Why are Thin People Not Fat: interesting experiment that says very little about how people can or should lose weight

Emma Sutton, “Why are Thin People Not Fat” (2008)

This BBC Horizon documentary revolves around an experiment  in deliberately overfeeding a group of people for a month in order to find out why some people can eat all they like and never put on weight or fat while others only have to glance guiltily at  a piece of chocolate cake and their weight miraculously balloons by several kilograms. Along the way a voice-over narrative follows the film-makers through a labyrinth of facts and history of humanity’s complex relationships with fat and being fat (or skinny). The volunteers – of whom most are young, slim and good-looking, which automatically renders the experiment biased and any potential results suspect – submit to daily hospital monitoring of their weight as they chomp and slurp their way through an alarming amount of food and sinfully fattening (well, you would think) milkshakes.

The results and the information found by the documentary will come as a surprise to most people brainwashed by the media to believe that weight control is solely the responsibility of the individual and if an adult person is fat, that person should feel guilty and ashamed of his/her lack of self-control and for enjoying one sensual pleasure of life too much. For one thing, all the volunteers had difficulty eating double the amount of kilojoules (or calories as the film refers) they would normally eat each day and many resorted to eating chocolate-filled snacks or drinking fatty beverages to make up the kilojoules.  On the information side, the film-makers discover that factors such as genetics and even the age of the mother at the time of a person’s birth may exercise considerable influence over that person’s adult weight and the amount of fat s/he carries. Snacking habits unconsciously established early in life may also carry over into adulthood.  One doctor interviewed was investigating whether, based on experience with chickens carrying a certain virus, the human victims who also had the virus had also put on weight as the chickens did: preliminary results he obtained from studying people who had eaten some of the chickens or had been in close contact with them suggested that the virus did affect people’s weight and the amount of fat they were carrying. Some beliefs are tested and found to have a basis in fact: for example, fat children are likely to be fat adults.

Even more remarkable is that by the end of the 4-week experiment, all the volunteers had not changed greatly in looks though they had put on weight and that one man had actually gained muscle instead of fat. Some volunteers’ basal metabolic rates had also increased, suggesting that their bodies were burning more energy from the excess food as though to get rid of it. One volunteer actually failed to meet his calorie / kilojoule requirements each day as the additional food and drink he dried to consume caused gagging and retching reflexes. Most had put on some weight though and the researchers conducting the experiment also followed them for another month as they shed, or tried to shed, the excess acquired. The surprise was that all the volunteers managed to reach their usual weights fairly quickly without having to do very much extra exercise or changing their normal diets.

The film is quite informative about what the body is capable of : the body is able to regulate its weight and food intake by increasing or decreasing its metabolic rate through various means. Even extra fidgeting and other little repetitive movements, if done frequently or for long periods, can help burn off the extra calories / kilojoules consumed.

Of course, one hour of documentary isn’t enough to tell us the full story of why some people can stay skinny while eating huge amounts at the local neighbourhood buffet while others sweat and slave at the gym but still can’t shake off the extra tyre around their waists or hips. The answers lie in the kind of food people habitually eat and what ingredients go into it (think of the junk food we are continually exhorted to eat, with their high levels of salt, sugar and high fructose corn syrup which can stimulate the appetite to want more); the environments they grow up in or have to live in; and even in the environments their parents and grandparents lived in and what food they consumed and how much before the offspring were born. Genetic and cultural factors play a part: we know that in many parts of the world where people have recently adopted a Western-style diet, their weights and body shapes balloon alarmingly; and in parts of the Middle East, women especially suffer a high rate of obesity due to conservative Wahhabi Islamic restrictions on their movements and the clothing they can wear. In some Africa countries, obesity in women is considered a sign of beauty and fertility. Constant dieting with the yo-yo effect on weight and the body’s own ability to control it may lead directly or indirectly to long-term weight gain as the body’s weight control mechanism is being thwarted by  feast-or-famine eating habits.

In that sense then, this documentary actually isn’t that informative inasmuch as it was asking the wrong question and the experiment that was the crux of the program was actually answering a different question, one that had little bearing on what causes weight gain and obesity.

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