Monday, February 4, 2013

The Evolution Of Fat People

For students of medicine and biology, this is a lesson in evolution and anthropology. For anyone with a BMI over 25, this is a factual, motivational tool. 

It all started with Balpreet Kaur, a Sikh girl going about her business at the airport. She wore a turban and as per her religious beliefs, did not rid herself of any facial or body hair. As luck would have it, someone with a cameraphone found her appearance humorous and decided to share the joke with others on Reddit. He posted the picture under the 'funny' category with the tagline, "I'm not sure what to conclude from this". It wasn't long before she knew that she was the subject of discussion, often ridicule, on the social network. Her response to her detractors & critics is nothing short of a modern example of poise & dignity - "By not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues, and hopefully focus my life on creating change & progress for this world". You can read more here

Just a few weeks later, I read about Stella Boonshoft. Stella is a girl of voluptuous proportions, who has been ridiculed by her fellow students, trainers and men of interest, because of being overweight. She shared a semi-nude picture on Facebook to show the world how proud and comfortable she was with her over-weight body. It was her emotional outburst that accompanied the picture which caught my eye. My first response, one I'm sure a lot of you would have, was - More power to you! But, then I thought of Balpreet. The similarities between the two women at first glance are great. Both are strong women with character, both have been ridiculed or questioned for their external appearance, both used social media to their strengths and were lauded for it. That is where the similarities end.

It took a moment before I started wondering - Stella isn't that great after all. She's been over-weight, & from her account, since quite some time. While she's had ample opportunity to change her lifestyle, she's chosen to  chide society for setting unreasonable ideas of beauty. She's lashing out because she's had a rough childhood. I felt for Stella, nobody deserves to be ridiculed or made to feel inferior while growing up. Adolescence is a tough age for most of us, and it's especially tough when you're made out to be an easy target because of your appearance. But, as a smart, informed adult, she missed the point by a mile. While Balpreet is a strong woman of conviction, whose religious beliefs are exactly that - HER beliefs; Stella is just another person struggling with her weight. She's adamant about her body being only her concern, but the medical mind in me refuses to accept that. Somewhere down the line, her weight will be someone else's concern too - her doctor's. 

Society's norms of beauty keep changing. They follow cyclical trends & are fairly predictable. There was once a time in Victorian England where a woman's ankles were considered far too private to be exposed, her bosom though, was let free to feel the wind. Caucasians are obsessed with tanning to get that perfect golden brown skin tone, and the already golden brown Asians are obsessed with fairness creams. Society is way tougher on women - waxing, bleaching, hair removal are all painful procedures without much merit, and a woman's life is a continual struggle to please that handsome man in the commercials. Are fashion houses and beauty product labels being unreasonable? Most times. Each time the billboards are plastered with a woman who is excessively thin to begin with and then photoshopped to look like Aphrodite, they're being idiotic. But, their idiocy is matched only by their financial success, because we lap up these perverse standard of beauty. This is the problem that Stella was addressing.

Some standards though, have withstood the test of time. A sculpted, muscular body, toned physique, smooth, supple skin, flowing hair have never been out of style. There is but one universal standard of beauty in the world that hasn't changed in thousands of years - Athleticism. The pinnacle of human endurance, agility, strength and skill, these athletes represent all that is good about the human design. They represent health in all its glory, & are universally desirable. Desirability - that's all it comes down to eventually, desirability as a sexual partner. 

One of my professors often said, "The fact that Isaac Newton's sperm never met an egg is one of the greatest crimes against humanity!". He wasn't wrong. To paraphrase Tom Cruise from Jerry Maguire - Show me the GENES! We choose our partners, on the basis of so many factors - their looks, success, wealth, potential for growth. But, that's now. Far back when we were just scavengers in the forest, we chose on basis of strength and speed. One's external appearance mattered a lot then, as it does now, because it is a sensitive indicator of someone's health & their genetic quality. Scour through medical textbooks, and there're hundreds of signs visible externally that signify internal disease. So flawless skin, hair, ripped muscles are all desirable. Its all about having the best possible mix of genes. The desire to find a suitable sexual partner, procreate and have offspring that represent everything that's good about us, is universal. So, the next time you're questioning ideas of beauty, ask yourself how much of it has been created by corporate propaganda, and just how much are we all born with.

In a lot of ways, the reason we're fat is the same reason we orgasm. A lot of people thought that the orgasm was a fortunate blip, a physiological event that didn't serve much purpose. They couldn't have been more wrong. Just imagine if we didn't orgasm at all. Would we all still be having sex if it wasn't pleasurable? Somewhere down the line, we would give up on sex & the entire human race would be wiped out, being replaced by a species that enjoys sex. So, sex is enjoyable for a purpose. It is nature's way of telling us that we must survive as a species. We may all struggle to philosophically describe the purpose of life, but a biologist knows it already - Survival. Life exists - in strictly biological terms - to continue and perpetuate.

Getting back to my original statement - we're fat for the same reason we orgasm. Fat is the most efficient form of energy storage in the human body. Carbohydrate stores last us only for a few days and protein is far too essential to our body, therefore utilized for energy as a last resort. Back when we were evolving and food was scarce, we developed a taste for fatty foods. Evolution was smart that way, it made us love fattier meals so we would seek out and completely consume them. Energy storage was of paramount importance; one never knew how far the next meal would be. Those individuals that developed this rich taste, survived more easily than those that didn't. Move into the 21st century, and we've inherited the same fondness for fatty meals from our ancestors. Except food isn't as scarce anymore, but our appetites are just as insatiable. A quality that was meant to ensure our survival, is exactly the reason for millions of untimely deaths. Maybe, just maybe, evolution screwed up.

Obesity has been rampant since the past 50 odd years, and has mirrored our growth as a species.  This progress has brought an abundance of food, technological progress, medical innovation; But, it is exactly this progress which is the cause of our collective "growth".

Medicine has finally come of age. It wasn't until 1964 that we knew the link between smoking and lung cancer. Chemotherapy didn't give results until the 1970's. And AIDS was discovered only in 1981. The questions in medicine have shifted from 'What's causing this?', to a more reassuring, 'How can we treat it?'. We live in a spectacular time because important associations between diseases and causative factors have already been made. While we improve patient care with each passing day, there arises a greater drive and focus to reduce the number of patients altogether. Preventive medicine isn't a new buzzword, its the most important one. But, a culture of instant gratification means patients are more likely to demand a magic pill when ill, rather than take steps to prevent the illness in the first place.

Almost every obese patient I've counseled has said, "I just don't know what to do". As their doctor, one tries hard to make them see reason, to make them see the trouble that awaits. As their doctor, it's my job to tell them what to do. But, more often that not, the next time I see them - still just as obese - I listen to, "I just don't know what to do". Obesity is primarily a problem of the developed world, of the affluent classes. I do not say the problem lies with a lack of intelligence or information. That clearly isn't the case, most are extremely capable of assimilating the information we provide and acting on it. The problem is, they're careless and indifferent. Having foresight is what doctors are paid for,  but we cannot force it upon our patients; we can advocate, support, counsel and fight for our beliefs, but we cannot force them.

The age when patients religiously adhered to their physician's advice are long gone. The internet has disseminated information, both factual & fictional, in a way none of us anticipated. It is every patient's right to gather information about their health concerns and question their physicians about the same. It keeps us doctors on our toes. But, when your interpretation of the statistics does not match with ours, we urge you to trust our judgement. A figure of 1% risk seems trivial, until you become the statistic itself. I will not debate the prominence of environmental versus genetic factors in the surge of obesity, they both have an important role to play. Understanding the problem isn't enough, we need to acknowledge the magnitude of change required to overcome it and go about our business doing just that! Don't tell me that you don't know what to do. Such ignorance cannot be tolerated, your life depends on it.

Evolution doesn't ensure the survival of every being. 'Survival of the fittest' - As a high school student, I was perplexed with the choice of word - fittest. Darwin explained that survival isn't guaranteed to the largest, the strongest or fastest, but the one that is best suited to the present circumstances. He who adapts best, survives longest. The grandiose, seemingly indestructible dinosaurs were wiped out after the meteor hit because their large, inefficient, hungry bodies couldn't adapt to the scarcity of food that followed. Those that did survive, were the unlikeliest of creatures - mammals, which until then were a small, insignificant part of the ecosystem. And they rewrote the history of this little planet. Just as the dinosaurs, we're at the precipice of an enormous environmental change, that of relative abundance. Those that fail to change, fall prey to evolution ensuring only the fittest survive, in a literal sense. We need to stop dragging our feet because failing to adapt, means adding another chapter to the history textbooks. Except we don't need meteors anymore, when we've got McDonald's.

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  1. what i dont get here is why discuss obesity as an issue.. do u mean body weight that brings along in some cases,body image problems (psychologically ) and the medical problems that come with it. if so then those need to be addressed sensitively for the former and aggressively for the latter. If its just about addressing our perceptions and perspective on fat bodies then well look at tribes and races that consider big as beautiful. Survival of the fittest bit is interesting but as in dance we say, ' being slim and thin with abs doesnt not mean that the person is fit (darwin) emotionally or at a body level. ' these are just some thoughts on this.. so what exactly is the point here.. fat or fit??

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  3. Obesity is an issue, It is one of central importance and will be for this entire century. And looking at health holistically, consider the spectrum of problems that obesity brings with it, physical & psychological.
    In my short practice, I've found that it is extremely difficult to make a patient acknowledge the grim future and be motivated enough to change. I highlighted the forms of denial a lot of these patients are in, blaming themselves, society at large & sometimes, the doctors themselves. I know patients who actively change doctors when they begin to question their lifestyle choices persistently.
    Tribes & races that find "big is beautiful" aren't on the extreme end of the scale. But yes, those "big" people face the same issues as their urban counterparts, in a milder form.

    I'm enamored by evolution, and I found it it interesting to see how it plays out when I study the principles involved in the obesity pandemic. And I need people who read this to know, there's help available. There're doctors, dietitians, counselors & therapists at their disposal irrespective of how "unique" they think their problem is. There's a deeper and longer discussion about the role of society in isolating people who they do not consider "beautiful". That's fact. There needs to be more compassion and understanding. But, when a parent or friend actively defends someone for over-eating their way into the grave, it's being taken too far.

    Trying to simplify & explain the "perception of fat" and the problems involved in overcoming it, I hope to showcase the many similarities between people & how they can come out of this together. There's a choice at every step of the way & I hope they make the right ones.