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Fat Shaming, Hunger Games, and Philosophy
September 12, 2017
by William P. Meyers

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Or, What Would Wittgenstein Eat?

It is the most controversial subject of our era. More controversial than global warming. More controversial than immigration. Yes, the kind of subject that can elicit extreme anger from total strangers.

Warning: I will be accused of fat shaming for writing this. That is not my intent, but if you are hypersensitive about your weight, and can't engage in a rational discussion about that and related topics, it is time to stop reading. Unless you like to be mad at people who try to discuss fat and diet rationally.

Disclosure: I am currently within what doctors consider to be the normal weight range for a person of my height, age, and gender. I was once 35 pounds heavier, about 15 years ago.

The basic divide these days is this: many people claim that dieting to lose weight is counterproductive. There is supposedly some science to support this. It is believed that if you have been obese (perhaps even just overweight) in the past, and diet, at your new lower weight, your thin weight, your body becomes more efficient and converting food to fat. Hence you regain the weight eventually.

Before providing the counterclaim to the Can't Reduce Ass weight Permanently theory, allow me a personal opinion. I generally don't care if a person is fat or not. I tend to like doers and intellectuals. I would rather spend time with a fat intellectual than with a skinny heroin addict. I care if someone is a criminal or a Trump supporter, and consider fat Trump supporters, like fat lawyers, as fair objects of wit. But not actually because they are fat. Because they are mean, or lawyers.

Large numbers of people being overweight does affect society and the environment, and not just when someone overflows into ones seating space on a bus or airline. While there are a subset of perfectly healthy obese people (no cardiovascular disease even in old age) and a subset of sickly thin people, in general unnecessary obesity causes diseases like diabetes, raising medical cost for society, and hence for us all. More fat also means more food, and more farmland, with its pollution and contributions to global warming.

So it is fair to ask, in a rational way, can people maintain a "normal" thin body type through diet alone.

And, watch for it, there it is: a philosophical question is involved too. Hence my involvement of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who is dead, and so cannot protest.

Here is a point of 100% certainty: prevent a person from eating (or from having calories other ways, for instance through tubes), and they will starve to death. If they start out fat they will get thinner, become skeletal, and die.

So clearly if calories are restricted enough, a person could stay thin. In a prison or concentration camp or hospital.

That situation is not normal, it is not the real world for most Americans or residents of the richer countries. In America food is so plentiful, and cheap, that most people have to restrain themselves to keep from getting fat.

Recast the question as: can people restrain themselves, and remain thin after having been obese. You get a different answer from the first question. The answer is: it depends. Some people can, some can't, and the ratio may not be a natural one, but rather depends on culture and external factors. Living next to a fast food restaurant, for example, might not be the best if someone really wants to stay thin.

People say they eat, and gain weight, because they are [feel] hungry. Can you be or feel hungry even when, from the normal biological point of view, you have had enough to eat? The evidence is overwhelmingly, yes. I know I can. It is widely believed, but not proven, that scarcity in the past has encouraged mechanisms (evolved over time) that effectively tell us to eat now, since we can't be sure food will be available later.

But why can some people restrain themselves, and maintain a healthy weight, when others become overweight or even obese, or even grossly obese, given the same basic circumstances?

Philosophers have wondered if, simply because we use a descriptive term, like the color "red," individuals are subjectively seeing the same color. Perhaps what I see as red, in my brain-mind, which I know is some stimulation of certain cells in my retina, is what someone else sees as green or yellow. How would we know? We learn colors as children, and we reference the same objects. We all see the same ball, we all agree to call its color "red," but there is no way to prove the subjective colors we see are really the same.

For practical matters it does not matter, we all can stop at red lights, and agree the sky is blue. Except there are actually people who are color blind, and animals that see only shades of gray, and even some that can see more colors than human beings. We can't even imagine what those colors would look like, should they show up in our minds.

So, Jack Sprat feels hunger, but does not feel he must act on it and scarf down a jar of Nutella in the middle of the night. Jane Sprat, his wife, is fat, but says she is indeed quite hungry, but no, someone else must have made that Nutella disappear. And the left-over half chicken.

Most of us will admit to levels of hunger. We also will admit to some control of our behavior. For instance, most of us can force down a bad-tasting medicine, or tolerate the pain caused by a flu shot. Or push ourselves to finish something when we are tired.

So, is Jane actually experiencing a stronger sensation of hunger, or is she just not willing to force herself to refrain from the joy of eating a jar of Nutella? The other side of hunger is that eating is pleasurable. Maybe the inability to stick to a diet is more about pursuit of pleasure.

It is a bad idea to take people's reports about their own behavior as being 100% fact-based. People all to often report what they think the listener wants to hear, or what makes them look good, or at least not look appalling. People even deceive themselves. So they forget they broke their diet by eating a high calorie snack. When asked if they are sticking to a diet, they say yes, yet somehow they are gaining weight. If they admit they did not stick to the diet, they say they were hungry, not that they were seeking a food pleasure fix.

The only way to know if people can really gain large amounts of weight on a highly restricted number of calories, is to put them in a controlled environment and watch them. Selecting the people is a problem too. Just as heroin addicts are not quick to volunteer to get off the drug, overeaters are not quick to jump into a situation where they can't eat. You need perhaps a thousand overweight people, randomly chosen, to do a careful study.

Bothering with such a study would only tell medical scientists what they already know: bodies burn calories to live, and can't get fat if they are not given too many calories. Sure, some bodies are more efficient than others, but adjust the calories, and you can adjust their fattiness.

In our world of social media, where people only want to hear what they already believe, those who don't wish to quit eating will deny the factual results. If you can deny that you ate an entire cherry pie sometime between midnight and one A.M., you can certainly deny that it is possible to keep to a healthy, thin weight by restricting your diet.

But subjectively, most of us like to eat. We have different personalities. Being fat is not usually as bad for your health as excessive alcohol consumption, moderate tobacco smoking, or any of a large number of other risky behaviors we can chose from. And if there is a famine, the fat people will be in a far better position to survive than those of us who enter the famine with lower levels of fatty reserves.

By the way, legend has it that Wittgenstein, who was skinny, ate only oatmeal and chocolate. But he was a fairly private individual, so it is likely just a legend.




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