FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Is Obesity Overrated?

One of the biggest health-related stories within the past year has been concern over the growing epidemic of obesity in the US. There's no doubt that Americans are getting heavier... but now, a new group of researchers is arguing that the health risks associated with obesity are overstated, and that studies supporting those ideas are erroneous.

These researchers point to new studies that indicate increases in death rates from obesity are statistically insignificant, and argue that underweight people are at greater health risk than their overweight counterparts. They also cite studies disproving any connection between obesity and heart disease, and stress that tables such as the body mass index (BMI), which tells people their "healthy weight" based on their sex and height, are unrealistic and inaccurate measures (bodybuilders, for instance, typically have an "obese" BMI). Such charges are reflected in recent scholarly titles, including The Obesity Myth, by Paul F. Campos (Gotham Books, 2004); The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality and Ideology, by Michael Gard and Jan Wright (Routledge, 2005); and Obesity: The Making of an American Epidemic, by J. Eric Oliver (Oxford University Press, August 2005).

Moreover, these critics allege that much of the anti-obesity research is funded by the diet and pharmaceutical industries. "The war on fat," says author Paul F. Campos, "is really about making some of us rich."

Maybe some of the recent concerns about obesity sound paranoid, but this isn't to say that it's OK to cancel your gym membership and start super-sizing your meal portions. Somewhere, common sense has to intervene and strike a balance between starvation dieting and total neglect of one's body. Plus, much of the arguing on this subject appears to be taking on economic and even political overtones. Just as critics accuse anti-obesity researchers of being in bed with the diet industry, how closely might some of those be allied with the food and restaurant industries, who would very much like us to stop worrying about which foods make us fat?

Obesity is an important topic that requires much more study. This controversy simply marks an opening volley in what will surely be a long and brutal battle.

UPDATE: The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reiterated its position that obesity is indeed harmful. Specifically, the CDC wanted to clarify its position in light of one of its studies that revealed fewer obesity-related deaths than did previous studies. "What we don't want is for this debate to continue to confuse people," said CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding. "Obesity and overweight are critically important health threats in this country. They have many adverse consequences."

Source: Scientific American