair game.

Let’s explore this concept briefly. While obesity is an issue from both the aspects of disease and cosmetics, we need to examine the connotative and denotative meanings of the term. As an adjective, fat is synonymous with bloated, swollen, and distended. By association we can add gluttonous and slothful, all of which connote a less than optimal state of being. Fat, when used as a noun, denotes an organic compound serving a number of bodily functions, and has no ability to arouse emotions.

There was an evolutionary advantage to being fat. Famine favored the fat, went the dictum. The painter Rubens created his visions of ideal femininity as rotund by today’s standard. Pulchritudinous females were the ideal of the period. And fat men were considered “well to do” and able to provide for a wife and family. That was then; this is now. Sadly, the obese are not on a level playing field when seeking employment, lodging, or finding a date for Saturday night. All the way around they are at a disadvantage in a number of competitive arenas. And if this wasn’t bad enough, now we have well meaning experts ganging up on all those heavier than the norm.

About two decades ago fat and people’s weight became politicized. Somehow or other the government has gotten involved and we’re given lectures on how to promote a “wellness” lifestyle. First Ladies have declared war on fat as they wage a never ending battle against blubber. I’m scared. My first exposure to this sort of thing took place in the mid 1990s at UMASS Amherst. 

It was a series of lectures sponsored by The American College Of Sports Medicine entitled Exercise and Diet Adherence.  I chose to attend for the continuing education credits offered as well as to learn the reason for my obese clients lack of improvement. The lecture series featured the leading national experts in the field, but I can sum up for you what was said. “Everyone knows that exercise and proper nutrition are important to a healthy lifestyle, but the implementation is lacking.” Sobering.

One of the lecturers there was Dr. Kelly Brownell, PhD from Yale. His talk began cogently enough, elucidating the extent of the obesity problem in America. But as his talk progressed, he appeared to grow more and more agitated, raising his voice and gesticulating wildly with his arms as he proposed taxing junk food out of existence and taxing those deemed heavier than the ideal. Whose ideal? Kelly Brownell’s? He himself was portly and easily 60 pounds overweight.

Lets examine the evolution of what the experts think we should weigh. In 1959 Metropolitan Life Insurance developed “Height / Weight Tables” listing the body weight norms for men and women by their height. As was eventually discovered, the data was skewed because it failed to take into account that many smokers are lighter than the norm while their morbidity and mortality was far greater than what would be expected from heavier non smokers. These tables also failed to address body composition. For example, a strength or speed athlete may weigh more than the norm for his height, but may have little body fat. The additional weight here is contributed by increased muscle mass, not fat.

The concept of body composition testing, while valid, was not as widely embraced as it should have been. In its place today we have the BMI, or Body Mass Index, which is essentially a high tech, retooled version of the old Metropolitan Height / Weight Tables. Put simply, the BMI is a number expressed by dividing one’s weight in kilograms by his or her height in meters squared. If you find this confusing, you’re not alone.  The experts tell us that if we measure 25 by this standard we are overweight. Pull a 30 and we’re obese. But once more, the BMI fails to address the body composition of the individual. In fact, to demonstrate how erroneous this concept is, we could have someone whose BMI is below 25 yet could have a high percent fat with comparatively little lean body mass. And if that fat is distributed primarily in the abdominal region, the health risks would be great, regardless of the BMI. Fat distribution in the body may be affected by one’s genetics and hormonal balance. The fat in the midsection is known as android fat. Fat distributed in the buttocks and thighs is termed gynoid fat. Generally speaking, males tend to store fat in the middle while women put it on in the lower body. We term this “apple shaped” as opposed to “pear shaped”. A high level of abdominal fat is termed “metabolic syndrome”, and those sporting such an apple shaped build are at an increased risk for a number of maladies including hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and Type 2 diabetes.  

In the 1930s, in his book The Atlas Of Men , Dr. William H. Sheldon, MD describes three distinct body types based upon the germ layers of the embryo. He calls this somatotyping, going on to describe the characteristics of the ectomorph,( thin and linear), the mesomorph, (muscular and angular), and endomorph, (soft and rounded). Sheldon then ascribed a number system ranging from 1 to 7  for each category. Most of us are not entirely in one category so, for example, a person with a 1-1-7 rating would be an extreme endomorph. On the other hand, a 

1-7-1 would be an extreme mesomorph. The average person would look something like 

3-3-3. This can become a bit complicated, but it would appear that Dr. Sheldon understood the variety displayed by the human form, something that many of today’s medicos have failed to grasp.  

Being an endomorph will not automatically put someone into a high risk group. We see this regularly in the animal kingdom. No matter how restrictive the diet and how well planned  the activity level, a St. Bernard dog will never have the speed and litheness of the greyhound. No matter how heavy the load pulled by a thoroughbred race horse, it will never be able to develop the size and power of the Clydesdale work horse. In the plant kingdom we could say that we cannot grow a sunflower from a petunia seed. While this concept is simple enough, we seem to think that as humans we are somehow different in that regard.

Most objective researchers in the field bariatrics, or weight control, will concede that obesity is multifactoral in nature. Leading the list of contributing causes here would be genetics and lifestyle issues. For example, someone with a primarily endomorphic body type who has followed a sedentary lifestyle for decades compounded by binge eating will be hard pressed to rectify the problem. Telling them to simply follow a fitness program while observing “portion control” at the dinner table would be about as effective as telling Lance Armstrong to stop riding his bicycle. Yet the purveyors of quick weight loss solutions have made billions pandering to the hopes, dreams, and prayers of those so afflicted.


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