Will teens be the rebels who free you from the shackles of fat phobia forever this year? Sammy Pepys, one of my favourite nutrition bloggers, believes so. Pepys is author of the fabulous Fat is our Friend. He styles himself the ‘reluctant’ nutritionist. He has fat phobia firmly in his sights. You should have it in your sights too. – Marika Sboros

By Sammy Pepys

I’m an optimist. I’ve contributed to debates on food and health for a few years now with one core piece of communication. We won’t begin to fix the Western malaise of increasing obesity and related chronic diseases unless we first lose our fear of fat.

Change is starting but it’s running at a snail-like pace. As well, institutional indoctrination has been too effective. Take the 90% of UK citizens who choose low-fat or skimmed milk over the regular “from-the-cow” variety daily. Is it because it tastes better?

I doubt that. In most UK minds, low-fat equates to “it’s somehow better for me”.

Experts continually reinforce the status quo. Even the reporting of research results is heavily biased. Consider a paper in Lancet Obesity by US Bariatric Medical Institute Prof Yoni Freedhoff and metabolism researcher Dr Kevin Hall. They suggested that we should “stop wasting money on ‘diet wars’ and get overweight people to stick to diets for the long term”.

The Daily Mail effectively anchored this establishment viewpoint with the headline: Why fad diets do nothing.

A more positive response came from New Zealand nutrition academic Prof Grant Schofield on his blog. His comments make much more sense of the facts. However, mainstream journalists who have no time to examine the facts reinforce the convictions of millions of readers.

Sadly, therefore, most people will never see Schofield’s better informed yet controversial point of view.

Allow me a flight of fantasy. Imagine Freedhof as a giant boxer entering the ring in the Red Corner representing the establishment. An ardent calorie-counter promoting exercise as a weight-loss strategy, he refuses to accept that cutting back on processed carbs most likely leads to weight loss. Or that it leads to improved blood lipids, reduced insulin sensitivity and keeps you from feeling hungry.

Conventional wisdom is on his side.

Opposing him in the Blue Corner stand several diminutive men and women –the many voices from the active Twittersphere. This distinguished range of mini-boxers includes the charismatic consultant UK cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra. He is standing beside the equally compelling Schofield and South African scientist Prof Tim Noakes.

US author of The Big Fat Surprise, Nina Teicholz is there. UK obesity researcher Dr Zoë Harcombe’s got her gloves up. There are others too. However, with their size and reach, they can but scratch at the ankles of the giant fat-phobic heavyweight in the opposing corner.

Those of us belonging to the low-carb, higher-fat movement advocating real food must accept that inequality. Mainstream opinion is still heavily weighted against us.

What do readers say? Let’s look at the way the UK mainstream media reported one recent weight-loss story and how the public has reacted.

In September 2016, the Guardian informed us that the Obesity gene is no barrier to weight-loss. The Daily Telegraph featured a more paternalistic headline: No excuses not to slim as ‘fat gene’ found not to affect ability to lose weight. The Daily Mail featured an even more judgemental title. It read: You can’t blame your DNA for piling on the pounds, scientists reveal.

Sometimes, you learn more from reader comments than the articles themselves. In this case, the “most liked” Daily Mail reader response came from AcousticGString, based in the US: “I’m sick of the ‘obesity runs in my family’ excuse… the real problem is, no one runs in your family.”

So AcousticGString believes that fat people are simply lazy and should start exercising. That’s a commonly held viewpoint. It runs counter to research supporting Malhotra and Noakes’ catchy phrase that “you cannot outrun a bad diet”.



At the time of writing though, 55 people e-ticked the associated like box.

Do the more liberally minded Guardian readers show a different state of affairs? Well, no. Again, at the time of writing, topping their comments list with 93 “likes” is the sarcastic voice of Trumbledon: “Well… duh. The idea that fat people violated the laws of thermodynamics was always pretty fanciful, if I’m honest.”

Second highest with 91 “likes” comes a comment from Allom8: “In the end, a calorie is a calorie. If you’re running an energy deficit, it must come from somewhere. If that’s not the case, you are breaking the laws of thermodynamics. It really is that simple”

Well, put that in your pipe and smoke it! Except, of course, it’s not that simple.

Whenever a group of people embarks on a controlled, calorie-restricted weight loss programme, such as WeightWatchers, individual weight loss will vary by many kilos. Is Allom8 forgetting the role our metabolic rate plays, along with hormonal influences and how hungry we feel etc?

But I digress. The establishment and a large proportion of the public seem to agree that if you’re fat, it’s your fault. You eat too much and you don’t move enough.



Yet in my own circles, I regularly read of success stories with #Banting or #LCHF. I note people agreeing that saturated fats are good for you; that the French Paradox is no paradox and represents the starting point for a heart attack-free life; that counting calories and even labelling foods with calorific content is a waste of time; that inflammation markers are much more important than total cholesterol levels etc. etc.

That may help my personal conviction and morale. However, I must remember that the insistent, convincing voices to which I listen are on the fringes of the food and health movement. They are collectively biting at the ankles of our giant opponents.

Sadly, most Daily Mail readers such as Happy Housewife of Stockport think differently: “I think there is the Fat gene and Slim gene. But if like me you are cursed with the fat gene then you just have to work out harder and more frequently than everyone else. Life’s not fair.”

If only Happy Housewife had the support of a community which endorsed fresh foodstuffs and helped reduce the amount of refined carbs she eats.

So, how to promote real change?

There are opportunities to create genuine headway. One approach is, of course, to find ways of making LCHF/JERF (just-eat-real-food) profitable for Big Food. Another, more subtle approach is to use teenage rebellion as an anchor point for change.

In this context, The Times featured an interesting article earlier in September 2016. It was headlined: Make healthy eating an act of rebellion for teenagers.

Marketers know that you can’t simply tell teenagers what to do… unless you want them to do precisely the opposite. Christopher Bryan at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and David Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin explain how they went about their study:

“We cast the executives behind food marketing as controlling adult authority figures and framed the avoidance of junk food as a way to rebel against their control.”

Next day, when researchers asked students to choose from a selection of snacks, an interesting pattern emerged. Those who had read the exposé article chose fewer junk food items. They were 11 percentage points more likely to forgo at least one unhealthy snack, such as Oreos, Cheetos or Doritos, in favour of fruit, baby carrots or trail mix. They were seven percentage points more likely to choose water over Coca-Cola, Sprite or Hi-C.

Small differences, but what would happen if teens maintained such an approach over a full school year? The researchers now plan to test whether they can change the way students see junk-food ads long term. Consequently, each new soft drinks commercial could effectively act as a booster shot of indignation, rather than temptation.

As I said, when it comes to promoting change I’m an optimist but also hopefully a realist about fat phobia. Here, I borrow Tim Spector’s words from his book, Identically Different: Why you can change your genes. He says: “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

Whether you prefer the boxing ring analogy, see yourself at the bottom of a large mountain, or simply want to readjust the sails, it is vital to admit to the immensity of the task ahead.

But that’s no reason for pessimism or inactivity when it comes to fighting fat phobia.

I believe the teenager-oriented approach could successfully promote a change to family eating and drinking patterns. So why don’t we approach those thinking, questioning teenagers out there and begin to sow the seeds of “manipulation”? That would allow them to see how exploited they are today. It will contribute to fighting fat phobia.

The question is, where do we begin?




  1. Nice article. A few clarifications, though. Yoni Freedhoff does not promote exercise to lose weight. In fact, he often writes “you can’t outrun your fork”. And while he does defend the status quo eating advice, he believes a key to weight loss is sticking to a diet that a person will follow and enjoy. So if that’s LCHF, that’s fine. Though he’d probably have a fit over saturated fats, and push omega 6 oils as healthy. He mocks “magical foods”, so he doesn’t seem to think that diet composition matters, just CICO.

  2. Nice idea! I think things are going in both directions at once, the more people start improving their health largely by eating the exact opposite of what they are told, the more dieticians and other clueless unscientific people try harder to close them down. And when doctors and dieticians themselves start coming on board the gloves come off.

    Maybe the young could also learn from their grandparents what they used to eat and cut out the parents’ generation’s low fat dogma.

  3. Well said, Sammy. There’s much to do, but we’ve made more than a start. The tide is flowing in our direction and no amount of dietician Canutes will change that.

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