The Meal

We Are What We Eat? Or What We Weigh?

In 1826, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote: Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are. Those words appeared in The Physiology of Taste, a work of seven volumes. Now we’ve boiled it down to you are what you eat. A new study in PLOS Medicine suggests there’s real wisdom in that saying.

Karl Michaëlsson and colleagues found that a healthful diet might reduce the risk of death for people with obesity. Even though they were living at a high BMI.

Observed Associations with a Mediterranean Diet

This was an observational cohort study of  79,003 Swedish men and women. The baseline age was, on average, 61 years. Ten percent of the cohort had a BMI in the range of obesity, averaging 33. The rest were almost evenly split between the overweight and normal weight category. The researchers measured adherence to a Mediterranean diet with the mMED score.

Interestingly, they found the lowest risk for mortality in folks from the overweight category with high mMED scores. In other words, it just might be that what they ate was more important than what they weighed.

Reassurance with Limitations

These findings are reassuring for two reasons. First, of course, they appeal to our need to confirm our own bias. We like data that support the belief that we are what we eat. Our sense of order is pleased.

But more important is the fact that diet is indeed modifiable. We have some measure of control over the quality of what we eat. More so, in fact than the control we have over the size and shape of our bodies. Genes and environmental triggers get the most say in that outcome.

Thus, these data confirm that if our goal is to influence our health, then diet might be a good tool. Perhaps even better than it is for controlling our weight over the long term.

Of course, these data are observational. The authors are quite clear that they do not give the final word on cause and effect.

Nonetheless, we take comfort in these observations. We live in a world that so often judges our health by body size and shape. Healthism takes that further and confers moral worth based on health. But these findings remind us that simple judgments about health based on size can be simply wrong because they do not account for health behaviors.

Health behaviors lie within our control. Size, not so much.

Click here for the study, here and here for further perspective.

The Meal, photograph © Przemko Stachowski / flickr

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October 7, 2020