Saturday, February 02, 2008

It's not how fat you are--it's how thin you think you should be

At least that's the gist of an interesting new study that's just out in the American Journal of Public Health.

Lead researcher Peter Muennig, of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, set out to examine the relationship between stress over being fat and physical and mental health, and found that

the difference between actual and desired body weight was a stronger predictor than was body mass index (BMI) of mental and physical health.

He and his team concluded that

some of the health effects of the obesity epidemic are related to way we see our bodies.

I'll forgo commenting on the assumption that obesity = unhealthiness and will instead applaud Dr. Muennig and his team for at least asking the question.

And I'll pose them another question: What if it's not just internal stress, but external stress? What if judgment and discrimination from the rest of the world affects the health of people who are fat?

We already know that it does, of course, judging by these firsthand accounts.

Might make a good next study for someone. I hope.

Meanwhile, here's more from the Conclusions section of the paper:

If our findings are correct, the policy implications may be counterintuitive. Foremost, if more of the association between BMI is perceptual, some public health messages that advocate idealized body types may be harming their target audience.

Ya got that right.

Concerted efforts to disassociate health messages, such as encouragement of exercise, from obesity stigmatization may circumvent the paradox.

Tell it to Rep. W.T. Mayhall, Jr., who introduced this lovely bill to the Mississippi legislature this week.

I wonder why fat people might feel stressed?


Anonymous said...

Oh. Mah. Gawd.

You mean there's a research team in the mainstream who's actually on the verge of getting it????

Can I send them Dr. Campos' findings on the women in Italy who are just as heavy as women ridiculed here in the States and rarely have blood pressure or diabetes or cortisol problems because they don't get any external pressure about their body types?

(Or at least they didn't before northern European fashion standards went migrating over as a classist contributor to the problem?)

Please? Pretty please??

And are any of the cute guys on that research team single?

wriggles said...

" the difference between actual and desired body weight was a stronger predictor than was body mass index (BMI) of mental and physical health"

Do you think this kind of split between real and an imagined ideal reflecting and /or causing unhappiness is similar to that which occurs in anorexia? i.e. seeing fatness in the mirror when one is actually slender?

Harriet said...

You're on your own there. But I bet the nice doctor will read these comments eventually. :-)

You can send me Dr. Campos' findings. I'd love to have 'em.

Interesting idea. I'm not sure the parallel holds up. People with anorexia are truly delusional, whereas most of the rest of us are seeing reality, because society's idealized female body at the moment is damn near impossible to achieve. Keep thinking, though. Who knows what else you'll come up with?

Unknown said...

This is a step in the right direction.

Peter Muennig said...

Dear littlem,

I'm the lead author on that study. Feel free to send me any papers you think are interesting from my website: And, sorry, we are all taken. ;-)

Dear mumboj,

I think a better analogy is race. African-American's suffer additional morbidity and mortality that cannot be explained by financial circumstances or genetic differences. This is likely due to stress associated with discrimination.

We are looking at skinny young males now to see if there are some measurable differences going the other way. (Presumably, those who wish to gain weight because they don't meet societal norms will also suffer.)

Thanks for your thoughtful comments.


Harriet said...

I look forward to reading more of your research, Peter. Please keep me informed!