Obesity: myth or epidemic

The Skeptical Inquirer injects a bracing dose of reason into the obesity debate, concluding "that many of our concerns about obesity are alarmist and exaggerated, but it is also apparent that there is a real health risk associated with it."

Sounds wishy-washy, but the article is a much-needed corrective to the kind of over-heated rhetoric that characterizes the subject of weight. One, a good portion of the health data used to tomtom the obesity epidemic is tainted by the pharmaceutical industry's agenda:


(Paul Ernsberger, professor of nutrition at Case Western Reserve University,) told me that the inflated mortality statistics were all based on the work of David Allison, a well-known pharmacoeconomics expert. "These experts create cost-benefit analyses which are part of all drug applications to the FDA. These self-serving analyses start by exaggerating as much as possible the cost to society of the ailment to be treated (obesity in the case of weight-loss drugs). The risks associated with the new drug are severely underestimated, which results in an extremely favorable risk-benefit analysis, which is almost never realized once the drug is on the market. Experts who can produce highly favorable risk-benefit analyses are very much in demand, however."
This isn't to say that there aren't significant risks attached to being morbidly obese, but the data makes no differentiation in terms of lifestyle and focuses entirely on BMI, which is highly misleading. It does not account for poor diet and lack of exercise, or the documented health risks associated with "weight cycling," an effect of crash dieting. That a number of people are overweight because they are couch potatos and more likely to crash diet makes causality far more complicated than media reports would suggest. And studies show that obese men and women who have a healthy lifestyle are less likely to contract cardiovascular and other obesity-related diseases than thinner folks.

What is unarguable then is that everyone -- irrespective of their weight -- needs to eat better and get off the couch:
The evidence still shows that morbid obesity is associated with an increased likelihood of developing disease and suffering from early mortality, but it also shows that those who are a few pounds overweight don’t need to panic. What’s more, it is clear that everyone, fat or thin, will benefit from regular exercise regardless of whether they lose weight.
The lesson to be learned from this controversy is that rational moderation is in order. Disproving one extreme idea does not prove the opposite extreme. As Steven Blair told me, "It is time to focus our attention on the key behaviors of eating a healthful diet (plenty of fruits and veggies, a lot of whole grains, and not too much fat and alcohol) and being physically active every day."
This is terrible news for me, my cosmos, and my favorite NY-style pizza. Metabolism, sadly, is not destiny. But the rest of you should feel free to celebrate. [LINK via Arts & Letters]
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