Understanding Weight Gain


Feeling Fat

In Britain, two thirds of adult males and over half females either overweight or obese.

To test public reactions to people with a weight gain problem my colleague, physiologist Margaret Leitch, and I conducted an experiment. A slender woman, she made herself appear overweight with the aid of a well-padded ‘fat suit’. Watch to find out what we discovered and how it made Margaret feel.

She wandered the streets of Brighton, the coastal city where the University in which our laboratory is located.  While she did so we secretly filmed the response of those she met.

People’s Reactions to Weight Gain

Ask the public why some people pile on the pounds and you will get a wide variety of answers, as this video below shows. Note: It is not suggested or implied that any of those interviewed were involved verbally or physical abusing anyone with a weight gain problem.

While bullying and mockery directed at any other disability is rightly condemned, verbal attacks are all too often part of daily life for many who are overweight.

Hostility ranges from sneers about the contents of their shopping trolleys to abuse yelled at them in the street. Unfortunately, it’s not only words that are sometimes hurled at them.

“You big fat pig,” was all American born Marsha Coupe heard before being violently assaulted. Her assailant was not some drunken thug but a respectably dressed middle-aged woman. “I was returning home on a train and a woman aged about 38 to 42 sitting across from me started kicking me,” Marsha recalls. “She said, ‘Hey fatty! You should not be on the train; you need two seats!’”

Marsha, who received thirty to forty bruises over her chest and neck, was terrified she of loosing an eye. Her attacker was restrained by a fellow passenger but fled the train before the police could be called.

Although the 53-year-old, who weighs 22 stone (139kg), was bloodied by the attack, she was not surprised: “Fat people are fair game for everyone,” she says wearily “I’ve had beer cans thrown at me by youngsters, but the abuse doesn’t just come from the obvious places. The normal rules about behaviour, respect and common courtesy don’t apply to us.”

Numerous studies have confirmed that view. People with a weight problem are viewed as lazy, weak-willed, unsuccessful, unintelligent, lacking in self-discipline, and having poor willpower which prevents them from dieting.

Negative stereotyping has been found, among employers, co-workers and teachers, friends, family members, and even among children aged as young as three. In some ways even more shockingly it also occurs among doctors, nurses, medical students, dieticians, psychologists,

“There is true aggression towards overweight people and it comes down to fear and a complete lack of understanding of the issue,” says psychologist Ros Taylor. “People think ‘I can control what I put in my mouth so why can’t they’. But we’re not all the same, we don’t all start from the same point.”

The Unhelpful Part Played by Media and State

“The government and the press have created an atmosphere where people think they have a legitimate right to go up to an overweight person and tell them how to live their lives,” says Marsha Coupe. “To them we are all the anonymous pictures of fat people they see in the papers and are the cause of all society’s ills, as well as a drain on the NHS. We deserve what we get. We’re not people with feelings.”

The belief that obesity is caused by a lack of exercise is strongly advocated by the food industry. They like to be seen promoting activity as an antidote to being overweight, for example by sponsoring major sporting events. The PR helps burnish their corporate image while diverting responsibility from their role in creating the obesity pandemic.

It points the finger of blame away from the part played by the energy dense products they sell onto those who consume them.

While a combination of insufficient exercise and poor eating habits are part of the problem, they are by no means the whole or even the main reason for the obesity pandemic.

Nor can becoming overweight be blamed, as many struggling with their weight do, on a sluggish metabolism. Studies have shown that the rate at which calories are consumed exerts little or no influence when it comes to putting on weight.

If you too find it far easier to gain weight than to lose weight, take comfort from this fact. It’s not your fault and you are not too blame. It’s most down to the food we eat.

The Food We Eat

In 2001, author Eric Schlosser travelled around the US investigating the food industry. The book he wrote Fast Food Nation is a brilliant expose of an industry whom many blame for the rise in obesity and the illnesses associated with excessive weight gain.

Although his research’s focus is on the United States, everywhere in the developed world – and increasingly too in the developing world – we are surrounded by foods containing too many ‘empty’ calories and not sufficient of the nutrition essential for good health.

As Margaret Leitch and I point out in our book Fat Planet. within fifteen years, unless current trends are reversed, three quarters (75%) of the UK’s population will be overweight or obese, as will 80% of all Spaniards, Czechs and Polish and 90% of the Irish.

Anyone able to maintain a healthy weight will have become the exception rather than the rule. A slender outsider in a world where being overweight, sometimes excessively so, will have become the norm. Fat will have become the new thin and obesity the new fat.

Anyone who is slender may assume it hardly matters if other people pile on the pounds so long as they sustain a healthy weight throughout life. This widely held view is both dangerously complacent and entirely wrong.  The consensus of opinion among the world’s leading public health authorities is that we are on the brink of a social and medical catastrophe. Doctors are already reporting huge rises in the prevalence of such major non communicable diseases as Type II diabetes. Globally, the medical costs of obesity have been estimated at being in excess of £500 billion.

The ‘obesity pandemic’ has arisen from a wide range of causes most relating to the food we eat. These range from the way it grown, processed and sold, to the ways in which it is advertised and marketed.

By the promotion of high energy dense foods, often deliberately designed to be addictive, and through the eating revolution which has led to diets that, typically, are too high in calories and fats and too low in fruits and vegetables.

Changing Diets

Fats high in sugar and fat but low in nourishment are becoming ever more popular, especially among children.

‘Children are less sensitive to the sweet taste of sugar,’ explains Nicole Avena, one of the world’s foremost obesity experts, ‘which means their tolerance is far greater than it is for adults.’

As a result, over the past ten years, the percentage of children who are overweight or obese has risen from around one in ten (8%) for both boys and girls to one in eight (13%).

While the foods now filling our supermarket and kitchen shelves are super tasty what few appreciate is they are also as addictive, as hard drugs! It’s extremely hard to avoid putting on the pounds in such an environment.

There are, however, practical steps one can take to minimise the risk. On my Ask Dr David video blog, I answer your questions about weight gain and offer practical guidance on weight loss.

You may also be interested in Fat Planet – The obesity trap and how to escape it. Highly regarded by weight loss specialists, it was published by Random House, in 2015, and is priced at £ 12 99. Available to buy from Amazon.

In the video below watch Margaret and I discuss our book.