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The Graph That Changed My Life

November 18, 2012

Trigger warning: Discussion of weight loss science and personal dieting experience.

The following guest post comes to us from Angela of Never Diet Again UK. Angela is interested in becoming the latest Fatty to join our blogging community. After three guest posts, we allow our readers to vote on whether to include her on our team. I hope you enjoy this first submission.

I remember the exact moment when everything changed, when my world turned upside down. For most of my adult life, and much of the time before that, I had been on a diet. Whether it was low-fat, low-carb, alternate-day fasting, juicing, detoxing, or simply “healthy eating,” I had rarely gone for more than a few weeks at a time without counting points or grams or servings or units or cups or whatever. I had lived on pre-packaged meals that tasted like sawdust and drunk superfood supplements that tasted like your front lawn had been put through a blender. If I thought it would work, I’d have probably actually put the front lawn through a blender and tried that too.

I’m not entirely sure when it started, or why for that matter. I remember my mother always being on a diet — eating her low-fat cottage cheese standing up in the kitchen after preparing dinner for the rest of the family. I also remember being bigger than my very slim school friends, but I certainly wasn’t fat. Even in my 20s, well into my dieting career, I looked pretty damn hot in a short black dress and thigh boots. I didn’t realize it, of course. I thought I was an abomination. Now, in my mid-40s, I am fat. I have gradually dieted myself up from a UK size 10 to a size 20, all the while trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with me, and why I couldn’t just stick to a damn diet plan once and for all. Maybe I hadn’t found the right diet for me yet, but this next one, the new book on the block, would be The One. This time would be different.

Along the way I learned a lot about losing weight. I studied nutrition and exercise science. I qualified as a personal trainer. I searched and searched for The Answer. And when I still didn’t find it, I studied some more. I signed up for a Masters in Weight Management, sure that this would tell me what was wrong with me, and let me fix it once and for all. But it was the same old tired clichés, just jazzed up with more scientific terms and (some admittedly very cool) laboratory assessment tools: underwater weighing was a bit of a non-starter, though; they couldn’t get me under the water. I float.

And then came the moment. It was Summer 2011, and I was two years into my Masters, researching my final assignment on exercise for weight loss, and I read something I’d never seen before. It was a study of 26,000 men recruited in a huge, long-term study of health outcomes. They’d been put through their paces on a maximal exercise test on a treadmill, along with a host of other tests, and were followed for a period of up to 25 years to see which ones dropped dead first. And this is what they found:

Image

I call this “The Graph That Changed My Life.” I looked at those black lines, showing the usual increased risk of dying an early, horrible, self-inflicted death with every pound of flab. Then I saw the red lines; the ones that went practically straight down, one under the other; the ones showing that if you were fit, the weight didn’t matter.

It didn’t frickin’ matter!

A strange feeling started to wash over me. I may have felt goosebumps.

Why, during all my training, had I never seen this? Never been shown this? I re-read the paper. And although those numbers had knocked me off my extensively-trained, apparently-knowledgeable feet, what shocked me most of all was that this study was based on objectively-measured results, following 26,000 men, and it had been published in a major, mainstream, important scientific journal in 1999.

1999!!!

This was huge. This was important. I knew it at once. I wondered if there had been any follow-up work, or any other supporting studies. And for the first time, I looked. And there they were for the taking. Study after study after study, readily accessible to anybody who chose to seek them out, showing that when lifestyle was taken into account, Weight Wasn’t Important. Even in men and women who had high blood pressure and diabetes to start with, fitness was what made the difference, not the number on the scales.

And then I got really, really angry. I’d been reading about nutrition and exercise for 30 years, had been studying and working in the field for over 10 years, and I hadn’t had an inkling that this mountain of evidence was out there telling me that not only did I not need to lose weight to improve my health, but that the very attempt to try and slim myself down was likely making me fatter, and probably also damaging both my physical and mental well-being.

I thought about all the years I’d spent grasping at straws, putting myself through ever-more-stringent diet and exercise regimens; and then I thought of all the people I’d trained and advised, all the ones who I’d sent down the same path to failure and despair, all the unnecessary damage I’d done, whilst simply trying to help. Because I’d been told that that was what needed to be done. And I’d believed it. But not any more.

I always find it interesting that so many people who discover Health At Every Size®, a non-weight-based approach to health, and turn into activists to a greater or lesser extent. Interesting, but not surprising. We look back in horror on all the years wasted, all the self-inflicted harm, and we weep for our former, perfectly happy, healthy selves, and wonder if it’s too late to get that back. And then we look around, and we see other people still mired in that same hell of falsehoods and prejudice; the ones who are still buying into their own oppression; the ones who still don’t know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with them. And we rise up and we try to right the wrongs we see around us everyday. There are a lot of wrongs out there, and we are still in the minority. But I sense a real groundswell. There is a sense that we are on the verge of something momentous; something that is about to change our world.

It is not too late for us, the lost generations, to get our lives and our self-esteem back. And it is definitely not too late for us to change what we are doing to our children — the ones who will become us unless we put a stop to this senseless, futile, and counter-productive pursuit of thinness above all else. Future generations will look back in horror at these times in the same the way we look at the insane asylums of yore, or the electroconvulsive therapy forced upon gay men and women to try and cure them of their “disease.”

And as with the aftermath of those episodes in the history of medicine, doctors will hang their heads in shame. The vast majority of them are good men and women, who are genuinely trying to do what they think is best for their patients. The fact that they are still being trained to think this is one of the great public health disgraces of the last century.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2012 7:34 am

    WOW! More people need to know this. Especially the Haters.

    • November 19, 2012 4:21 pm

      Hi Bobby, I’m not sure we’ll ever get through to the haters with facts. Sadly. It’s the decent but misinformed people (like me) that might be open to the message. And the self-loathing defeated fat people (like me) who don’t know there isn’t another way.

  2. Fab@54 permalink
    November 18, 2012 7:49 am

    Yes. This is the truth soooo long hidden. But now we know it! 🙂 Now we shout it from the rooftops until they all start to ‘get it’ !

  3. November 18, 2012 1:41 pm

    Yes! Yes! Yes! A zillion times yes!

  4. November 18, 2012 6:18 pm

    Spot on!!! Brilliant!!! All together now!!!

  5. November 18, 2012 8:24 pm

    Dear neverdietagainuk,

    So many lines of your post just make my eyes begin to tear up because I identify so strongly and can even see the images you describe, such as:

    “… I remember my mother always being on a diet. Eating her low-fat cottage cheese standing up in the kitchen after preparing dinner for the rest of the family….

    What a sad glimpse at human isolation and deprivation juxtaposed with—yet disconnected from—the abundance and closeness of a shared family meal. A single image such as this speaks to the loss of social connections and the quiet tragedy of unmet potential to create emotional nourishment that each of us needs from one another.

    “…We look back in horror on all the years wasted, all the self-inflicted harm, and we weep for our former, perfectly happy, healthy selves, and wonder if it’s too late to get that back. And then we look around, and we see other people still mired in that same hell of falsehoods and prejudice….”

    Oh, this is powerful. It hits so close to home for me…That sense of self blame (and deep shame) for believing that you are making a harmful or self-destructive *choice* even while your own lived experience provides no access to any better option. It’s a set up to feel bad and worthless for not controlling something you had no power, at that time, to control.

    The whole essay is beautifully written, insightful, profound, and deeply poignant with new found empowerment. BRAVA!

    • November 19, 2012 4:24 pm

      Thank you so much for sharing this. I am really moved that this resonated with you. Ang 🙂

  6. Kala permalink
    November 19, 2012 11:03 am

    I’m not even sure why this result is so surprising and taken so skeptically by people to take the standard view on fatness and health. I can’t help but think it’s partly because they’ve moralized the issue in their minds and have become really invested in their view for their own self-worth.

  7. November 19, 2012 1:14 pm

    Excellent post, and I’m so thrilled that you’re wanting to join our team. Your grasp on the issues is amazing. The study you cited with the graph that changed your life is the work of Dr. Steven Blair, who I interviewed a while back.

    I can’t wait to see what other insights you have to give!

    Peace,
    Shannon

    • November 19, 2012 8:55 pm

      Thanks Shannon. That interview was very interesting. I’ve read a lot of Stephen Blair’s work, and it always surprises me that despite all of their findings, they always hedge their bets by talking about weight loss as well as improving fitness. Based on what he said to you, I’m guessing that the obesity-focus is more politic and possibly a nod to the funding authorities. And I certainly felt his pain with regard to journals STILL publishing obesity ‘science’ without accounting for fitness or other confounding variables. But I was disappointed to hear him repeat the ‘calories in/calories out’ equation, in yet another misrepresentation of the second law of thermodynamics. Sigh.

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