Money as an analogy for fat

Today I overheard a conversation in a restaurant.

Well, parts of a conversation, anyway. Among the snippets, I heard a man say, “Women* who have trouble managing money often have trouble managing their weight.”

My boyfriend’s comment (making fun of the above): “Yeah, that’s why poor people are fat.”

When I got up to leave the restaurant, I saw three middle-aged people at that table, a man and two women. All appeared to have a BMI on the low end of the “normal” range. They were probably well-off, based on both their appearance and the restaurant they were eating in.

It’s possible that any or all of them were maintaining a large weight loss and were familiar with managing money with a low income. It’s also possible that they had no experience with either of these things and were congratulating themselves for their insight into the little people’s lives.

The statement I overheard reflects an assumption that people eat based on external rules and calorie-counting rather than internal cues. If you are maintaining a significant weight loss or are genetically predisposed to be fat but want to be slim, then that is probably what will be necessary to succeed. It’s also the opposite of Health At Every Size, which, in people of similar weights, results in improved health indicators. And I don’t think it’s the way most people eat, fat or thin. But if you believe that most people eat by keeping track of the amount of calories they’ve eaten throughout the day, it makes some sense that you think that most fat people are fat because they failed to make sure that they didn’t “spend” more calories than were in their “budget”–either because they didn’t keep track, or because they rationalized that they could make it up later. “Overweight” women as shopaholics.

But this snippet of conversation also reminded me of an analogy that’s been in my head for a while.

When people say that weight is the result of the balance between calories in and calories out, it’s true as far as it goes. It’s also devoid of useful information. The calories in part is relatively easy to determine. (Relatively. Even commercially packaged food can have inaccurate calorie counts.)

When you get to the calories out bit, though, all bets are off. Some people need fewer calories to maintain their weight than they “should”. Changing the calories-in part can change the calories-out part. Your body will try to maintain its current weight (although it seems to fight harder to keep it from going down than to keep it from going up). It will try a lot harder the further you get from your normal weight range. As you change weights, the caloric requirements of your body also change. And if you’re maintaining a weight loss, your body will require fewer calories to maintain its weight than someone with the same weight who is not maintaining a weight loss.

And of course, all of the above is without even going into social or environmental factors like food deserts or walkability of neighborhoods or schools short on cash cutting out recess and gym. All those factors that are the actual reason poor people have higher average BMIs (sarcastic comments from my boyfriend aside).

So assuming that someone of a higher weight is eating much more than you or exercising less than you, let alone that they’re taking poorer care of their health, is a little like assuming that if a person is poorer than you, they must be managing their money more carelessly, when the fact is that you don’t know what their income is, what their expenses are, and how much power they have to change either one. But it’s simple math! Money in minus money out! If you just save more than you spend you will have money! All true, all obvious, all utterly useless for actually helping people.

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