Filed Under: Big Fat Lies

New Study Crushes CDC’s Obesity-Death Statistic

Being overweight is nowhere near as big a killer as the government thought, ranking No. 7 instead of No. 2 among the nation’s leading preventable causes of death, according to a startling new calculation from the CDC … The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated Tuesday that packing on too many pounds accounts for 25,814 deaths a year in the United States. As recently as January, the CDC came up with an estimate 14 times higher: 365,000 deaths. — Associated Press, April 19

The first sentence of a front-page New York Times story this morning reads: “People who are overweight but not obese have a lower risk of death than those of normal weight, federal researchers are reporting today.” Is the so-called “obesity epidemic” dead? You be the judge.

Today’s headlines are driven by a study published in JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association), written by a team of researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The study uses better methodology and more timely data sources than the CDC’s previous, faulty estimate of 400,000 obesity-attributable deaths. As we told USA Today this morning, “This study is vastly superior to the CDC’s exaggerated claim that obesity kills 400,000 people a year.”

For months, the Center for Consumer Freedom has demanded that the CDC fess up about its deeply flawed and apparently politically motivated 400,000 figure. Consider, for example, our February op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which exposed an internal CDC report that found 1) major problems with its bloated obesity-mortality figure, and 2) evidence that the agency had ignored objections from its own scientists.

Yesterday we sent a letter to CDC Director Julie Gerberding, in which we detail the agency’s politicization of science and demand that it stop hyping obesity using outdated research. The CDC, we insist, should apologize to the American people for bungling the issue. Today’s Washington Post story includes excerpts from that letter:

“It’s a scandal that the CDC’s 400,000 deaths estimate didn’t use this information, which was readily available on the agency’s computers … The American public deserves to know where the CDC stands on this greatly reduced number and whether obesity is truly worse than the Black Death, as you have stated.”

Today’s Houston Chronicle also quotes CCF asking the CDC to “come clean about the politicization of its last study, and to adopt this far superior study for its real number.” Unfortunately, as we told the Chronicle, the “CDC will try to ignore this study, and continue to scare people who may carry a little extra weight.”

Indeed, CDC Chief of Science Dixie Snider — who tried to sidestep our earlier criticism of the flawed 400,000 figure by saying “we cannot and should not let this discussion of scientific methodology detract from the real issue” — told the Times that the agency will not take a position on what is the true number of deaths from obesity and overweight, saying: “We’re too early in the science.” Interestingly, the CDC felt more than comfortable pushing a massive publicity campaign in conjunction with its earlier estimate of 400,000 deaths.

That the CDC would distance itself from this recent study is particularly disturbing when you consider that Donna Stroup, a top CDC scientists and co-author of the original 400,000-figure study, told the Times: “From a scientific point of view, they are a step forward.” So why won’t the CDC officially endorse this study done by some of its own researchers?

Numerous experts are coming forward and saying this study is superior to the previous one. As the Times noted, “Some statisticians and epidemiologist said that the study’s methods and data were exemplary and that the authors … were experienced and highly regarded scientists.” Dr. Frank Moody, a professor of surgery at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston and a pioneer of weight-loss surgeries, told the Houston Chronicle: “I think the medical community may need to lighten up on the overweight group a little bit … Some people keep using the word epidemic to describe obesity, and I don’t know if that’s an appropriate description of what’s going on, but it scares people.” Even Roland Sturm — who has encouraged tobacco-style tactics to fight flab — acknowledged that “there has been a little too much hysteria before … Now we come to some probably more credible, reasonable numbers.”

So why is this study superior? Today’s Washington Post noted of its lead author, Katherine Flegal:

Flegal attributed the difference in the estimates to the fact that her group used more recent and more complete data, and was able to account better for more variables, such as smoking, age and alcohol consumption. Flegal and her colleagues also speculated that improvements in medical care and lifestyles may have begun to reduce obesity’s toll.

The use of more recent data is particularly important. The authors of the new study report that 63% of the reduction in obesity-related deaths is due to using more recent data, which shows dramatically lower risks from obesity. This data, it should be noted, was readily available to the CDC when it calculated its 400,000 statistic. Its failure to use this data is particularly striking since it is collected by the CDC itself. The data used by the 400,000 study was collected as long ago as 1948. The average date was 1973. As we’ve pointed out before, the failure to account for improving medical technologies since then results in a drastic exaggeration of the real problem.

One final aspect of this study needs to be highlighted. According to the Times, it “found that increased risk of death from obesity was seen for the most part in the extremely obese, a group constituting only 8 percent of Americans.” Meanwhile, the study found that “overweight” people were actually less likely to die than people with a “normal” weight. When obesity scaremongers declare that 65 percent of Americans are too fat, they’re including people who are merely “overweight.” The real issue affects less than 10 percent of the population, not the two-thirds of Americans routinely pressured to lose weight. The Times reports:

The study did not explain why overweight appeared best as far as mortality was concerned. But Dr. Williamson [a co-author of the recent study] said the reason might be that most people die when they are over 70. Having a bit of extra fat in old age appears to be protective, he said, giving rise to more muscle and more bone. “It’s called the obesity paradox,” Dr. Williamson said.

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