The Energy Balance: Simple Arithmetic or Differential Calculus?

One thing that makes me crazy as a fat person is people spouting the old energy balance equation at me.  They say, if you’re fat, the reason is simple.  You eat too much and you exercise too little.  They suggest that body mass is a simple equation that looks like this:

food=exercise means stasis

food>exercise means fat

and food<exercise means thin

They suggest that it is “simple arithmetic”.  Seems logical right?  And blessedly simple?  All I have to do is exercise more and eat less and I will be thin, right?  Except in the real world, things are rarely, if ever that simple.  But if you’re thin and enjoy all the societal benefits that come with being thin, like being considered healthy, righteous and disciplined by most of your peers, you want to believe this math don’t you?  Because believing that the benefits you derive are completely under your control and that anyone can have them, allows you to feel the maximum of A) control over your environment and B) self righteousness about your situation.

I think there is some similar math going on out there about the question of wealth.  If you are a wealthy person or even a reasonably well off person, there’s a tendency to believe in an “energy balance” when it comes to money as well.  It looks sort of like this:

spending=hard work means stasis

spending<hard work means rich

spending>hard work means poor

But when we look at these equations, we start to wonder.  What about people who didn’t have parents who saved for them to go to college?  What about people who are born rich?  What about people who face prejudice because they are the “wrong” height or the “wrong” color or they speak the “wrong” language, and find it difficult to find a job?  We all know people who work very, very hard and are really, really not well off at all.  Maybe this whole energy/wealth balance arithmetic has some problems.  Maybe it’s just not that simple.

The real story about energy balance and whether or not we are fat is a lot more complex.  Just take a gander at this amazing chart that documents many of the things that can influence our weight.  There’s so much stuff on this chart, I can’t even see it all on one page.  On my laptop, I have to scroll all around to see it.  And there are new factors that influence body fat being discovered all the time–from fat genes, to fat hormones, to compounds in plastic containers to environmental pollutants to more and more complex drug interactions.  Looking at this chart, one might start to think that whether or not we are fat seems far beyond simple arithmetic.  With all of these factors swirling around, maybe it’s a little more like differential calculus.

As a society we desperately want to believe that being thin is simple.  Because simple problems cost less to solve.  Simple allows us to maintain the illusion of complete control.  And I think we desperately want to cling to the illusion of control because we are mortal beings.  We want to believe that we can control our health because we want to believe that if we follow a few simple rules, we can control whether or not we get sick and when we will die.  We want to believe that if we work hard, we will be rich.  Because it seems almost unbearably unfair that some people will work very hard for their whole lives and not have enough to eat while other people will be born to a large amount of money and will never need to work a day in their lives.  We don’t want to face the fact that some of us who have a lot of money were at least in part, incredibly lucky. And we don’t want to believe that some of us who don’t have much money at all, never will, no matter how hard we work.  And we want to believe that if we just ate a little less and exercised a little more, we would be thin, thin, thin.

The illusion of control and desire for simplification is, in many ways, hard wired into our societal systems.  But we can overcome this programming if we desire it.  We can choose to dial down the self righteousness and dial up the empathy and understanding.  We can choose to resist the urge to oversimplify our privilege in a way that makes us feel better about ourselves.  We can take on the challenge of doing the hard math problems that contain a lot more variables.  And if our situation challenges the “simple arithmetic” view of the world, we can choose not to buy into the rhetoric privileged people use to feel better about themselves.  We can embrace all of life with all of its complexity and richness.  Because true health and happiness rarely boil down to simple arithmetic.

Love,

The Fat Chick

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One thought on “The Energy Balance: Simple Arithmetic or Differential Calculus?

  1. Maggie

    Wow, that chart is amazing! Where’s it from? I’d love to hear it explained…
    You’re so right, of course. If we were machines, the old CICO (calories in, calories out) would work just fine. But we’re not and it don’t!

    Reply

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