The Church of There’s No Such Thing as Obesity

Church Tower at DomburgReligious tolerance seems hard to find lately. Ample illustrations of intolerance flow from the Middle East, India, and American politics – from all over the world, really. But in an age of less affiliation with organized religions, we also see people seek out other belief systems to latch their passions onto. Health and fitness are popular objects for this sort of attachment. And then there is the church of There’s No Such Thing as Obesity.

Believers in this theology have little tolerance for people who think obesity is a health problem they are experiencing. Their tolerance is even less for professionals who provide obesity care grounded in medical science.

Unfortunately, it’s equally easy to find people with fat phobic belief systems who cannot tolerate even people who believe in respect for human size diversity.

This is a toxic dichotomy.

The Haters

Interestingly, right now we have two philosophers speaking up on opposite sides of this dichotomy. Kate Manne is a philosopher and professor at Cornell in the midst of a big book tour. In promoting her book on fighting fat phobia, she’s doing a fine job of articulating the beliefs of There’s No Such Thing as Obesity. She writes that she wants people to believe:

“Major long-term studies show that, when patients lost weight the old-fashioned way (that is, through diet and exercise), they did not reap the health benefits it was assumed would flow from weight loss. To the surprise of the researchers, this even held in populations with Type 2 diabetes.”

Given this misinformed conviction, it’s easy to see why, like others in her congregation, she rejects the medical concept of obesity. Of course, what she omits is the fact that even with the modest effectiveness of diet and exercise, behavioral support for coping with obesity can lower many cardiometabolic risk factors and prevent diabetes. In the church of There’s No Such Thing as Obesity, these are annoying and irrelevant details. Even more annoying is the fact that life is longer when a person gets metabolic surgery or an advanced obesity medicine like semaglutide.

On the other side of this chasm, we have a medical ethicist and philosopher, who describes obesity as a global public health crisis, expressing his ethical concerns about lust, greed, and gluttony.

Bleeding into Medical Research and Education

Pediatrics professor Aaron Kelly recently noted that:

“The chorus of anti-science rhetoric around #obesity is growing. We have seen it in our IRB. And, in faculty attempting to insert misinformation into our medical school curriculum in the name of ‘Body Positivity.’ Research & education should not be sacrificed to social activism.”

We don’t need this weird kind of religious intolerance in clinical care and research. What we need is less weight bias and more respect for medical science, size diversity, and personal autonomy. Some people eagerly seek and need obesity care, others do not. For some, it is downright unhelpful.

One size does not fit all.

Click here for further perspective from a primary care physician and here for more from Manne’s book tour.

Church Tower at Domburg, painting by Piet Mondrian / WikiArt

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February 11, 2024

One Response to “The Church of There’s No Such Thing as Obesity

  1. February 11, 2024 at 12:02 pm, Mary-Jo said:

    Great conclusion from Dr. Gordon on the need for a more holistic approach to health and wellness. I feel the same about obesity, have done since the 70’s. It took advances in medical and surgical treatment options for obesity for us to become much more proactive about helping people with obesity, even bringing the issue up in a more objective way. Before that, patients with obesity had the options of being scolded, patronized, awkwardly giggled at, or often, just ignored, that last ‘option’, a nod to the ‘There’s No Such Thing As Obesity’ approach. There’s still a long way to go, but much more meaningful conversations are finally being had between patients and doctors.