Monday, April 26, 2004

Is Obesity an Overhyped Threat?

This Guardian story provides much food for thought, and the criticisms it has to make are actually rather convincing in parts, but the sheer breathlessness of the reporting, and the ease with which misconceptions about the effects of obesity are attributed to an Evil Corporate Conspiracy™, make me hesitant to buy into the thrust of this story just yet.

Sure, BMI is a hopelessly crude way of measuring obesity that fails to distinguish between muscle and fat, as anyone who's ever engaged in weightlifting would already be well aware, and it makes plenty of sense that the mere fact of carrying extra body-fat isn't likely to be dangerous in itself, since fat isn't some sort of poison that must slowly kill off those who have plenty of it in their adipose tissue. The emphasis on sheer weight-loss as opposed to increased physical activity is also clearly wrong-headed; for example, liposuction in of itself does nothing to improve the health of those who undergo it if unaccompanied by changes in behavior. This article is right to stress all of these points, but it also strikes me as disingenuous to some extent to pretend that carrying around lots of excess body fat won't prove an extra disincentive to a more active lifestyle, while even a marginal increase in physical activity, if sustained over the long term, will likely lead to a great deal of weight loss in those who undergo the behavioral transition. As such, there's something seriously out of whack about speaking of a "fat con" as if obesity and activity levels could so easily be disassociated.

I may turn out to be wrong, but I suspect that this is one of those supposed shockers that will wither into nothingness under the sustained scrutiny of experts.* In the meantime, it will be received extremely favorably by a lot of people who would like to deceive themselves that their ballooning waistlines are of no consequence for their health.

POSTSCRIPT: After carefully rereading the article, I noticed that the piece is actually an excerpt from a book called "The Obesity Myth" that's about to be published in the USA. That is the explanation for the paranoid and accusatory tone; like a Naomi Klein of the weight-loss industry, the author is in intent on selling lots of books by getting us all to think that we've all been had by a gigantic swindle being dished out to us to force us to consume things we don't "really" need.

*In fact, though I'm hardly an expert on the issue of obesity, I can already see one glaring error in the reasoning employed in the article; that deaths from heart disease have been "plunging" even while obesity rates have continued their rise does not in itself disprove the notion that increased obesity is linked to higher levels of heart disease, as it is possible (and as an empirical matter, I'd say almost certain) that what is going on is that the rate at which medical treatment of cardiac problems has been advancing has simply outpaced the rate at which self-indulgent lifestyles have been pushing Americans to the brink of coronaries.