Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"Don't Worry About Thinness, Just Eat Healthy Food and Exercise": A Righteous Smackdown

(Content warning: Discussion of weight, body image, and body shaming.)

The fat acceptance movement has made important steps towards changing society’s discourse about weight by insisting that health and beauty are not exclusive to thin people. However, in conversations about how to be healthy, I have frequently heard it said that while weight is not a choice, everyone can choose to eat nutritious food and be physically fit. This is not true, and is offensive to people such as me who lack the capacity to exercise and eat a “healthy” diet.

“Eat fewer animal products and eat more vegetables,” say health food advocates. For some people, that is workable advice. When you are allergic to all nuts and all legumes (legumes include peanuts, soy, beans, peas, lentils, and chickpeas), as am I, you do not have a choice about getting most of your protein from animal products. I was actually, seriously told by a vegan recently that it would be possible for me to be vegan, on the basis that there were various plant-based foods with between 10% and 20% calories from protein, and people only need 10% calories from protein to survive. Clearly he had limited math skills, because he apparently did not realize that in order to get at least 10% of my calories from protein, over half of my diet would have to be those few plant-based foods with over 10% protein. Someone less blinded by ideology would realize that this was not a workable possibility. Nonetheless, many people insist that everyone should be vegetarian or vegan.

Likewise, many people and medical authorities insist that a large proportion of everybody’s diet should be fruits and vegetables. Most of these people appear to be unaware that for people with sensory processing disorder, a condition that affects how the mind perceives sensory input, the tastes and textures of fruits and vegetables are often impossible to tolerate. I have sensory processing disorder. I cannot tolerate most fruit at all, and I can only tolerate most vegetables if they are well cooked, well seasoned, and mixed with other food. I need grains and animal products in a meal if I am to eat enough to satisfy my body. 

The few healthy lifestyle advocates who would accept these points would likely protest that maybe not everybody can eat mostly “healthy” foods, but everyone can exercise and improve their physical fitness. This completely erases the existence of people with physical disabilities that reduce their ability to exercise.

While most people would accept that those with visible physical impairments have difficulty exercising, it is often unrecognized that people who look able-bodied may in fact not be able to exercise. There are people, such as myself, who have cardiovascular fitness that is abnormally poor for their level of exercise. For me, walking is aerobic exercise. I cannot move faster than a medium-paced walk and still readily carry on a conversation. I have been like this since childhood. Doctors blamed it on asthma then, but more recent testing has proven that whether or not I had asthma in childhood, I do not have it now.

It is only recently that I have tried to find a medical explanation for this problem. For years, I believed that it must be my fault I couldn't exercise like other people--that it must be because I don't try to exercise enough. As I have learned more about ableism and victim-blaming, I have come to realize that normal people do not have this much trouble exercising, even if they are completely sedentary, and I have stopped accepting blame for my lack of cardiovascular fitness.

If anyone is wondering, my adult weight has varied from the “underweight” BMI range to the low end of the “overweight” BMI range, which, at my height, still is not very large. There are people twice my weight whose fitness puts mine to shame, but my fitness is not something I can control.

Obviously, I take exception to the idea that physical activity and physical fitness are personal choices. Because I cannot get significant amounts of exercise without getting out of breath and exhausted, I do not have the option of doing regular cardiovascular exercise. If I haul groceries home for a 20-minute walk from the store, I don't have the energy to do laundry that day.

I also have developmental coordination disorder, which means that I am not physically coordinated enough to ride a bicycle (on most surfaces) or drive, let alone play sports. When I was a child, I was abused by my peers for my lack of physical ability, to the point where I have PTSD-like reactions to any sort of exercise class or any sort of frustration regarding exercise now. I was also continually gaslit by well-meaning gym teachers who told me I was doing fine in order to make me feel better, even though I and everyone else around me knew I wasn't. My parents insisted that I would do fine in gym class if I practiced the skills more. Needless to say, practice did not help.

(Note: This is directed to people in general, not any one person:) So, DO NOT FUCKING TELL ME A STEREOTYPICALLY NUTRITIOUS DIET, EXERCISE AND FITNESS ARE CHOICES. FOR ME THEY ARE NOT AN OPTION. I do strength-building exercises, which have helped tone my body. I get most of my protein from white meat, fish, and dairy. But salads and cardio fitness? No way. I cannot eat a standard “healthy” diet or be "physically fit", and IT IS NOT MY FAULT.

I know I am not alone in this regard. Some of my specific issues are more common than others, but the point remains: Eating and exercising the way our society says people are supposed to is not possible for everyone, and you cannot identify the people who are incapable of these things by looking at them. Condemning people who cannot do those things for not doing them is unfair and bigoted, as is condemning people who cannot lose weight. 


  1. kisekileia, this is an excellent post.

    I have serious* stomach acid issues. Fruits and tomatoes make me seriously ill. And sensory processing issues: check. Lettuce tastes like grass to me and raw carrots literally make me throw up. (Which is a shame, because salads are so pretty!! *sad*) Even the slightest bit of celery in a soup ruins the taste for me.

    So that leaves me with, oh, dairy, meat, and grains. AND THE FOOD POLICE, OH JOY. Plus, hi there! Extremely physically disabled. Fun!

    I genuinely believe in set points and that I'd be fat regardless; I love EXACTLY like a couple of relatives who have radically different bodies and diets, so there's that little data point. But being unable to eat 'healthy' and exercise a certain way means that I'm an easy target for fat shaming medical personnel because OBVIOUSLY I'm just not trying. Ugh.

  2. Ha, I left off my asterisk at the end, whoops. It basically had to do with my grandfather being deathly ill at one point from our hereditary stomach issues.

  3. I think a lot of people are unfortunately completely unaware that any of those disabilities possibly exist. I think it's good to hear from more people that have these disabilities so that those of us with privilege who see so many things as "so easy" (even when they aren't to able-bodied people) see how impossible they are for others.

  4. Good post, Kisekileia. I firmly believe that your eating and exercise habits are no one's business but your own and it is rude of other people to comment negatively on them. I also don't believe that substance can be objectively healthy. For example, think of water. Water's healthy, right? Well, not if you've already had too much of it. Then if you drink more without getting some salt, you'll be in serious trouble. Or milk. Milk is widely billed as healthy, but it's only common for humans of nothern european descent to have the condition "lactose persistence" that lets them digest it after childhood.

    It is possible to be allergic to meat (or types of meat), to various grains, to most (all?) vegetables, to nuts and legumes, to citrus and probably other fruits, to dairy, and to any other food substances I've forgotten. It doesn't matter how many vitamins or minerals are in lentils if you're going to have an allergic reaction to them. Lentils aren't healthy for you, but they may be healthy for other people with a different set of dietary needs.

    And as for exercise, I'm going to say the same thing. There is no exercise that is healthy for all people under all circumstances. People with ME (also called Chronic Fatigue) should avoid exercise as much as possible because it can cause a permanent worsening of their condition. Even for a non-disabled person, going for a long, "healthy", walk outside is not a good idea if they have the pneumonia, or a sprained ankle or a broken toe.

    There are only exercises that are healthy for a given person at a given time. If going for a 20 minute walk and carrying home a bag of groceries that feels heavy to you is an aerobic exercise, then that totally counts as having gotten your exercise in, if you and your doctor have decided that aerobic exercise is a good idea for you. If you need to sit on a bench for a little while halfway through, put down your bag of groceries and pull out a book to recover so that you'll still be able to breathe when you get home, then that's a good idea. It's possible to have too much exercise, and what counts as too much or too little is going to vary from person to person.

    And even food like candy can be healthy. If a person is not getting enough calories, the sugar in candy is better than nothing. If a person has low blood sugar, a bit of candy can keep them from falling over. Many diabetics need to keep a bit of candy on them to use if their blood sugar gets dangerously low. So the next time you see someone eating candy, fat or thin, if you have to remark on it to yourself, think about how they're regulating their blood sugar and providing themselves with more energy to do the things they need to.


    Tangentially, one of biggest food annoyances lately is the whole organic thing. "Surely you can eat this: it's organic!" "Nope, I'm even allergic to organic wheat. Imagine that."

    1. I have a whole rant about the appropriation of the term "organic", but everyone's probably heard it before. I love the idea of reducing fertiliser use! I just really hate the abuse of the word... (And I seem to remember one of the Californian standards basically amounts to magic - burying an animal in the corner of the field, that sort of thing - but I can't remember the details now. Something to do with wine?) See also "Natural != Healthy", really.

      One of the nastier outgrowths of fat-shaming is the idea that everyone ought to be on some sort of diet. I've been more overweight than I am now (which isn't very); what worked best was to eat only when I felt like it, and most crucially to stop as soon as I didn't feel hungry any more (the former is hard if someone else is doing the cooking, and the latter is hard if one's eating out). But you can't sell a diet book by telling people to do that.

      Anonymus, the smarter exercise people say just the same thing as you - rather than prescribing a type of exercise or work rate, they say something like "work hard enough that you're breathing hard, and try to keep in that state for twenty minutes".

    2. A frustrating thing for a lot off fat people is that people -- especially doctors -- look at stories like yours, Firedrake, strip out the details, and assume they apply to everyone universally. So the story becomes NOT "zie gained some weight, adjusted hir eating, and stabilized back to zie's original weight" or whatever, but rather becomes a simplistic SEE, WEIGHT-LOSS IS POSSIBLE FOR EVERYONE.

      So clearly if Ms. Fattie isn't losing weight, she must not be stopping when she's full! And Ms. Fattie can protest all day long that, um, no, she does stop when she's full and fuck off please, but the doctor has internalized that intuitive eating MUST cause weight loss because it did for ONE person, and all people are the same. Obviously.

      Similarly, the "smarter exercise people" may prescribe heart rate elevation over set routines, but they would still be WRONG. Because some of us cannot safely raise our heart rates (as Anonymus pointed out), and for many of us who can, it still doesn't result in lower weight or better health for every person.

      As a fat person, I have had this conversation one billion times: can't eat vegetables, can't exercise much, what exercise I do doesn't affect my weight, etc. etc. and one of two things *always* happens after an hour long argument of "well, what if you...?" and me saying, again, no, that doesn't work:

      1. Person treats me like a particularly stubborn toddler. "Okay, Miss Crankypants, if you say so, I believe you. *winks to other adults*"

      2. Person takes away the belief that I really am a special unique butterfly, but that the "rules" still apply to everyone else.

      kisekileia, if I'm not mistaken, wrote this to address People #2. We're actually not all that unique, the persistently fat, the food intolerant, the exercise-incapable. We're far more common than everyone else seems to like to think. (Especially since we pretty much never appear in visual media.) It's frustrating to have to continue justifying our existence to doctors who like to assume that everyone's bodies are precisely the same.


    3. CN: Eating Habits

      Oh, forgot to add: And let's talk about food and eating.

      I keep food in my desk at work because I take a lot of pills for my pain management and every tenth pill or so makes me debilitatingly dizzy if I don't chase it with a handful of crackers or something.

      I regularly have very thin co-workers come by and literally MARVEL at the fact that I can keep food in my desk without eating it all up before the day is out, because they say they couldn't be able to stop themselves.

      Now, for at least some of them, this may be a dig at me for being fat, but at least one of them seems to be sincere; it's a rare day when he doesn't eat his packed lunch with his packed breakfast and then if anyone brings in any shared food for the day, he gobbles that up too. He appears to be constantly hungry. He is also thin.

      I can *guarantee* that if I ate the way he does, it would confirm stereotypes in peoples' heads about why I'm fat. Hell, I can *guarantee* that if I told my doctor there's food in my desk at work, he would assume that's why I'm so fat, that I'm eating constantly and just lying/forgetting afterward. But this co-worker, because he's thin, gets no judgement and would probably have a hard time convincing HIS doctor that something might be wrong because, hey, he's thin. What's the problem?

      That's why prejudices and biases are a real problem in our society. Many folks just assume that thin people eat less and fat people eat more, but it's just as often not true.

    4. Yeah, fair point - the more I learn about biology, the more I'm inclined to regard each human as a unique sack of chemicals, with only the very broadest guidelines applicable to "everybody".

    5. YES! And that officially makes you a better healer than the last three doctors I went to, even if all you can do is put on a band-aid. :)

    6. @Firedrake: I've heard complaints from people "I'm eating organic food and I'm still not losing weight!" Which baffles me. What correlation is there between fertiliser and weight gain? But for a lot of people it seems "organic" just means "healthy" and "healthy" means "makes people lose weight."

      @Ana *hugs*


      I actually don't like it when people comment on my weight/eating habits/exercise habits even when they're trying to compliment me. When people say "oh you've lost weight!" my internal reaction is (I have? Do I need to reassess my eating habits to see whether the old eating disorder is rearing its head?). I try to always respond with something that's true that signals that weight loss is an unpleasant thing, for example lately if it came up I'd blame it on my recent sore throat. And if asked if I've lost weight, I say "I don't know; I don't weigh myself."

      I do believe that changes in diet can have an impact on health, but it's going to vary a lot from person to person. Adding wheat to my diet would have a big impact on my health: a negative one because of allergies. And if someone has scurvy, eating an orange or some paprika can really help, but so can taking a multivitamin if they don't like any of the vitamin c foods.

      Also a person's mental health and emotional health has to be considered. If a healthy food makes you miserable, it's probably not that great for you. You can get the vitamins and minerals you need through all sorts of different foods. You don't have to eat spinach, unless you like it.

      About exercise, I was really sick recently with that sore throat, and a friend of mine came over and tried to wheedle me into going out for a walk with her. I explained that I was sick, that I'd been out previously because of something I had to take care of, and that the exertion had set me back in my recovery and made me sicker. But she said that it's important to go out into the fresh air when your sick and that she doesn't let her kids lie around when they're sick, and even when they had the chicken pox she took them out for daily walks.

      I didn't go, but it really annoyed me. I'd was just starting to feel a little better when I'd had to take the cat to the vet, and the exertion of it had made me much, much sicker. I'm an adult and I know my body and what it needs and wants and how to help it when its sick. What she does with her own kids is her own business, and I don't comment on it, even though I think a kid with chicken pox shouldn't be taken out of the house except to go to the doctor, and not just for the kid's health. And what I choose to do with my own body when it's sick is my own business.

    7. As the son of an organic chemist (He makes plastic. Because plastic is organic. Because it's made from oil. Which is organic. Because it's made of compressed dinosaurs*), I get really worked up when people misuse the word "organic" to mean "Magically wholesome and Natural**". When someone tells me that I should eat more organic food, I say that I will make an effort to give up eating so much rock and mica***.

      (I think I mentioned before the rather egregious bit in an episode of CSI:Miami when they were taking samples of some extremely caustic substance - a swimming pool full of lye or something - and the sample burned through a glass jar. They pointed out that this happened "Because glass is organic", and that they would need to use plastic containers instead)

      (* Not really. Oil is like 99% carboniferous-era single-cell organisms. Dinosaurs were too recent and too little biomass to be a major component of oil.)

      (** "Natural" here being an equally weaselly word)

      (*** Not that "organic" food is without merit; if nothing else, labeling requirements mean that food labeled as organic will make better disclosure of its ingredients so that various things that small numbers of people are sensitive to won't be hidden behind generic terms like "Preservatives" or "natural and artificial flavoring")

    8. @Ross: I see nothing wrong with "organic" meaning one thing in the context of chemistry and another in the context of nutrition. C.f. "calorie."

      In other words: Get thee behind me, prescriptivist! ;)

    9. @ Froborr: After reading The Flat Belly Diet for purposes of review, I am forced to conclude that we really should be calling nutrition calories "kilocalories," abbreviated Kcal. Why? Because the blasted book defines a "calorie" as the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of a cubic centimeter one degree C, i.e. the chemistry definition. The authors then proceed as if that definition applies to the calories in food; IOW, they display no awareness of the difference between a "small c" calorie (the chemistry definition) and a "large c" calorie (a kilocalorie or the definition of calorie in the context of nutrition). One of the authors is a registered dietitian (allegedly, anyway) and should know better.

      If an RD can make that mistake, or at least, failed to correct her co-author who was the primary author on the book, then I shudder to think how many other diet authors have made that mistake.

  5. I actually don't like it when people comment on my weight/eating habits/exercise habits even when they're trying to compliment me.

    Yes, I feel that way as well! I know being overweight isn't an inherently bad thing, but I still feel like, "Did they think I was fat before?" I hate how to the larger society, losing weight = you look good. Just telling someone that they look good without referring to weight either way is much healthier. My favorite fashion blogger has some good insight into this issue, actually.

    As for organic, it always surprises me when people say eat it because it's healthier. It may have slightly more nutrients depending on the actual process and have fewer pesticides (or hormones in the case of dairy), but it isn't guaranteed. I'm huge advocate of organic, but that's for environmental and social justice reasons. I want my food to have a minimal impact on the environment and not poison the people growing/picking it.

    1. My two cents: "healthier" is relative and subjective. For most* of the people saying "organic is healthier", what they are actually saying is "organic is healthier FOR ME".

      Since the *majority* of what I eat is meat and dairy, organic is definitely healthier for me because hormones are a series concern with all the other medical problems and medications I have to deal with. So there's that. :)

      * If they're explaining why they eat what they eat, they're talking about them. If they're telling OTHER people how to eat, then they're being an asshat and probably deserve to be mocked, so disregard this comment. :P

    2. Organic meat and dairy can certainly be healthier and I totally get why you would want to choose them. The one thing that bothers me about organic milk is that most of it (not all) is super-pasturized, which means that all of the normal bacteria is killed. You can't make yogurt with a lot of the organic milk on the market. For some people, that may be a really good thing, but for others it removes a lot of the digestive benefits. Fortunately, we can actually get organic milk that's normally pasteurized at our local natural foods store, but it's also twice as expensive. Obviously, most people don't have that luxury.

      Most of the time, I'm hearing the "organic is healthier" in the context of vegetables, which have a nutritional content that's extremely dependent on a lot of other factors. Organic foods do exclude GMOs, which have unknown health effects, so that's certainly a bonus. But as an organic advocate, it concerns me when people only buy organic vegetables because they are "healthier" without understanding the other reasons to. It makes people much more likely to stop buying them when a study like this comes out without considering the other reasons to continue buying organic.

      I wouldn't call someone out on eating organic because it's healthier, but I might provide some other reasons they might want to eat it as well. If they're telling someone else to eat it because it's "healthier," especially if it's someone who can't afford it, yes, I do get annoyed.


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