Filed Under: Big Fat Lies

An Epidemic Of Obesity Myths

Overblown rhetoric about the “obesity epidemic” has itself reached epidemic proportions. Trial lawyers increasingly see dollar signs where the rest of us see dinner. Activists and bureaucrats are proposing radical “solutions” like zoning restrictions on restaurants and convenience stores, as well as extra taxes and warning labels on certain foods. As a collection of food cops and nutrition zealots gather in Virginia to fan the flames of the “obesity epidemic,” the Center for Consumer Freedom is releasing an extensively documented booklet that exposes the flaws, bias, and outright myths behind this widespread plague of misinformation. Click here to download the booklet.

Our paper tackles the following seven myths driving the current hysteria over excess flab:

Obesity Kills 400,000 Americans a year
You Can’t Be Overweight and Healthy
Obesity Is a Disease
Overeating Is the Primary Cause of Obesity
Soda Causes Childhood Obesity
64 Percent of Americans Are Overweight or Obese
Obesity Costs the US Economy $117 Billion Annually

Chief among these myths is the flawed assertion that obesity causes 400,000 deaths per year in the U.S. This figure is a product of poor assumptions and bad methodology. The recently announced 400,000 tally was derived from a 1999 study that blamed obesity for 300,000 deaths a year. As an article in Harvard Health Policy Review reported in 2003: “The major problem with this ‘obesity kills’ statistic is the lack of compelling evidence to substantiate it.” Here are just a few of the flaws behind the 400,000 study, as outlined in our booklet:

The study uses data from as far back as 1948 and consequently assumes that our ability to treat high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and other illnesses linked to obesity has not improved in a generation. Even the study’s authors admit this is a problem: “When most of the cohort studies used were initiated,” they write, “there were fewer intervention strategies to reduce risk factors associated with obesity and fewer medical therapies for postponing death from obesity-related diseases.” Still, no adjustments were made.

While most of the 400,000 deaths derive from the “obese” (body-mass index 30 or higher), a substantial minority derive from the “overweight” (BMI between 25 to 29.9). Yet the study’s own data show no statistically significant relationship between being overweight and increased risk of death. If the overweight deaths had been excluded — as they undoubtedly should have been — the study would have reported 57,698 fewer deaths, or 17 percent. The failure to report a significant relationship between overweight and increased mortality is not surprising considering most studies find no correlation (much less, causation) between the two.

The 400,000 figure presumes that any increased rate of death in overweight or obese people is the result of their excess weight. But this is a very unlikely assumption. Those without a high-school diploma are nearly twice as likely to be obese as those with a four-year degree. They are also much less likely to have health insurance and receive quality health care. Other potential factors that increase the risk of death among obese people could include sedentary lifestyles, genetic ailments, or the negative effects of diet pills-including amphetamines, the weight loss drug of choice for much of the last half-century.

“Of all our convictions about health, the belief that obesity itself is a killer has no rival when it comes to the gap between conventional wisdom and scientific evidence,” writes Dr. Glenn Gaesser, University of Virginia Physiology Professor, “The heath risks of moderate obesity have been greatly overstated.” Dr. Paul Ernsberger, Professor of Medicine, Pharmacology and Neuroscience at Case Western Reserve University agrees:

Expert panels from the NIH have claimed that obesity is second only to cigarettes as a preventable cause of death, and kills 400,000 people a year. If so, then major increases in the incidence of adult obesity should have a negative impact on life expectancy. The opposite is true, as death rates have fallen.

Check this space on Friday for more on the myths driving the “obesity epidemic” and an update from this week’s gathering of food activists.

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