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What's Behind New Findings That It's Healthy to Be Overweight?

With so much profit to be made from keeping people overweight, the public is not hearing the truth about obesity.

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To truly get to the bottom of the issue, one must consider the conflicts of interest on all sides. For example, Pi-Sunyer was tied at the hip with Weight Watchers, he was director of a weight loss clinic, and he served as an advisory board member or paid consultant to several pharmaceutical companies that made diet drugs. Similar accusations have been lobbed at Philip James in the U.K. But on the other side of the coin, nearly every industry in the U.S. – with the exception, no doubt, of the airlines – makes handsome profits from an overweight and obese populace that is desperate to lose weight but continually fails to do so.

Consider a typical American who spends money on large amounts of processed foods at grocery stores and restaurants, and then needs to buy clothing in larger and larger sizes. She even requires more gas to transport her extra weight, and perhaps she and her partner decide they need a larger bed. Desperate to slim down, she enrolls at a gym, buys diet books, special diet foods, and perhaps even weight-loss drugs. Maybe she loses some weight. Maybe she doesn’t. But even if she succeeds temporarily, in all but a minority of cases, the weight is back again within a few years and she starts the cycle again. How much money does she spend to get fat and then get thin again?

The industries that sell junk food want Americans to continue buying their products, of course. Many corporations like Coca Cola, Wendy’s, Applebees, and Outback Steakhouse fund the so-called Center for Consumer Freedom, which runs the Web site ObesityMyths.com. Visit this site to learn why you should continue drinking Coca-Cola and eating at Applebees without worrying about what the food police tell you. The site devotes a special section to “Myth-Makers” like Philip James, accusing him of conflicts of interest. Often with flimsy evidence, these myth-makers are tarred as being financially tied to the diet drug and weight-loss industries, with the implication that their work lacks credibility because they are being paid off to talk about the global scourge of obesity.

A more reasoned assessment of James’ and Pi-Sunyer’s conflicts of interest comes from University of Chicago professor J. Eric Oliver, who first points out in his book Fat Politics, “It is difficult to find any major figure in the field of obesity research or past president of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity who does not have some type of financial tie to a pharmaceutical or weight-loss company.” He goes on to acknowledge that, “While the pharmaceutical industry did not necessarily dictate the decisions of the obesity experts, the conflicts of interest among the leading researchers in the obesity field are both undeniable and problematic.”

Oliver calls out a “health-industrial complex” which is “built upon a symbiotic relationship between health researchers, government bureaucrats, and drug companies.” Each group relies on the others to get what they want, be that drug sales, congressional funding for their government agencies, or prestigious appointments, recognition and lucrative speaking gigs. For each group, adding tens of millions of Americans to the population at risk due to obesity helps them toward their goals. That isn’t to say that self-interest was the determining factor in their decision to lower the BMI considered overweight to 25. But it’s a possibility that self-interest played a role.

In any case, that’s how we got to where we are, with anyone over a BMI of 25 thrown into the “fat” category. But the “news” that being overweight might not increase your risk of mortality is not actually news. The same researcher at the CDC, Katherine Flegal, came to just that conclusion eight years ago, which she explained at length in Scientific American in 2007. Even back in the 1990s, there were already some studies with conclusions similar to Flegal’s available to the experts setting the weight at which one is considered overweight or obese.

 
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