When you think of someone who is a dancer, what body type do you picture? This?
I think that’s the first impression most of us have – the classic stick-thin, waif-ish ballerina whose bones you fear will break if you look at her the wrong way. As a former ballerina, I used to look at pictures like this and wish upon a star I could look the same way. But would you ever picture this image instead?
This is Whitney Way Thore, YouTube sensation turned reality TV star in TLC’s My Big Fat Fabulous Life. She’s a dancer, she just ran a 5K in the latest episode, and she weighs 380 pounds on a 5’2” frame. Diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), Whitney unexplainably gained 100 pounds her freshman year of college. She continued to gain weight as her college career continued due to depression and feelings of defeat. But after she posted a YouTube video called “A Fat Girl Dancing”, she became an overnight celebrity with millions of fans, a “No Body Shame” campaign, and an opportunity to share her story with the world on TV. Even though her Body Mass Index (BMI) puts her in the category of class III obesity, Whitney asserts she’s never had high cholesterol or high blood pressure. She highlights her battle with a pre-diabetes diagnosis on her show, but has yet to cross that line into type II diabetes territory. I can see the wheels turning in your head right now: How can Whitney be pretty healthy from a medical standpoint while weighing nearly 400 pounds?
Here’s how: there is absolutely such a thing as being both “fat” AND “fit”. In fact, this has been researched quite a bit. A 2014 study published in the European Heart Journal found that overweight and obese individuals did not have a greater risk of developing or dying from heart disease and cancer – IF they were metabolically fit despite their excess weight (source). According to researchers, “metabolic fitness” meant that participants didn’t have any of the following health conditions: insulin resistance, diabetes, low HDL cholesterol (the good kind), high triglycerides, or high blood pressure. Of the 43,265 participants surveyed over the course of the study, over half of them qualified as metabolically fit. Within the obese category, those who were metabolically fit had a 38% lower risk of early death from any cause. They had no greater risk of mortality than healthy participants of normal weight. The study even found that it’s possible to be thin and metabolically UNHEALTHY, leading to greater health risk. Bottom line: you can be obese and still be healthy. It’s all about how you approach it.
Just as Whitney demonstrates every time she dances or works out at the gym, obesity is not a death sentence. People gain weight for myriad reasons, some of them explainable, some of them not. And despite what we see on The Biggest Loser, it’s not easy for regular people to lose 50 pounds in a week. As a society, we body shame those who are overweight because we come to the snap judgment that the weight gain was entirely their “fault”. Sometimes it’s not. What we can’t see on the outside is the metabolic fitness on the inside. And according to research, this is what matters most.
The other reason I admire Whitney and support her cause is the way she champions Registered Dietitians on her show. She goes to see a dietitian regularly, actually calls her a “dietitian” and not a “nutritionist”, and can’t sing her praises enough. I think it’s so important to form that connection between people like Whitney and RDs, because it shows the world what good we can do. We are not dietitians to judge you based on weight, lifestyle, habits, etc. We are dietitians to help you achieve the goals you set. Plain and simple.
To wrap up this post, I have a small request to make. Next time you see someone you would consider “fat”, banish the thought that he/she is also “unhealthy”. Because I guarantee you wouldn’t have that thought about someone who is thin. Trust the research, not the stereotypes.