Commentary by Jonah Bloom

Obesity Epidemic Growing Fat on Disinformation

Diet Industry Drives Some Sloppy Science in America

By Published on .

I am overweight. Not according to my doctor, my mirror or the waistband on my pants. No, I made this discovery on the National Institutes of Health's Web site when I entered my height and weight into the Body Mass Index calculator and clicked "Compute."
Jonah Bloom, executive editor of Advertising Age.
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Mildly surprised by my new status as an obesity statistic, I asked a handful of athletic friends to take the test. They found they too were "overweight." Ken, an alarmingly fit colleague currently racing his way through karate belts, even veered into the "obese" category. (Peyton Manning is also "overweight," making his record-breaking feats that much more impressive.)

A key measurement
OK, BMI is just a guideline. But it's the key measurement used by the CDC and NIH to determine the number of fat people in the U.S. -- a number used by the government, and seized on by the media, to illustrate the severity of the "obesity epidemic."

I don't pretend to know whether there is such an epidemic -- heck, I didn't even know I was fat until yesterday and there sure are some large-boned folks around. But I do know there are a lot of scientists, who have little to gain by dismissing the "epidemic," who are worried the facts don't match the furor.

'Harmful myth'
Dr. Jeffrey Friedman, discoverer of the gene for Leptin, objected to the "harmful myth" of the epidemic in The New York Times. He says the obesity debate is "rife with misinformation and disinformation," and points to a study from the National Center for Health Statistics that suggests that only the massively obese have got significantly heavier than they were in 1991.

Experts also worry about the CDC's assumed link between obesity and death. As

The Body Mass Index (BMI) is the key measurement used by the CDC and NIH to determine the number of fat people in the U.S.
the Harvard Health Policy Review put it: "The problem with this 'obesity kills' statistic is the lack of compelling evidence to substantiate it."

Of course, in some ways it doesn't matter whether this is an epidemic. Common sense tells us a certain level of obesity isn't healthy, and we all know someone who should shed a few pounds. But concerns over the validity of the data ought, at least, to temper the media, much of which has taken an uncritical, sensationalist approach to this "epidemic."

Personal responsibility
Reports have tended to eschew the complexities of this argument -- such as the woes of a society in which people take no personal responsibility -- and instead blame food companies. This despite the fact we don't know why people might have become fatter.

Common sense says it's too much food, the wrong food and too little exercise. But which is the biggest contributor? The wealth of data suggesting lifestyles have changed more than caloric intake point toward exercise as the key. And there are other factors. For example, a huge proportion of the fat people who die every year have lower incomes. Many of them have no health insurance. Is it the weight, or the lack of health care that kills them?

The food giants
I don't trust big business and I don't like processed food. But let's keep some perspective. The food giants don't sell addictive poison, they sell sugary cookies. They also, incidentally, sell a more nutritious range of products than they did 10 years ago -- often at stupidly slim margins.

Should they act responsibly? Yes. But so should the government and media, and that means giving people the full story and letting them make their own choices, rather than pushing sloppy science, cultural bias and oversimplified solutions.

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