The Conflation of Poor and Fat

You’ve heard it around. It makes it onto the various fat feeds from time-to-time. It even regularly pops up on Progressive blogs that are otherwise less judgmental of people of size. That is, some version of:

“Poor people are fatter on average because they have less access to the ‘right’ foods and less ability/time to do the ‘right’ exercise.”

I won’t go into the much-pitched and varied solutions to the statement above; rather, I want to talk about the statement above as a statement of fact. Because I’ve rarely been in a space, even a fat-positive space, where the statement above isn’t taken as a statement of fact.

But really, isn’t this just another example of correlation = causation?

That is, where is the proof that if the average poor fat family eats the same foods and does the same exercise as the average middle-class, average-weight family, they will become average-weight?

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

That’s what I fucking thought.

I’m tired of the “Poor fats are fat because of their bad habits!” whether or not their habits are apologized for afterwards as being not their fault (the case in Progressive blogs, not so much in conservative spaces). It’s condescending, elitist, and makes me fucking furious. Unless you can back up your claims please cut that shit out. The vast majority of people are fat because they’re programmed to be fat, with some variation in a narrow range (like 30 lbs). (see my Truth About Fat: References)

Also, the perpetuation of the “Poor fats are fat because of diet/exercise” trope silences actual useful research as to why poorer people in “First World Countries” (I hate that fucking phrase) are fatter on average than their richer counterparts. That is, I believe discrimination, racism, and expectations play a much larger role than we think, and that understanding those factors as they contribute to the “poor fat problem” would be enlightening,  interesting, and possibly useful, unlike the tired, recycled, useless “The poor need to be educated to move more and eat better!” bullshit.

What do you think?

9 comments on “The Conflation of Poor and Fat

  1. This is really fast cause I’m at work, but you should totally read Robert Sapolsky, Why Don’t Zebras Get Ulcers. Or any of his stuff. He studies how gluccocorticoids (stress hormones) effect us and he says that the number one thing we can do for ourselves is to not be born poor. I’d guess the poor tend to be heavier, I don’t know, cause they have incredibly stressful lives? Pretty much when I first discovered RS, it was DING DING DING, holy %^&# everything supposedly caused by obesity is probably stress.

    • bigliberty says:

      See, this is exactly the kind of interesting, alternative hypothesis that I rarely see talked about whenever the discussion of “poor fat people” comes up. Thanks for the recommendations!

  2. Phototart says:

    I think, when you can buy a pizza, or burgers and fries or a pint of ice cream for less than it costs to buy a head of broccoli, a cauliflower, fresh tomatoes or a packet of chicken breasts, poor people are going to opt for the cheaper foodstuffs, which just happens to be high in fat, salt and sugar.

    It’s not necessarily about ignorance so much as it is about what people can afford. Poor people can’t afford to buy fresh fruit and vegetables because they’re expensive. When they’re deciding how to feed their family, cost is paramount, above all else. When fruit and vegetables are cheaper than a Happy Meal, maybe then people will choose to buy them.

    • bigliberty says:

      I understand the reasoning made on blogs and articles which bring up the statement-as-fact of poorer people being fatter because they can’t/don’t/won’t eat the ‘right’ foods and so on. But there are problems with this reasoning, some which I addressed in my post. Namely, the lack of evidence that:

      1) Poor fat families will, when eating the diet of the average middle-income non-fat family, become non-fat or significantly thinner
      2) Poor fat families eat more calories, fats, and sugars than the average middle-income non-fat family (that is, even if the composition of the foodstuffs is different, where is the evidence that they’re eating MORE calories rather than LESS nutrients? Do poorer people not get full like middle-income people, or something? In fact, I think there’s evidence that poorer people eat less calories, in general, though I’ll need someone to help me dig that study up…it was fairly recent, in the past two years or so).

      We can hypothesize all we want about what people are eating and what effect it has on them, but it still doesn’t prove that:

      1) They’re fat because of the ‘wrong’ diet and exercise
      2) We can make fat people permanently thin (or significantly thinner), whether they’re poor, middle-income, or rich.

      I just don’t see how it’s any different from the food elitism of the middle class, who believe they can diet their way permanently thin(ner) (diet meaning low-carb/low-fat/paleo/organic/whatever). They’re just extending that elitism to the poorer classes, and saying, “Well hey, since I’m eating fruits/veggies/whole grains/whatever and walking three miles a day and I’m barely losing weight, those poorer people that don’t have access to the food I eat or time to exercise the way I do must be fat because of that.”

  3. librarychair says:

    Apologies in advance for all the scare quotes. This pisses me off.

    I disagree with the “poor people are fat because of abc” approach. Assuming there is a correlation between fatness and lack of monetary resources on a population level, It’d be more accurate to say something like…

    Fat people are poor because people in power make unfounded, stereotype-driven and often unconscious assumptions about whether they can be trusted/deserve to have high paying jobs. If your boss doesn’t consider you for a promotion because they consider you to act lazy and slovenly regardless of your actual performance, or if no “high-class” establishment will hire you because your appearance is inherently “unprofessional”, or if you don’t qualify to sign up for a completely voluntary experience of discrimination against your person based on health qualifiers so that you can have lower insurance premiums, YOU MIGHT END UP POOR SOMEHOW.


    • bigliberty says:

      I love this comment, and agree wholeheartedly.

      I think the “poor people are fat because of abc” mentality is so popular because most people want to believe that

      1) they live in a perfect merit system with no discrimination (hence they absolutely ‘earned’ their position)
      2) body size is largely controllable (hence they ‘earned’ their relative thinness)

  4. The poor fat argument has always bothered me. Like you said- there aren’t any really good studies on the actual differences. Do poor people have less access to healthy foods? Absoluely- but like you said, the wiggle room isn’t that much so that wouldn’t *really* account for the differences. My theory is that it’s a complicated multi faceted combination of things like discrimination in the health care system (for example, I don’t have insurance so I can’t get treatment for my hypothyroidism- even if I could pay out of pocket I can’t afford to get saddled with another pre existing condition), job discrimination, depression and anxiety (both in the sense that depression and anxiety cause weight gain in and of themselves and that depression and anxiety may limit education and job opportunities) and who knows what else. At this point it’s pretty much just all theories because no one’s willing to actually look into it beyond the “poor people eat bad food” theory.

  5. Yes! Thank you! Truly,. thank you! I have been saying this since forever but getting heard is about as effective as spitting in the ocean.

    I touched upon this in “Why I’m Against Food Access for the Poor” on my own blog, and I wanted to write more about it at some point in the future. Anyway, I agree with the above posters that the stress of poverty and discrimination is the primary cause of this “problem.”

    I put problem in quotes because, if fat is not unhealthy, then why are people talking about poor fat people as though they need to be fixed? That is the fundamental contradiction I am seeing here.

    Also, if fat and health are influenced primarily by genetics, then why focus so much on lifestyle when, by our own admission, its impact is negligible?

  6. Hear hear!

    I try to point out that one cannot expect EVERYONE to adopt the same “healthy” habits as someone is touting because not everyone is able to. It’s hard because people often perceive that as “poor = unhealthy/fat” but that’s not the point I try to make. What it really means to me is that everyone has their own set of circumstances, their own environment, their own influencing factors that shape their personal (and “personal” is the important word) choices around food and activity.

    Beyond that, it’s nobody’s business!

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