Encouraging a healthy body weight is not immoral
Thoughts prompted by a recent New York Times Piece
I don’t read much of the New York Times, but came across this piece making the rounds entitled “Diet Culture is Unhealthy. It’s Also Immoral.” Because this piece concerns two things that have been very present in my life (philosophy and diets), I felt compelled to share some thoughts the article prompted. Not all these thoughts are responses to claims in the article directly, but rather just some things and trends it got me thinking about.
Establishing the benefits of a healthy weight
I want to start by talking about a trend I see in fat activism. It’s in this article, and it’s in many others, and it involves the writer saying that they tried (usually an extreme) form of dieting and it didn’t work. Or, in this piece’s case, a claim is made that to stay at a normal BMI, the author had to eat in an unsustainably restrictive way.
There are some conditions that can impede one’s ability to lose weight, but we need to be honest with ourselves. The people around the world who are genuinely starving - i.e., those starving due to the U.S. and Canada-backed blockade on Yemen - are not “normal” bodyweights, nor are they going into “starvation mode” (another common myth among fat activists; what really happens is that when you eat less and lose weight, your body burns less calories and makes it difficult for you to lose more weight) that would cause them to gain weight. When people are genuinely starving, it shows.
“Slow metabolism” is another common reference, but slow metabolism was found to rarely be responsible for excess weight gain. In most cases, fat loss is a matter of energy expenditure, or what we may call “calories in, calories out.”
As such, most people who think they’re eating in a calorie deficit really aren’t. A recent UK study, for instance, found that people underestimate how many calories they eat by up to 50%. It is simply not the case that most people are doomed to being overweight unless they starve.
I bring this up because in almost every article that critiques diet culture, there is a point made that dieting does not actually work and that many people eat in a calorie deficit and are still overweight. This creates a sense of hopelessness for people wishing to change themselves, as well as a sense of complacency. It also allows people to claim, as the author does, that calls to diet are immoral. If one cannot change oneself without starvation numbers, suggesting a diet would naturally seem very cruel.
But there are good reasons for overweight people to lose weight, which brings on a slew of health benefits. The BMI itself is not perfect, it is true (a bodybuilder that’s incredibly jacked might be classified as obese, for instance). But most of us are not professional bodybuilders that have enough muscle to put them in the obese category when they are not. For instance, I have been consistently strength training and competing in powerlifting for years, probably have larger muscles (and therefore, for instance, larger legs) than the average person, but am still within a normal BMI range. It takes a substantial amount of muscle to even make it to the obese category. Weight to height ratios are reasonable general metrics of health provided other factors are not discarded. BMI, along with waist measurements, helps determine whether you are obese (or underweight), and therefore what kind of health risks are present for you (4x more likely to have diabetes, >3x more likely to have high blood pressure, 2x more likely to have heart disease). It is very clear that while one can plausibly not have these problems while being overweight, weight gain and high BMIs put you at risk. Of course, they’re not the only things that do. Substance abuse, for instance, is another; and we would not encourage excess substance abuse for that reason, either.
Is encouraging weight loss immoral?
There are components of what one may call diet culture that I would agree are immoral. There’s plenty of disinformation and zealotry in the dieting industry, that spread outright lies about what it takes to lose weight (you can’t eat bread, you have to stop eating after 6 pm, you have to do fasted cardio, etc.) This is immoral because it misleads the public into taking unnecessary, unsustainable, and at times unhealthy measures usually for a profit. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the work of Dr. Layne Norton, who has devoted much of his career to debunking the claims of fad diets.
Additionally, I would agree that it is immoral to bully people for their weight or treat them as lesser beings. Often, there are reasons why people are overweight or underweight, and these reasons can pertain to mental health issues, poverty, and so forth. I would agree that the first step in creating a healthier culture is eliminating food deserts and ensuring affordable access to wholesome and nutritious foods, as well as more time and access to exercise. Ought implies can, and it is absurd to hold people with different lives to different standards when it comes to weight.
However, I would argue that there is nothing immoral about encouraging the population to be a healthy weight. In fact, as someone drawn to the self-other symmetry of ethical frameworks like virtue ethics, I would argue that it is immoral to not eat healthy and not exercise if you are able to do so (as I said, ought implies can). This is partly because of your duties to others. For instance, if you have children and family members, increasing your lifespan and quality of life so you can be there for them is a moral act. The singer Adele, for instance, admirably claimed that she dieted to a healthy weight to be the healthiest mother possible for her son.
The obligation to be a healthy weight is also an ethical obligation towards the self. Unfortunately, when we speak of ethics, we do not usually talk about this component. The author of the piece sort of goes in this direction at one point, saying: “I have denied myself pleasure and caused myself the gnawing pain and sapping anxiety of hunger.” But this seems to be attributed to an immoral act being done toward her by the culture; namely, the encouragement to diet.
The notion that promoting a healthy weight is immoral, in a philosophical sense, reminds me of a general problem I have with a lot of mainstream ethical theories that emphasize obligations toward others while disregarding moral obligations you have to yourself. In this case, the promotion of a healthy weight is seen as a cruel act toward others rather than an a duty one has to oneself. The philosopher Michael Slote rightfully criticizes other ethical theories that do not take this asymmetry into account. For instance, he notes that Kantianism gives us moral obligations toward others that we do not have toward ourselves. This would mean that we count actions that benefit others as morally right, but not developing self-benefitting traits like prudence or fortitude. Slote argues that this asymmetry “downgrade(s) the well being of moral agents and thus the agents themselves” by giving cultivation of the self “inferior rational standing and value” in comparison to helping others.
If anything, we need an ethics that promotes an obligation towards ourselves. Disciplining ourselves into healthy weights (again, if circumstances permit) is a morally good and worthy endeavour, and fosters conditions where we can do our best in other areas of life as well. The author of this piece notes that because chances of success in dieting are small when speaking of the moral harms of dieting. But this has nothing to do with the moral value of discipline and care for the self; it simply means that people are entering diets that are not sustainable (i.e., fad diets rather than basic caloric deficits).
The NYT article ends with this:
We are at a moment during the year when many people will try, and even regard themselves as duty bound, to go on a diet. But if dieting is a practice that causes a great deal of harm — in the form of pain, suffering, anxiety and sheer hunger — and rarely works to deliver the health or happiness it has long advertised, then it is a morally bad practice. It is plausibly not only permissible but obligatory for individuals to divest from it, to condemn it and not to teach it to our children, either explicitly or by example.
Here’s a summation of my thoughts in response, after establishing the above.
You are duty bound, toward yourself, to be a healthy bodyweight, which will help you avoid numerous health risks.
If you are overweight, getting to a healthy bodyweight requires a calorie deficit. This is not the same as starvation; it is simply a matter of energy expenditure. It need not cause a great deal of harm.
The harm from being overweight (and underweight!) can also cause a great deal of pain and suffering
Finally, it is morally obligatory to teach your children healthy habits (no, not starvation, but having a diet comprised mostly of whole foods accompanied by routine exercise) to increase their longevity, increase your longevity to be there for your children, and to cultivate virtuous qualities like self-discipline and fortitude.
I want to add that I am not preaching. I’m not perfect and not always at my healthiest, either. The point of morality is not to encourage perfection, but to encourage the cultivation of good dispositions. I do not think that people who are overweight should be condemned or bullied, or seen as immoral, but rather that we should uphold being a healthy weight as something morally desirable.
If we want to target the pernicious components of what one may call “diet culture”, the solution is to target profiteering zealots selling quick fixes and fad diets, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Encouraging a healthy bodyweight through sustainable means will never be immoral, and we should not pretend that there aren’t great benefits to doing so.