Composition with Circles and Goat

Fighting Diet Culture with Sweet, Simple Answers

Know that BMI is BS.” On NPR’s Life Kit podcast, that’s the advice for coping with the boogeyman of diet culture. Whatever diet culture is, in this season of anxiety about weight and health, it certainly seems to be on the minds of many influencers. So if one defines diet culture as a preoccupation with weight and diet over and above health and well-being, we agree with rejecting it. But in common usage right now, the definition is more slippery. So we find many people fighting diet culture with sweet, simple answers – spreading more discord than enlightenment.

BMI Is Just a Number

BMI is just a number. It’s not racist or sexist, as some have tried to suggest. It is simply a crude tool – like a measurement of fever or a blood test. It can be a signal of obesity, but it is not the diagnosis. The problem with BMI comes from people who misuse it – mostly as a substitute for digging into the complexity of obesity.

That would include people who want to argue that obesity isn’t a real health concern because BMI is BS, as the authors of that Life Kit podcast do. The Embodied podcast from North Carolina Public Radio is a little more explicit – calling to “deconstruct” both diet culture and the science of obesity. In this case, the definition of diet culture morphs into something that science “props up.”

Is the Science Backwards?

“We got the science of obesity back to front,” writes David Ludwig in New Scientist. People have been paying too much attention to calorie balance, he says. Obesity is not a simple problem of eating too much and moving too little. Instead, he presents it as a simple problem of carbs and insulin. He offers a simple answer:

“Replacing processed carbs with high-fat foods – such as nuts, full-fat dairy, olive oil, avocado and dark chocolate – lowers insulin levels, making more calories from the meal available for the rest of the body.”

Indeed, this can help some people – but not others.

“I Have the Answer”

Ludwig and the anti-diet culture warriors have something in common: a simple answer to the complex problem of obesity. The culture warriors say fuggedaboutit. Ludwig says we should simply embrace high fat foods to replace processed carbs.

These true believers give us a stew of conflicting ideas and much to think about. In that way, they’re helpful. But without tolerance for dissent from their prefered thinking, they can be a stumbling block to enlightenment.

Click here and here for more on fighting the good fight against diet culture. For Ludwig’s essay, click here.

Composition with Circles and Goat, painting by Marc Chagall / WikiArt

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January 9, 2022

7 Responses to “Fighting Diet Culture with Sweet, Simple Answers”

  1. January 09, 2022 at 11:53 am, Allen Browne said:

    There is a common thread here – “simple”. Hard for a complex set of disorders of the energy regulatory system resulting in over 200 complications of an unhealthy body composition.

    Have a good day.


  2. January 09, 2022 at 1:56 pm, David Ludwig said:

    Ted, if there is over-simplification, it may be coming from your blog.

    Energy Balance Model says: Positive Energy Balance >> Fat Deposition

    Carb-Ins Model says Fat Deposition >> Positive Energy Balance

    Neither view is inherently more simple or simplistic than the other. Our recent multi-author Perspective on the CIM shows numerous inputs into the system (Figure at this open access link):

    This debate would benefit from a greater focus on substance and less on gratuitous personal characterizations and other such distraction.

    • January 10, 2022 at 3:43 am, Ted said:

      Thanks for sharing that reference, David. It offers a lot of good information and doesn’t offer the kind of sweeping diet advice that the New Scientist article does.

  3. January 09, 2022 at 5:01 pm, Nick N said:

    Your argument against the Carbohydrate Insulin Model is that it simplifies the complex problem of obesity to “a simple problem of carbs and insulin.” In doing so, you yourself oversimplify the model. Isn’t that double standard? Certainly, the CIM is named for “carbs and insulin,” but the name of any model only describes its distinguishing and testable elements, not all the nuance surrounding them. An analogous oversimplification would be to attack the “LDL hypothesis” of heart disease on the premise that it simplifies the complex pathology of ASCVD down to a single particle. Obviously, that’s not the case. If you’re aim is to further productive discussion on what certainly is a complex topic, don’t you think you owe it to those who hold different points of view on the epidemic of obesity to at least try to accurately represent their points of view, rather than posing the straw man? But I digress. Rather than go on, I suggest people listen to this 25 minute podcast and decide for themselves:

    • January 10, 2022 at 3:59 am, Ted said:

      Thanks for offering up that podcast, Nick, which again makes the broad claim that “We’ve had it backwards about obesity” up until the construction of the CIM. I have no issue with the CIM, per se. After all, it’s only a model and all models are wrong, though some are useful.

  4. January 09, 2022 at 9:08 pm, Ed said:

    Got no idea why u would assume or think the BMI is just a myth, when u have that higher than normal # u do have many more health complications. Just look @ the Covid patients, most of them have obesity and the rest of the cases are people who have a extremely low D3 level. So the BMI is a real #. Eat greens and stay lean. 🥑

    • January 10, 2022 at 3:26 am, Ted said:

      Thanks for sharing that Ed, but it’s important to note that obesity and low vitamin D levels do not even come close to explaining who does and doesn’t have problems with COVID. The biggest risk factor is age, by far. Also, simply eating greens and deciding to stay lean does not eliminate issues with obesity.