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Guest column: Promoting health at all sizes

Editor’s note: The following column was written for the Nutrition and Food Policy course taught by Lorraine Cordeiro at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

It’s time to end the war on obesity, meaning we need to stop equating body type with healthiness. This madness is detrimental to improving public health.

As a nutrition student and someone who has never been classified as overweight, I eagerly bought into the notion that America’s expanding waistlines resulted in poor health outcomes and were an economic burden. “Sixty percent of Americans are overweight — this is an epidemic!” I yelled atop my soapbox to family and friends, reiterating what I had heard over and over again from medical experts and government officials. “We are dying of cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes and it’s all because of our weight!”

I cited the studies supporting this notion and discussed it passionately, convinced that if we could reduce weight through diet and exercise then we would have a population full of healthier, happier, more productive people. Policies aimed at reducing body weight as a means of combating the obesity epidemic were necessary, I thought.

However, I came to realize that that is not the full picture.

Although it is true that an unhealthy diet and sedentary lifestyle may contribute to weight gain, genetics also play an important role in our physicality. The belief that we can, at will, change our body size and shape by restricting our calorie intake and hitting the gym three times a week is not taking this and other factors into account.

The government fixation on weight stigmatizes those who are heavy and favors those who are thin. We should focus instead on policies aimed at promoting healthier food and lifestyles choices and increasing the affordability and availability of unprocessed, fresh fruits and vegetables. Let’s teach people to eat real food and to love their food. Let’s re-incorporate nutrition education into schools and show kids how to prepare and eat fruits and vegetables, and tell them why they are so good for them. It doesn’t matter how many standardized test prep classes our children take, if they are sick, tired and unhealthy because of the food they are putting into their bodies, they will not function optimally in school. Let’s then expand nutrition education to involve the parents and caregivers, and find ways to get entire communities involved in promoting good food. Let’s stop using rhetoric that has us directing action against how people look and instead start a campaign directed at fostering health.

Distilling our health problems down to the numbers on a scale oversimplifies the complex set of variables that influences weight status. Rather than wage an all-out war on weight, let’s call a truce and invest our resources into building a nation of healthy people. We can be healthy at all body sizes.

Katelyn Russell is a graduate student in nutrition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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