In this episode I’ll be answering the question: Can you be healthy and obese?
While taking a hard look at health warnings, shame and self-criticism—are these powerful messages as motivating as we think?
The big takeaway from the last few episodes is this: how you think determines what you do, so in order to change your behavior you have change your thoughts.
To bring this into focus, I shared a few groundbreaking studies that showed how a subjects perception dramatically changed their body’s response, even at a hormonal level.
But these were all personal perceptions.
Perceptions they had about themselves or of or relating to themselves.
For example, the study with the housekeepers who started perceiving themselves as exercise superstars and perceiving their work as exercise and not “hard labor.”
There were also the sailors who were so desperate for cherry Jell-o that when they were served lemon Jell-o with red food dye they believed it was cherry.
I also noted that it takes a great deal of courage to change your thoughts and perceptions because we feel blame, guilt, and shame when we go against what we we believe or already accepted as truth.
This made me wonder about the utility of shame and self-criticism.
I don’t know about you but I’ve got bottles of that.
I also started wondering about fear and warnings like the 90’s “this is your brain on drugs” commercials—is it effective in deterring?
I’ll come back to this shortly.
When I start working with someone one-on-one, the first question I ask them is their WHY.
Why are they here with me?
Why are they enrolled in Slim Team (my weight-loss program).
They usually say one of 2 things:
- FEAR. They’re scared to get cancer, heart disease, etc.
- SHAME. They want to lose weight
Actually I lied, let me back up.
Very few people say to me, “Lindsay, I want to lose weight.”
So let’s start there.
Most of us say, “I want to get healthy”
When what we really mean is “I want to lose body fat.”
I’ve got news for you:
You can be obese and be healthy.
The reason I’m saying this is because our society portrays healthy as synonymous with skinny.
But skinny people aren’t automatically healthy.
It’s totally okay to want both.
You can want to to be skinnier and healthier, and you can become both skinnier and healthier, but they’re not one in the same.
They’re two different boats and one is a whole lot faster to catch.
If you want to “get healthy” you don’t have to do very much:
- Eat a few more vegetables.
- Adopt a positive outlook on life.
- Move around a bit more doing things you like (i.e. shopping).
- Find a supportive community you can belong to, such as the Meal Mentor community, a church group, or make friends in a yoga class.
Really, that’s all.
You increase your longevity and not lose a single pound.
You can be healthy and not lose a single pound.
But even though I’ve said this…
.., and I’ve got the science to back it…
I know you won’t believe me.
Because I still struggle to believe me, which is why I’m spending an episode on this myth.
We’re conditioned to believe that simply because we have a little jelly, a budonkadonk, junk in the trunk, a spare tire, or however else you refer to your body fat… you’re not healthy.
Lack of body fat doesn’t define healthy.
There are thousands of overweight and obese people with incredible lab results, who run marathons, eat super clean, and aren’t on any medications, and we should celebrate these people.
Can we take a hot second and celebrate these people?
CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP, WHISTLE!
Body size is probably the least important factor for deterring health.
Many things we regard as obvious and important protective factors, such as exercising regularly, not smoking, and maintaining “good” blood pressure and cholesterol levels, have been shown, on average, to add less than four years to one’s life span.
I was just as depressed by this fact.
It doesn’t make me want to give up, but it does make me place value differently.
I still see fruits and vegetables as healthy, and I place a premium on eating whole foods, but I’ve diverted from perfection because seeking perfection leads to self-abuse, self-criticism, and shame.
And that’s what this episode is about: shame and the role shame plays with obesity.
But before I can get to that I need to ask you something.
I’m going to ask you to say, at least to yourself, “I want to lose body fat” instead of saying “I want to get healthy” or “I want to lose weight.”
Those other statements aren’t the whole truth, they’re shaming, or at the very least, they’re continuing this myth that skinny equals healthy.
This podcast is dedicated to debunking myths, please help me change this one.
Quick sidebar: Throughout this episode (and future episodes) you’re going to hear me say fat with a friendly F. It might make you uncomfortable (it still makes me uncomfortable) but it’s only an ugly word if we make it that way. “Overweight” seems more sensitive or gentle or PC, but “overweight” implies that there is a right weight or a correct weight. That’s still shaming and I don’t want fat—the word or literal adipose tissue on one’s body—to be shameful. Quoting Jane on Drop Dead Diva, “fat isn’t a bad word unless we teach that it is something to be ashamed of.” So fat with a friendly F.
Fear, stigma, self-criticism, shame do not inspire positive behavior change.
If anything, fear, stigma, self-criticism and shame motivate a desire to escape from feeling bad, which leads to more self-destructive coping behaviors, often the very behaviors you’re trying to stop.
This research was uncovered in the most unlikely of places: through anti-smoking campaigns.
Warnings about smoking have the reverse effect.
Graphic warnings do not and did not make people smoke less.
It makes smokers smoke more AND develop a more positive attitude towards smoking, especially if the warning is threatening, such as showing a black lung or someone dying of lung cancer.
These warnings “shut people down.”
Instead of thinking about the implications (which was the original goal) these scare tactics made people look for a way to escape feeling bad.
This made me think back to the failed D.A.R.E. Program.
If you were in school in the 80’s or 90’s you probably remember D.A.R.E.
Or the PSA “this is your brain on drugs” commercials. Watch here.
Schools started dropping the program like hotcakes in the early 90’s after Indiana University found that students who graduated the D.A.R.E. program had a higher than average rate of drug use.
The California Department of Education, the National Institute of Justice, and The American Psychological Association followed after and in 2001 the Surgeon General officially categorized D.A.R.E. as ineffective.
But this “boomerang effect” doesn’t only apply with drugs or smoking.
Take for example this study at University of California that concluded weight stigma led overweight women (but not non overweight women) to consume more calories.
Specifically, when overweight women were given a NYT article about how employers discriminate against overweight workers, they ate twice as many calories of junk food afterwards compared to overweight women who read a different article on workplace discrimination.
That same study also concluded that weight stigma reduced perceived dietary control among overweight women.
This is terrible news. We already know that perceptions make a huge difference, and that our thoughts drive our behavior…
That means all these “warnings” and health hazard reports are making someone who is overweight feel more helpless and powerless, making it even harder to change.
What I found especially interesting is the effect this had on non overweight women.
Weight stigma INCREASED perceived dietary control among non overweight women.
On the face that sounds great.
They don’t feel powerless, but that doesn’t mean they feel empowered.
What’s happening oftentimes is that they believe they have more control than they really do, which creates self-sabotage in a different way.
This single-handedly explained to me why so many people struggle with the last 10-15 vanity pounds.
It also connects back to the fitbit studies I talked about last season and how showing “calories burned” or “calories left for the day” are often more harmful than helpful.
In case I lost you back there: fear, stigma, self-criticism, and shame don’t actually motivate people to improve their well-being.
Rather they tend to push people toward the very behaviors we’re hoping to change.
Self-criticism and shame will not improve your well-being.
I want to be super clear about this.
The more ashamed you feel, or the more critical you are of yourself or your behavior, the more you will push yourself to the very behaviors you’re hoping to change.
You can’t bully yourself—or anyone—into health.
The more you try, the harder you’ll make it on yourself or that person to actually become healthier because you can’t take care of something you hate.
Quoting Lindy West, “Shame is a tool of oppression and not a tool of change.”
(Her book is awesome).
And even if you aren’t ashamed or self-critical, but you hold this belief that fatness is shameful or the result of weak willpower or some personal moral failing of that person, you’re a jerk.
And that attitude makes you self-sabotage too.
If you find yourself wanting an explanation for someonee’s body, ask yourself “Is that my body?"
No one has the right to your body except you.
Being fat is not a moral failing, but having a lack of empathy, especially for yourself, is.
I love this this quote: from The Four Agreements:
“In your whole life nobody has ever abused you more than you have abused yourself. The limit of your self-abuse is exactly the limit you will tolerate from someone else. If someone abuses you a little more than you abuse yourself, you will probably walk away. But if someone abuses you a little less than you abuse yourself, you will tolerate it endlessly.”
I never understood what people meant by self-respect but now I understand
Self-respect is not tolerating self-abuse.
Earlier in this episode I mentioned that I abandoned perfection.
Self-abuse comes from self-rejection, and self-rejection comes from having an image of what it means to be perfect and not measuring up to that idea.
Diets and food philosophies help create these images of what perfection is, and we think that we have to do exactly that in order to be good enough.
This leads to an “all or nothing” mindset which creates feelings of failure and guilt when we don’t execute perfectly, and that leads to shame and self-criticism, which we now know isn’t a successful motivator… it’s all an ugly cycle.
Changing your mindset and personal perception is difficult, especially in a society with a with a public perception that fat shaming is okay, because everyone believes it will motivate them to lose weight.
Newsflash: IT WON’T!
And this behavior is harmful to everyone’s health.
Stop doing it.
So how can you motivate yourself (or others) to change behavior if fear, stigma, self-criticism, and shame—all the things we’re currently doing, isn’t going to work?
Focus on the positive benefits of an alternative, specifically highlighting benefits that appeal to vanity or personal benefits whenever possible.
For example, telling a child to eat spinach so they grow up big and strong like Popeye or “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” is more effective than warning about the consequences of too many cookies or saying that candy causes cavities.
In fact “don’t” messages don’t appear work for us.
Analyzing 43 published international studies involving negative or positive nutrition messages, researchers at Cornell found that people would prefer and respond better to messages that tell them what to do and why it’s good for them.
Focus on the do.
This research also explains how things like goji berries became so popular so quickly.
“Super food” marketing focuses on the positive benefit.
Even if Super food marketing is a scam, (and it is, as soon as you put any colorful fruit or vegetable under the microscope, you will see a treasure trove of complex biochemistry and phytochemicals with innumerable health benefits) the marketing is spot on.
But by focusing on on the benefits and what it can do for someone?
That gets people excited.
That makes them open their pocket book and pay $12 for seeds that taste like dirty socks.
I tried this strategy out on my husband recently.
Any time he would remark his muscles were sore from exercise I would say, “oh kale can help with that.”
Or I would randomly drop into conversation that greens reduce inflammation and/or improve muscle recovery so serious athletes should eat more of them.
You know what?
He eats kale for breakfast now.
This psychology also reminds me of the expression, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
People want to know what’s in it for them.
I’m not embarrassed to say I went vegan for vanity, and I think that’s probably why it stuck. I was overly focused on the personal benefits. I was in my early 20s. I wasn’t thinking about heart attacks or caring about my total cholesterol, but I was willing to try anything that cleared up my acne.
There is one exception though (because there is always a giant stinking caveat)
Don’t messages work well with experts—people who are highly involved and knowledgeable in an area. I think this explains why passionate people end up preaching don’t messages.
Bottom line: tell your kid, your partner, and yourself what you CAN eat, not what you can’t.
This echoes a piece of advice I always give new vegans or people with allergies who feel deprived or have FOMO:
Think about all the foods you can eat than focusing on all the foods you’re CHOOSING to eliminate.
To summarize this episode:
- Being fat is not a moral failing, but having a lack of empathy is.
- “Progress not perfection” is the best mindset.
Anytime I eat or live less than my ideal, I reminded myself that it’s not all or nothing.
If I had one flat tire I wouldn’t slash the other three with a knife.
One meal or even a whole month isn’t going to destroy all the progress I’ve made.
I am still healthy. And so are you.
“Healthy“ isn’t far off in the distance.
You can—quite literally—be healthy tomorrow.
Even if you are obese.
Size is the the least important factor when it comes to health and longevity, and the more you see yourself as healthy the more healthy you will actually become without trying so hard because you can’t take care of something you hate.
YOU ARE HEALTHY ALREADY
This was episode 4 of Season 2.
Leave the guesswork and science to me.
Download your free research-based 7-day meal plan here.
- Do Not Don't | Focus on the Broccoli Benefits rather than the Hamburger Harms http://foodpsychology.cornell.edu/discoveries/do-not-dont
- The ironic effects of weight stigma http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103113002047
Tell me I’m Fat by Lindy West https://m.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/589/tell-me-im-fat
- This is your brain on drugs video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FtNm9CgA6U
- This is your brain on heroin video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qyXFN4ocN_o
- Physical Inactivity: The Biggest Public Health Problem of the 21st Century http://www.humankinetics.com/all-webinars/all-webinars/physical-inactivity-the-biggest-public-health-problem-of-the-21st-century
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