August 8, 2022

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Society is affected by concern about fats.  It resonates in the health board in the authorities.

Society is affected by concern about fats. It resonates in the health board in the authorities.

  • Therese Marie Andrews

    Sociologist and Researcher 1 at Nordlandsforskning

There is little scientific evidence that being overweight carries a particular risk of poor health, the historian wrote.

The relationship between body shape and health is problematic.

Chronicle
This is history. Opinions expressed in the text are the responsibility of the author.

In early summer this year, “body posture” was the subject of partly heated media debate. In many publications, “body posture” is described as a reaction against body hysteria.

The stated goal is Overcoming stigma and negative attitudes towards people because of their body shape. Another concern is getting rid of the notions that anyone who weighs too much is to blame.

However, the ultimate goal is for everyone to have a good relationship with their body regardless of size and shape, which in turn can have a positive effect on an individual’s mental health.

On the other hand, critical critics considered “posture” as a form of “celebration of fat bodies”, and thus it became Strongly argued against this trend. Such an honor could help promote obesity, with serious health problems as a result, the logic was.

This type of argument has a clear echo in official health advice.

Debatable advice about fats

The view of body and body size expressed in the advice of the Norwegian health authorities is based on some problematic assumptions.

in Nutritional advice to the Norwegian Directorate of Health From 2011, for example, several studies were cited that they did not take into account in their own advice.

These studies show that the fats that health authorities have been warning about for decades do not have an alleged harmful effect. This applies to both the fats found in dairy products and those that have their place in red meat.

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Although the official advice did not take into account alternative beliefs regarding dietary fat, this is at least under scientific discussion. On the other hand, advice regarding body fat is not given much attention in the scientific community.

On the part of the health authorities, advice has been given about the exact same amount of fat in the daily diet for an acceptable body size.

What do goals say about our health?

Acceptable body size is often expressed by a measure called body mass index (BMI, or BMI in English), while for acceptable body shape, waist circumference is taken care of. However, the scientific basis provided for the established normal values ​​for body mass and waist measurements appears rather weak.

Neither the Directorate of Health nor the FHI show documentation that the BMI is in the range between, for example, 25 and 28 kg/m2 It is associated with a serious health disability. A BMI in this range is considered overweight (see fact box). Why is the excess weight limit exactly 25? The term “overweight” has a negative connotation and expresses that this is undesirable. This can thus lead to unfounded discomfort and anxiety in the population.

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FHI Report Overweight and obesity in Norway From 2017 (updated in 2022), among others, nearly six in ten women between the ages of 40 and 49 had a BMI outside the “normal range”. However, an excess of health failure does not appear in this age group.

Available figures suggest that weight gain must be relatively large to increase the risk of ill health.

On the other hand, the Norwegian Directorate of Health cites studies that indicate a BMI in the lower normal range is more unfavorable for general health status than a BMI in the area defined as overweight. The same is mentioned in the FHI report when it comes to women in the older age groups.

The thin man and the lean architecture

Since there is little scientific evidence that being overweight carries a particular risk of deteriorating health, one might wonder whether arguments based solely on science are woven into official recommendations. Is it possible to imagine that the country’s health authorities are affected by the same fear of obesity that has spread in Norwegian society?

In recent decades, fear of fats has become embedded in the genes of large sections of the population. Swedish sociologist Sten Andersen wrote The Role of Food – Social Gastronomy. He believes that the fear of fat is expressed, among other things, as a disgust felt throughout the body if you eat a little butter or a little meat in your mouth. And the sight of fat, whether found as a border around ground meat, or around someone’s waist, is alarming or even disgusting.

Buildings, like human bodies, must have a functional structure. All surplus was to be stripped.

Anderson also revealed a parallel between the ideals of the body and trends within architecture. Among other things, he found clear traces of the streamlined and graceful trend that appeared within architecture, in contemporary ideals of people’s appearance. Buildings, like human bodies, must have a functional structure.

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All surplus was to be stripped. For the human body, this means being stripped of fat, because fats do not perform a recognized function. The aesthetic thus became in culture, across domains, identical with function.

The moral outrage of body fat

Terrible attempts were made to remove fat from food and from the body, and from what Anderson noticed, hardly anyone remembers that lush carcasses were once cultivated as attractive. It is possible that aesthetic objections are coupled with another aspect: the moral outrage over body fat.

One perception seems to have taken hold among health authorities as well as in parts of the population: that those with little ‘persistence’ lack self-discipline or weak will. These are characteristics that are not widely accepted in an age when (self) control has become the big motto among both doctors and scientists in certain circles, something I wrote earlier in the Tidsskrift for velferdsforsknind.

However, it is difficult to find scientific evidence for any clear relationship between a lack of self-control and poor health.

The relationship between body aesthetics and health in general is a problem. It becomes particularly difficult if the population recommends weight loss in cases where the health benefits cannot be documented.