Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention repeatedly find the lowest mortality rates among people whose body mass index puts them in the “overweight” and “mildly obese” categories. And recent research suggests that losing weight doesn’t actually improve health biomarkers such as blood pressure, fasting glucose, or triglyceride levels for most people.
So why, then, are we so deeply invested in treatments that not only fail to do what they’re supposed to—make people thinner and healthier—but often actively makes people fatter, sicker, and more miserable?
Weight inched its way into the American consciousness around the turn of the 20thcentury. “I would sooner die than be fat,” declared Amelia Summerville, author of the 1916 volume Why Be Fat? Rules for Weight-Reduction and the Preservation of Youth and Health. (She also wrote, with a giddy glee that likely derived from malnutrition, “I possibly eat more lettuce and pineapple than any other woman on earth!”) As scales became more accurate and affordable, doctors began routinely recording patients’ height and weight at every visit. Weight-loss drugs hit the mainstream in the 1920s, when doctors started prescribing thyroid medications to healthy people to make them slimmer. In the 1930s, 2,4-dinitrophenol came along, sold as DNP, followed by amphetamines, diuretics, laxatives, and diet pills like fen-phen, all of which caused side effects ranging from the annoying to the fatal.