brainfood; A weighted word

Fat is more than just a feminist issue
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The Independent Culture
Fat is under attack again, and those of us who always thought the French were the world's most hypochondriacal nation in the world - they are still the heaviest users of medicines, spas and other cures, still fear draughts, shutter up tight at night and suffer from crises de foie - now have to admit that the United States has become the world leader in the pursuit of absolute health.

The word "current" is important, for we have seen prior attempts to create "healthy" nations: Nazi gymnastics and walks in the woods, Soviet and Maoist enforced exercise, our own National Health. All of these suppose that health is a national problem; and some of them supposed that a healthy nation was best fitted to dominate the world.

This latest crisis made headlines around the world. Fat wasn't relative; it didn't vary from person to person; it wasn't just obesity that was a menace to life, but almost any deviation from a pre-established standard. And particularly among women. It came from Brigham and Women's Hospital and was announced in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Contradicting all previous studies, its sample of 30,000 studies, released on 11 September, showed that, if you were a woman, being ten pounds heavier than you were at 18 was definitely life-shortening. The following day, another study said this wasn't so; it was the next ten pounds plus that would get you. This against a July briefing about Tubby the Rat which said that we all had a fat gene, which had also been contradicted the following day.

The two studies which said you, you big fat woman with your extra ten pounds, with your dresses that have gone tight, were either genetically doomed or ate so badly that you were shortening your life, set off alarm bells all over the world - for the simple and obvious reason that few women weigh at 40 what they weighed at 18.

This is the way of modern research, which often seems to be run by lab- rats on behalf of some great white-coated Fuhrer anxious to make us conform. Collectors of this sort of pseudo-scientific nonsense relish these contradictions. I recently saw a revealing list from earlier this year: 6 February, 30 minutes of moderate exercise, such as walking to the corner, can be as beneficial as more strenuous exercise; 9 April, taint so; 19 February, tea helps beat cancer; second study, same day, no it doesn't; 21 March, you're unlikely to get a heart attack from cocaine; 26 March, well, you might. And so on.

Part of the trouble lies with the scientific establishment, which is a giant laboratory for make-work - nowhere more (for few things affect us as much as death) than in epidemiology. Another part is the computer, which has made this sort of statistical compilation all too facile. And a third factor has been the growth of the social sciences, with their intense drive towards categorisation.

What I think too few people realise, reading these articles in the press, or listening to talking heads on radio or television, is that such studies are based on certain unstated premises. The first is that death can be postponed or even defeated if you do X, or don't do Y; the second is that life, any life, is worth living, or is preferable to death, even in extreme old age; and third, that there is a standard by which this mythical state, health, can be measured. In the case of fat, this latter is a "standard" weight, one to which all women, the researchers assert, should aspire.

Unfortunately for them, as with "standards" of intelligence or ability, dexterity, mathematical reasoning, verbal manipulation, or beauty, or any other human factor, this standard weight is an illusion. And an undesirable one: neither more nor less undesirable than the "Aryan" perfecton of Nazi Germany.

That there are fat-inclined people, men and women, is obvious. So is the premise that some of this inclination is genetic, and that some is due to detectable glandular conditions. But in the case of the Brigham and Women's study, we are not dealing with extreme variations, but with something like the norm, and - worse yet, a notion that a norm is desirable. The truth is that we humans, having desires, and appetites that, unlike the domestic cat, we may satisfy at will, show great variations within our species. In an advanced country such as the United States, these variations of opportunity are considerable; so are the resulting variations of body weight.

No one doubts that a proper diet makes a large contribution to health (try not eating and you will die, eat too much and you won't feel well), but what is an improper diet for one person is not always an improper diet for another. Cyclical ups and downs in weight are a sign of declining health; so are consistent increases or decreases in weight. Weight is a diagnostic tool, not an end in itself. Ye shall reap as ye shall sow. "Fat" is a term in aesthetics: sumo wrestlers have a shorter life expectancy, but there is no evidence that the inhabitants of Ottoman hareems, for whom plump was a necessity for status, did not. As the editor responsible for the latest scare admitted: "There's a complicated trade-off between life's pleasures and the things you should do." But then "should" is a weighted word, and it depends on your goals, ethics and economic status. Maybe you should live and die happy. And maybe some scientists should stick to measurement, and not ideals