No man is more unhappy than he who never faces adversity. For he is not permitted to prove himself. —Seneca
We are Fat
In my late 30s my body fat percentage averaged between 27% and 30%. I was technically obese according to standards set by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
This isn’t the most sensitive way to say this, and it might not even be popular opinion today, but I’m going to say it anyway: Most of us are too fat.
I know that sounds harsh, but the data backs me up. According to an analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average American man—at 5 feet, 9.25 inches tall—weighed 196 pounds in 2014. That’s 15 pounds heavier than the average American man weighed in 1996. The average American woman’s weight increased by 17 pounds over the same period.
If that doesn’t scare you, how about this? Researchers at the NIH assert that, in the US, as many as 91% of adults and 69% of children are “overfat.”
What does it mean to be overfat? Writing for Frontiers in Public Health, authors Philip B. Maffetone, Ivan Rivera-Dominguez, and Paul B. Laursen describe people who are overfat as those “who exhibit metabolic health impairments associated with excess fat mass relative to lean body mass.” Being overfat means we have too much fat relative to the amount of lean tissue, which includes muscle, organs, and bone. It indicates the amount of fat we carry is disproportionate to our body, not to someone else’s body. It’s more specific than words like “overweight” and holds less of a negative connotation than terms like “obese.”
SIDE NOTE: The words we use to describe our bodies have a major impact on how we treat ourselves and each other. The article I mentioned above notes that by choosing “accurate, useful, and unintimidating terminology regarding abnormal body fat conditions,” we increase awareness around the epidemic. Consider using the term “overfat” instead of "obese."
And yet despite having a clinical term that defines 91% of American adults, we’re still reluctant to accept the fact that most of us are too fat. We often shy away from recognizing our fatness because too many of us are afraid to acknowledge it in our own lives. I’ve read several recent articles in popular magazines and newspapers attempting to sugarcoat these statistics, despite the overwhelming data proving that Americans are getting fatter. Many writers undermine the accuracy of the data seemingly for fear of fat-shaming readers. Some people even claim that carrying excess fat doesn’t necessarily indicate greater health risks, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Data charted for the past 40 years shows a correlation between increasing body fat among Western cultures and increases in several pathologies:
• There was a 45% increase in the prevalence of metabolic syndrome among US adults ages 18 and up between 1988 and 2012.
• Obesity is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease, which now affects 48% of US adults.
• The Institute for Alternative Futures predicts a 54% increase in the total number of Americans with diabetes between the years 2015 and 2030.
We can’t ignore the problem any longer. We shouldn’t disregard the fact that the majority of Americans are overfat solely because people are too afraid to confront the truth. We can’t continue to destroy our bodies for the sake of not hurting people’s feelings. Instead of avoiding the truth, we all need to accept it and collectively seek solutions to the problem.
WHY Did This Happen?
Most of us already know how we got so much fatter than the generations before us. We know we eat out too much, and that portion sizes have blown up in recent decades. We know that healthy foods, like vegetables and fruits, seem to cost way more than the unhealthy options. The less healthy options are also faster and more accessible to many communities. And we know the industrial food supply chain prioritizes profit over nutrition. The list goes on.
But why did we allow all of this to happen? Why are we spectators watching ourselves get fatter and not seeming to care?
It’s because an honest self-assessment of our health requires courage and humility. It’s scary to confront uncomfortable truths about our bodies. We’re afraid of the truth, so we’ve normalized “fat.” We tolerate our excess body fat even in the face of dangerous consequences. We don’t consider ourselves to be overfat, although the evidence says we are. What’s more, we disregard that we feel like crap, that we’re tired all the time, and that our fatness might impact more than just our appearance.
I believe we’ve accepted our collective fatness as a reaction to the unrealistic standards of beauty set by the media. We’re berated by photos of overly skinny, unsustainably muscular, impossibly lean men and women in commercials, television shows, movies, and ads plastered across every available screen. Our minds are flooded by imagery suggesting that we aren’t thin enough, jacked enough, or beautiful enough. Profit-driven businesses set unattainable standards for beauty and health in an effort to sell us stuff. These supposedly “ideal” bodies are ridiculous and, ultimately, dishonest.
We react to these false standards with equally false compromises. Knowing (at least subconsciously) that these standards are impossible, we have repositioned personal standards for beauty at an equally impractical distance from average, just in the opposite direction. The media shows us unreasonably skinny people, so we push back by increasing our tolerance for being unreasonably overfat. We excuse our shortcomings as if to reinforce the impossibility of media standards. Instead of accepting the media’s absurd references for fitness, we tell ourselves (and our kids) that it’s okay to be overfat because we need to “love ourselves.”
Of course we need to love ourselves! But loving yourself doesn’t preclude you from acknowledging that you are overfat. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes. You can love your body while also keeping your body fat percentage down at a healthy level. Further, the best way to love yourself is to honor your body by treating it well. It’s the only body you’ve got.
Honoring your body does not mean accepting someone else’s standard of fitness or beauty. It means becoming the best version of yourself that you can imagine. Feeling good when you breathe, when you walk, when you get out of bed in the morning.
I’m not telling you what I think your ideal body fat percentage should be. Only a doctor (or the NIH, the CDC, and so on) has the right to call you “unhealthy.”
But you know how you feel. If you are reading this book, you are probably unhappy with your body, for one reason or another. If that’s how you feel, it’s time to own it.
I think you know when the food you eat is good—that is, good for your body. You know in your heart when food fuels your amazing, creative, energetic, vibrant existence on this planet. You might also know when you eat certain foods because you are addicted to them. We’re all getting better at discerning which foods make us feel good and which foods make us feel crappy.
However, you might not realize how much you eat or if that amount supports your daily activity level. You might be unaware of how much food you truly need, and you might not notice that you consume two or three times that amount on a daily basis. Overeating even the healthiest foods will still cause you to gain fat. And, unfortunately, most of us eat way more than we need to.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations indicated that the average amount of calories consumed by American adults (as of 2016) was 3,757 calories a day. That’s a 30% increase in average calories consumed in 1961 (2,880 calories). That’s also 29% more calories than the worldwide average of 2,904. They warn that this increase is the primary cause of the obesity overfat epidemic we are experiencing.
Most of us consume more food than we need to because we aren’t paying attention. It’s become too easy to overeat, especially when the food industry wants to convince us to eat more (i.e., buy more). But we need to pay attention! We need to start appreciating how many calories our bodies actually require, and then eat according to those requirements. We need to eat mindfully and let our bodies guide us.
For all the people who keep asking me how I lost all that fat, here’s the short answer: I stopped overeating.