Obesity Hype Takes Another Hit

Now that the government's bogus estimate of 400,000 deaths caused each year by obesity has been discarded, other obesity myths are receiving much-needed scrutiny. This week The New York Times highlighted the ridiculous Body Mass Index (BMI) standard, which considers our fit President Bush "overweight" and is the basis of the much-abused notion that 65 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. Now another one of our nation's top papers has examined the crucial debate over the relative importance of physical fitness versus a simple measure of fatness. In an article titled "Can Being Fit Outweight Fat," the Washington Post quotes leading obesity researcher Steven Blair offering the skinny in the fit-versus-fat debate: "We've studied this from many perspectives in women and in men and we get the same answer: It's not the obesity — it's the fitness." Along with University of Virginia professor of physiology Glenn Gaesser and University of California Berkeley researcher JoAnne Ikeda, Blair explained that the health risks of inactivity are far greater than those posed simply by carrying a few extra pounds (click here and here for our previous items on this topic). Blair told the Post:

All too often, medical professionals say it's the obesity we have to cure. That's the be-all and end-all. It's not. The impression is that everyone who is overweight faces an elevated risk for mortality. That's simply not true.

The Post dutifully quotes several researchers who disagree with Blair et. al. These include anti-soda researcher Walter Willett — whose hypocrisy in pushing people toward an extremely low BMI came under attack today in a Manchester Union-Leader article penned by Paul Campos, author of The Obesity Myth. And there was Lawrence J. Cheskin, who runs the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center and is also the happy recipient of funds from Roche Pharmaceuticals, maker of the weight loss pill Xenical, as well as from the makers of the weight-loss product Medifast. But most interesting among those quoted by the Post who wish to keep fat fears frothing is Arthur Frank. Frank heads the Obesity Management Program at George Washington University, a role which gives him incentive enough to encourage fear of love handles. Frank is also Treasurer and Board Member of the American Obesity Association (AOA), the highly effective lobbying arm of the weight-loss industry. Funded by giant pharmaceutical companies, as well as Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig — and billing itself as "the only obesity organization focused on changing public policy and perceptions about obesity" — AOA is largely responsible for convincing the government that taxpayers should shell out for their clients' weight-loss treatments. Frank doesn't seem to mind screeching sky-is-falling obesity rhetoric in one breath, and then offering a pharmaceutical solution with the next. In 2000 he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that obesity is "having devastating effects on our health" — while he manned an "X out the fat X-travaganza" shopping mall promotion for diet drug Xenical. Despite the massive public relations machine driven by lab-coat-wearing friends of pharmaceutical companies, the weight of scientific evidence is beginning to tip the scales in the fitness-versus-fatness debate. To cite just one example, in 2002, an article in the American Journal of Epidemiology noted:

The report from the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study present convincing evidence that fitness is a more potent risk factor for mortality than is fatness … An effect of fitness that was statistically independent of the level of fatness was confirmed. The effect of fatness independent of fitness was less clear.

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