New Zealand is on its way to deporting a chef who has lived in the country for seven years. Why? Because he’s fat.
Albert Buitenhuis and his wife’s applications to renew their annual work visas have been denied. New Zealand’s excuse is that he will be a drain on its health system. ”It is important that all migrants have an acceptable standard of health to minimize costs and demands on New Zealand’s health services,” the country’s immigration minister said. It seems the country equates health with skinniness.
Here in the U.S., discriminating based on weight is encouraged by our political leaders for the same reasons New Zealand cites. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers an obesity cost calculator to impress upon employers the belief that hiring and providing medical insurance for an obese job applicant will cost them more than hiring someone slimmer. There are 72 million obese Americans — that is a lot of people to push out of the workforce and into poverty.
This discrimination is not backed up by science. The trope that fat causes disease, or even is one itself, is a tired stereotype so deeply embedded in our culture that it serves as the premise of an article in The New York Times without comment or caveat (“Exercise promotes health [by] reducing most people’s risks of…growing obese”).
The truth is that fat people are not necessarily unhealthy.
The same CDC that pushes employers not to hire obese workers “found no evidence that being overweight or moderately obese as an adult increases the risk of death.” Rather, it “found quite the opposite,” Newsweek reports. The CDC’s paper concluded that not only was there no correlation between overweight and “excess mortality,” but that there was a correlation between overweight and “slightly reduced mortality.” Fat people were less likely to die than people of so-called “normal” weight. Moderately obese people didn’t fare quite as well, but they did no worse than underweight people.
Another stereotype-busting nugget: after general surgery, overweight and moderately obese patients survived more often and recovered faster than those with normal weight. Their mortality rates were 15% lower (for overweight) and 27% lower (for moderately obese) than normal-weight patients.
The best part is the theory of one of the CDC paper’s co-authors that moderately obese and overweight patients did so well “because they are less nutritionally depleted.” In other words, they may be better nourished than slimmer people. Maybe they aren’t eating just junk food.
Actions like New Zealand’s work-visa rejection and the CDC’s obesity cost calculator may be worse for our health than fat is. Stigmatizing and condemning people for being overweight, while scaring the crap out of them about dire health risks, drives them to diet. Most dieters who lose weight gain it back, and many get caught in the loss-gain-loss-gain cycle of yo-yo dieting. This “weight cycling” is worse for people’s health than staying at one stable, “fat” weight.
The two countries’ attempts to deprive fat people of medical insurance echo HMOs’ long-held refusal to cover conditions a new member already knows she has. Excluding pre-existing conditions from coverage (which Obamacare now blocks insurance companies from doing) leaves sick people to foot the bill for the diseases they have. Protecting health insurance schemes, whether national or privatized, from having to insure fat people is a similar attempt to promote profit at the expense of people’s health — though on top of being evil it is misguided, since fat people don’t necessarily cost more to insure than thin ones.
What New Zealand is doing to Buitenhuis parallels an even more repellent HMO practice: quietly canceling members’ coverage when they do become sick, as documented in Michael Moore’s film “Sicko.” Once NZ officials realized that Buitenhuis was fat, they effectively cut him from their insurance rolls. Perhaps they should have given him a discount instead based on the studies showing that he may be healthier than New Zealanders of normal weight.
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