Skip to main content

On prejudice against fat people

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | July 10, 2012

Anderson Cooper’s coming out was important for the shaping of the discourse around sexual orientation. Public figures’ attitudes around same-sex couples (including President Obama’s) have real psychological power to change the public’s own attitudes. A turn in attitudes in this domain is evident even in Robert Spitzer’s apology for his support of a gay “cure,” as well as this column by Craig Gross, who now bemoans his church’s resistance to accept that both gay people and fat people can have a place in heaven.

As I read this column, I did a double take— I didn’t know that heaven was formally supposed to be populated only by thin people! Many of my loved ones would not be allowed in.

Now, despite Gross’s argument, prejudice against fat people continues to be one of the deepest and most widely shared prejudices that the public holds. Research has shown, for example, that even the parents of overweight children discriminate against them. In addition, the overweight suffer drops in self-esteem when prejudice is directed towards them, suggesting that overweight people themselves believe that somehow they are to blame for their condition (Crocker et al., 1993).

At the root of these attitudes is a suspicion of flawed character– namely, one is fat because one lacks self-regulation. In more biblical terms, one is guilty of gluttony and/or sloth.

But recently, a book by Gary Taubes, “Why We Get Fat,” (and the longer “Good Calories, Bad Calories”) uses science to dispel the notion of fatness as a moral failing. The traditional view of why we get fat, Taubes argues, centrally rests on the idea that one gets fat because one consumes more calories than one expends. If you eat more calories than you burn, in other words, you gain weight, and the virtuous among us are those who have the self-control to either control our food intake (by restraining from overeating) or maximize our caloric output (by exercising).

Taubes argues, however, that this paradigm— the model of what determines whether we get fat or thin shared by scientists and regular folk alike— is flawed. Taubes poses a question that simply does not have a place in the traditional paradigm— could it be that fat people eat because they are starving? In Taubes’ words, whereas the traditional paradigm will have us believe that we get fat because we overeat, there is data to suggest that the direction of causality goes the other way: we overeat because we get fat.

So how do we get fat? Taubes identifies (or rather, reports on the scientific evidence over the past few decades from endicronology) the central role that insulin plays in fat accumulation. Insulin is exquistely sensitive to blood sugar, and refined carbohydrates in particular (such as white rice, pasta, sugary drinks, beer, and even very sweet fruit) will cause a spike in insulin. As the son of two diabetics, this was not at all surprising. What was surprising to me is that one of the functions of insulin is to shuttle the sugar from the bloodstream directly into our fat tissue— even when other parts of the body need the energy. By Taubes’s account, the insatiable hunger that we feel even after stuffing ourselves with refined carbs is the hunger of cells and organs that are not getting the nutrition they need due to abnormally elevated insulin levels.

Photo: Joanna Servaes (Wikimedia Commons)

Taubes gives the example of a type of rat, a Zucker rat, that is geneticallly predisposed to get fat. When these rats are put on a very stringent diet, they actually continue to get fat at the expense of their other ograns. The rats balloon anyway, but their major organs, including their brains and kidneys, are smaller than normal size— that is, while their adipose (fat) tissue grows, the rest of their body starves. Taubes argues that when our insulin system is disregulated from having to chronically handle tidal waves of sugar into the bloodstream, our energy system is similarly dysregulated. Despite getting fat, in other words, we are starving.

I doubt many people would argue that starvation is a sin. By speaking out against the traditional “calories in, calories out” paradigm of nutrition science — and his impressive scholarship that spans medicine, endocrinology, and history of science suggests that his argument is well thought out and researched— Taubes helps dispel the notion of fatness as a sin of gluttony and sloth, and thus provides an invaluable tool in the fight against fat prejudice.

You can follow my posts through twitter or facebook.

Copyright 2012 by R. Mendoza-Denton (MCN: BS8Y4-PNV7V-EVK9V); all rights reserved.

Comments to “On prejudice against fat people

  1. Sorry, I work with a fat guy, he just ate four Jack in the Box tacos for breakfast. Now he is napping and will through oh the day. I watch him napping there and it’s like not really being alive, the stress he puts his body under is like being part dead. We all have our demons, and at one point I had compassion for him; then he made some homophobic comments and that was it. I believe that homosexuality is something an individual can’t do anything about (or should want to). But this guy has an issue that can clearly be taken care of physically and mentally, instead he’s over there snoring, half alive, wasting my oxygen. There is no way someone should run their system like that.

  2. I was pretty slim most of my youth and then had to take a number of medications for my health that had the side effect of increasing weight. Since then i have had daily struggles to deal with my weight. I tried the accepted diets, exercise, joined weight watchers, etc. Nothing really worked.

    Then a family member sent a photo of me eating a piece of cake at a birthday party. I was terribly embarassed. It was bad enough that i couldn’t stand seeing pictures of myself, that photo was just the limit.

    Well people, i have decided that i am not lazy, disgusting person I will not let this growing stigma, ruin my life. I invite anyone else to join me.

    • Bravo. This is what it is about. The only way one can acceptably be overweight to me is if they do not make excuses about it. If you want to be thin or thinner, then be that way. If you are okay with being overweight then embrace it and live comfortably so long as you are within acceptable healthy limits (ie not morbidly obese as this is never acceptable just as meth use and alcoholism is not acceptable).

      Nobody is asking everybody to be a runway model and in fact such is not desirable whatsoever, I would expect that everybody be healthy whether that means you are very thin or a little larger. Sugars and fats are good when used in moderation. Abusing these leads not only to health consequences but to moral consequences in the same way that abusing drugs on a widespread scale can lead to a society’s degredation.

      We need to wake up and see that health is key to a human beings wellbeing both physically and mentally. Appearance is skin deep, but your health is what matters for your mind, body, and soul.

  3. Fantastic post. Its very presence fosters the much-needed discussion about obesity, its causes and its treatments.

    I first discovered Gary Taubes about 120lbs ago, at a point in my life where my health had deteriorated to the point that my doctors were ready to cut out an otherwise healthy part of my stomach in the hopes that it would correct the insidious weight gain I was experiencing.

    It turns out that following the advice suggested by the research Gary Taubes reviews in both his books is also effective at reducing weight. It also doesn’t require surgery.

    As someone who has dealt with (and still does deal with) prejudicial attitudes towards the obese for most of his life, I can say that sometimes people are even more incensed if you dare to suggest that help can be found through something as elegant as a diet informed by the insulin hypothesis.

    On the one hand we blame obesity on a failing of moral character (succumbing to gluttony and sloth), yet on the other hand, we readily dismiss as “quackery” any attempt for the obese individual to lose weight through means other than the “eat less, move more” paradigm or through bariatric surgery. In my experience it is usually the least informed among us who hold the most insipid prejudices and assumptions towards the obese, and reject out of hand the role that carbohydrates (especially refined carbohydrates) play in obesity.

    -Michael from ketopia

  4. It is harder and harder for people to loose weight now days, I feel all junk food stores should be banned from T.V. And super skinny fashion models are not helping the situation.

  5. Only a few people have endocrine problems (or will have, when they develop metabolic syndrome which includes type II diabetes). Most of the obese in our culture are so do to EXCESS. This is the price we pay for 24 hour “fast(& fat)food”, super-sized portions and the lack of exercise. In 1900 we took in as many calories, but since then our conveniences and sedentary life style has become the norm (ie. simple math: excess calories (+) not expended (-) are (=) “worn”, as excess weight). And, oh … and a culture of political correctness which emphasizes the denial of personal responsibility and the rationalization of obesity (BMI > 30, which has tripled since 1990).

  6. If I had a nickel for everyone I knew who lost weight and gained health on a low-carb or paleo type diet I’d be rich. Cutting out refined carbs and especially soda made me lose 10 pounds without even trying. Notice how the number of overweight people skyrocketed at the same time as the low-fat craze? We don’t, as a nation “eat too much” – we eat too many CARBS.

    Back in the day, Julia Child’s French cookbook included lots of meat and butter but not nearly as many carbs, so why did we weigh less then than we do now – and why aren’t the French fat with all their butter, cheese and wine?

    The low-fat craze did more than anything to ruin America’s health.

  7. Has anybody done research into areas of the food chain that have changed in the past four decades to see if something there is introducing a tendency to create adipose tissue? For example, corn destined for stock feed is stored in the same silos as corn destined for human consumption, although not at the same time. However, if the silos aren’t cleaned out properly between filling, what’s to stop corn that’s been genetically modified to produce fatter cattle being mixed in with corn that’s used to create corn syrup–a ubiquitous ingredient in modern food?

    And how about microwaving? Does that somehow change the way food is metabolized?

    Despite what some of the commenters here claim, finding a scientific basis for why things have changed isn’t some kind of straw being clutched at by lazy people who eat too much. They’d simply like to know what they’re up against in their efforts to cut down on calories and ramp up their exercise.

    BTW, the sin of “sloth” was originally the sin of “sadness”. Just sayin’! Making people feel miserable about themselves is the devil’s work.

  8. Thanks for trying professor. But as you can see above, all four comments simply support the evidence that there is extreme prejudice against overweight people. (Even “former fattie,” yes. Nice for you.) I’m afraid even scientific evidence is not going to help. There’s also the case of changing metabolism with age, which makes it so much harder, especially for women, to keep from gaining, and then to lose. Further, there’s the problem of depression, which makes the whole thing worse yet. Get a grip people, you sound like real creeps. “Bad for the environment”? For heaven’s sake.

    • Leah: We have to hang in there with education and enlightenment. Part of what this post relates to is a true “paradigm change” in how we understand fatness/fat metabolism, and diets: paradigm change comes with a lot of demonization. Plus it’s not only about weight–for those who follow my blog, it’s also about race, mental health, etc.

      Hang in there.

  9. In Australia, the contribution of excess sugar consumption to obesity has been exonerated by high-profile but over-confident scientists with strong links to the sugar industry and other sugar sellers. No surprise I guess, but what’s interesting is that the deeply flawed paper with its spectacularly false conclusion was published in a supposedly peer-reviewed science journal. It’s all documented at

  10. This is just more of the “nothing is in your control” psychology that is tied to our obsession with political correctness. For the vast majority of mankind’s history and without the benefit of science, people have been able to control their weight with relative ease. But now, with science’s illumination, we discover we aren’t in control at all and suddenly, everyone is gaining weight? People are getting fat simply because it’s so much more easy than getting fit. We need to have ads like we did in the 60’s that made smokers look gross and irresponsible. There might be some hurt feelings at first, but then again, we’ll save millions of people from mild to severe health conditions and prolong their lives.

    • Robert– you have it right that for the bulk of history weight control has happened with ease. But you seem to argue that the obesity epidemic is actually due to psychologists. There is a much more direct explanation: changes in dietary habits linked to sugar and refined starches. I do recommend Gary Taubes for you.

  11. Nice article. Thin and Starving seems to miss an important point. Taubes is not promoting acceptance of obesity, he is identifying the causes. The well-intentioned but woefully misguided advice to eat low fat foods, replacing fat calories with carbohydrate calories, has only made things worse.

    Once we focus on the primary cause of obesity (naturally there are many, but focus on the big one), namely the sugars and refined carbohydrates consumed to such great excess, then health policy can be turned to obesity prevention and treatment.

    Taubes makes some amazingly good points in his books. Reading them opened my eyes completely on this subject.

    As a footnote, though I am losing my last few pounds that I want to get rid of rather slowly on my low-carb diet, I have never had so much energy, and I have never been better focused. Maybe you will have the same experience too.

    -John in Boston

  12. The problem with this argument is that skinny people are starving too–just read Skinny Gossip to see how hard thin people are working to stay thin:

    Sure, some people have “gland” problems, but the vast majority of us eat too much and then drive around Costco looking for the closest parking space to even more calories.

    The fat acceptance movement is pernicious. We should be doing everything possible to stop people from becoming fat in the first place, because it is so difficult to lose weight once gained. It’s simply should not be acceptable to be obese. It’s bad for the environment:

    • “It’s simply not acceptable to be obese.” Wow. I did not know that those people struggling with their weight issues are not acceptable. I guess since we have allowed minority cultures to ride in the front of the bus, have adult relationships with whomever they want and smokers have been banned to the outer-reaches of society, then I guess fatties are the last domain to be admonished.

      I don’t eat too much, I eat poorly and do not exercise as I should. I choose to raise my three sons on my own instead of staying with my husband. This meant that we were on a tight budget and ate a lot of food that wasn’t particularly good for me. Add in working a sedentary job, after school activities, keeping up a household and caring for an aging parent, I don’t know when I would find the time to exercise. Even when I was in high school and involved in dance, tennis, riding my bike, roller skating to and from school, I still gained weight.

      Some people have reasons beyond living on fast food, sodas and laying on their sofas as to why they gain weight. Add in low incomes, lack of medical care, mental health support you have a person who will most likely not lose any weight. Add in people like you who feel the superior right to state that they are “unacceptable” just adds to the problem.

      Statements professing that they are “unacceptable” is in fact unacceptable.

      • Donna, Thank you for your response. I think folks tend to forget that to live life it takes time, effort and money. Depending on our responsibilities, many of us end up with little time, money or effort to take care of ourselves especially when our lives are tied to taking care of others.

Comments are closed.