Monday, 29 October 2007

Big fat scare

We're said to be in the midst of an obesity epidemic so unstoppable we're all going to get horrible fat-related diseases and die prematurely.

Except that an American health expert says it's all a pack of lies, actually there's no epidemic and we can all relax and give up the frantic dieting.

Professor Patrick Basham of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore says there's no evidence that overweight and obesity are significantly increasing. He says that in 1997 the definition of overweight was changed and millions more people were suddenly classed as overweight - although their weight hadn't altered.

In fact the average adult weighs only a pound or two more than a generation ago, and some surveys suggest child obesity is actually declining.

Nor is it true, he says, that being overweight or modestly obese leads to premature death. The increased risk is tiny, as is the number of early deaths.

He claims statistics have been distorted and misread to imply that body-weight has become a widespread problem.

In particular, there's a false assumption that overweight children become overweight adults and overweight adults become obese. But this is not necessarily so.

Furthermore, he says the new obsession with dieting and weight monitoring to control this so-called problem itself leads to serious health risks, eating disorders and body-image hang-ups.

Instead of a campaign against obesity, what we really need is a campaign against thinness and pointless dieting.

His opinions are an astonishing contradiction of the conventional wisdom that assails us from all sides. Can he be right? I hope so. Then we can all calm down and leave our bodies alone.

Size two-zero, anyone?

PS (November 8): Medical researchers in the USA have concluded that a bit of fat actually does you good. Slight overweight in fact makes you 40% less likely then normal weight people to die of a whole range of diseases and risks including cancer, heart disease, emphysema, pneumonia and Alzheimers. In 2004 in the USA there were 100,000 fewer deaths among the overweight than if they had been of normal weight. The researchers were from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia.


  1. The only thing that makes sense at the end of the day is a varied balanced diet - I really believe this should be taught in schools - no extremes are good in either direction.

    I definitley see a lot more obese people around these days though - I'd be very surpirised if this expert is correct.

  2. Yes, I've always followed the principle of a varied, balanced diet and not paid much attention to the experts. What's intriguing is that as a kid I ate industrial amounts of all the things now considered harmful - sugar, salt, fat - and it doesn't seem to have done any damage. Explain that....

  3. The media loves talking about epidemics and hitting people over the heads with simplistic talking points that badger them about food. The rise of eating disorders over the last 30 years proves that plenty of people have complicated relationships about food. It would help if magazines stopped declaring everyone to be too fat or too thin.

  4. Absolutely, Medbh, there are so many 'epidemics', 'timebombs' and 'tipping points' I regard them all with a wary scepticism. And yes, apart from the obviously dangerous extremes, who is to say someone is too fat or thin? As long as you feel healthy, what's the problem?

  5. Have you heard of the song by Lazyboy, tittled "Underpants go on the inside"? It's a great song I think, no real musical value at all just some very striking lyrics. One of the things mentioned is obesity being called an epidemic... You have to listen to it.
    I agree with Medbh on the media being an ass about it all.
    Nutrition is simply eating more natural foods and a huge variety, as simple as that. In addition,
    I personally think there are more important issues like environmental issues, overpopulation, diminishing resources, disappearing plant and animal species, inquality, injustice, lack of respect for human rights, sexism, racism, than dieting, fashion and controlling as well as defining what's healthy and equally emphasized by media sexiness, etc.
    Afterall, if all the more important issues aren't solved we won't live long enough to worry about obesity-related diseases.....
    In my opinion dieting should be environmentally conscious shopping and nutrition (eating less meat, less processed foods etc) as well as wearing clothes to support environmentally friendly industries and discourage child-labour and slave workshops. I find the American hype over everything, and then the same hype spreading around the world like a true "epidemic" a rather stupid practice.
    I can count more than one country where parents take their kids to McDonalds as a reward or a sunday fekking breakfast. Disgusting.

  6. As you say, a lot of more important issues. But bugger the planet, as long as you're thin as a rake and you've got the absolutely up-to-the-minute hair colour, that's the main thing. Well, I do think appearance is important to a degree as you feel more self-confident if you look good, but people who think about their appearance non-stop are mad.

  7. I agree Nick, it is all such a racket. Follow the money is always my mantra when I hear something like this. I read somewhere (tho nowhere mainstream, natch!)that Weight Watchers, owned by Heinz Corp is the greatest cash cow for them as it is based on failure (think about that one!)and they will not produce statistics. Something like 98% failure, is one of the estimates of performance. People will continue to fork over their money to them however, based on subtle, slick (and false) advertising.
    Which still gets us away from the ground rules of eating balanced meals and getting away from the childhood principles of food as reward.

  8. Well I never, I had no idea Weight Watchers was so astonishingly unsuccessful. Their PR is obviously good because all I ever see are impressive stories of Before and After (having lost a huge flab mountain). But of course it's well-known that people who lose weight usually gain it again.

    Good point too about the childhood principle of food as reward. Maybe that explains the longing for 'comfort food' that (supposedly) makes you feel better. And the urge for a slap-up meal when you've achieved something.

  9. I just heard on the BBC that a report has come out connecting obesity to cancer. I'm finding this obsession with obesity all very tiresome.

  10. Yes isn't it? The big question of course is whether obesity causes cancer or whether they're both caused by something else. The cause-effect idea is suspect. Diabetes is said to be caused by obesity, yet in some countries most diabetics are thin. I'm always wary of dogmatic messages.