You Can’t Die of Fat, Mr Buerk

Yesterday, a story broke about an interview carried in the Radio Times with respected broadcaster Michael Beurk. The headline? “Let obese people die early to save NHS money.”

Understandably, his opinions have attracted a fair amount of consternation and anger, mainly from fat people, like myself, who don’t consider ourselves to be, as the veteran BBC News broadcaster described us, “weak, not ill.”

Personally, I don’t consider myself to be ill OR weak. I managed to keep up with a bunch of skinnies at the gym the other weekend, doing the ‘Abs Blast’ class, planks and all. Arguably, as there was a lot more of me than there was of most of them, I had to work HARDER to plank and balance, but let’s not argue that particular point. Buerk, however, considers my predicted early demise as, “a “selfless sacrifice” to stop the country being overpopulated if they die a decade earlier than the rest of the population.”

Obesity, despite the crap we’re fed on a daily basis, is not a choice. It isn’t just a matter of getting my oversized arse down to the nearest Slimming World class and sticking to it until I’m socially acceptable again. It’s not just willpower and self control — several studies have proved that not only do our bodies resist weight loss with every tool they have, they are always trying to keep us at a ‘settled point’ which gets higher with EVERY diet we go on.

The assumption that just because someone is fat, overweight, obese, whatever you want to call them, they are going to die early is lazy and outdated. According to the charming Beurk, “The obese will die a decade earlier than the rest of us; see it as a selfless sacrifice in the fight against demographic imbalance, overpopulation and climate change.”

In the past two years, I’ve lost two people under the age of 50. Neither were obese.

The facts about mortality rates and obesity may actually surprise you. The statistics from a 1996 paper suggesting that 300,000 Americans die every year from obesity have been thoroughly debunked by scientists at the CDC who have suggested that this figure is nearly three times too high, according to Anthony Warner, in The Truth About Fat . Warner also details a 1980 study in which clinical director of the National Institute on Aging, gerontologist Dr Reubin Andres researched mortality rates, by reviewing forty studies from around the world, alongside US actuarial data. Andres discovered that the lowest rates of death were found in people between 10 per cent and 20 per cent heavier than the MetLife recommendations dating back to 1940, which were still being parroted out at obesity conferences in 1980. He also discovered that as people aged, higher weights seemed to be even more strongly associated with increased longevity.

Another researcher, Katherine Flegal, looked at mortality rates for people of different BMI — ‘Normal’ (18.5–25) and overweight (25–30).In 93% of the studies, overweight people were as healthy as normal weight people, and when the data from all 140 studies was combined, statistically it showed that the overweight people actually lived LONGER than normal weight people.

But What About the REALLY FAT People?

Flegal found that Class I obese people, with a BMI from 30–35, had the same risk ratios as those who were overweight and normal weight. When she looked at statistics for morbid obesity, she found that risk ratios went up, but according to Traci Mann in ‘Secrets from the Eating Lab’ ,

The only group of people who had a higher overall risk of death than normal weight people were people in Obesity Class II and up who who were also under the age of 65. For those people, their ratio of risk compared to normal weight people was 1.3. To put that number into perspective, the ratio of risk for lung cancer among smokers compared to non-smokers is over 30.”

The assumption that fat people are ‘couch potatoes’ and that we’re selflessly sacrificing our last decade because we enjoy cake too much is insulting and wrong. I don’t want to play into the hands of the ‘good fatty’ trope by telling you how many times I’ve been to the gym, or a pool, or walked more than a couple of miles in the last week or so. But fat people are not the stereotypical lazy, gluttonous pigs that we’re made out to be. Buerk also suggests that calling obesity an illness will just encourage fatties to the doctor to get help for their condition. He said that he, “does not believe obesity should be classed as a disease in a bid to encourage people to seek treatment and to “reduce the stigma (of) fatness”, adding that “you’re fat because you eat too much”.

There are many psychological, physiological and social reasons for obesity — and eating too much — and they tend to work together. I’ll tell you something, I asked for help in 1998/9. I was depressed and being bullied at work. I had developed a habit of compulsive eating and bingeing and I’d gained a couple of stone. I knew I was doing it but didn’t seem to be able to stop, dieting just magnified the urges to overeat and I begged for help. My GP referred me to the local eating disorders clinic at the hospital. Do you know what happened? I was refused help on the grounds I was “intelligent enough not to do anything dangerous.” I wasn’t starving myself or throwing up, I wasn’t abusing laxatives, I looked healthy enough so I wasn’t NHS priority.

Twenty years later I have gained and lost several stones in weight. I weigh several stone more than I did when I begged for help. I diet, unwisely, then end up overeating on autopilot and gain it all back with interest. I try NOT to hate my body, because that makes me diet, which sets up the whole chain of events again. The problem is that the media, people like Michael Beurk, hate fatties. They see themselves as superior to us, and can say things like, “Let them die” with no comeback because it’s OK to hate fat people. Hating my body keeps me trapped in the diet, overeat cycle, and although I have a busy, active and reasonably healthy life, my food issues remain un-dealt-with.

I don’t know what the answer is. I despair sometimes as Cancer Research brings out Slimming World funded, scientist-condemned campaigns, claiming to show a correlation between cancer and obesity. People who don’t understand statistics flock to Slimming World, afraid of cancer. The young people I know who have had cancer have all been slim. The one under-50 woman I know who died of ovarian cancer was slim, active, never smoked and rarely drank. It’s a lottery. Yes, if I could successfully and permanently lose weight, I probably would. I’d love to fit into smaller clothes and how LOVELY it would be to not be judged by complete strangers, called revolting, disgusting, stupid and lazy, and wished into an early grave by a supercilious 73-year old who should know better.

Of course that's not my real name.

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