The Government's Fat-Fear Farce

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

By Radley Balko


I have a confession. Though I cover obesity issues as a journalist, it turns out that I myself am obese.

Really. At six feet, 222 pounds, the federal government says I’m obese. Now, I could certainly lose a few pounds. But I’m hardly unhealthy. My blood pressure and heart rate are great. My cholesterol is a bit above average, but still well within the "healthy" range. I put in over an hour at the gym a couple of days ago, and plan to head there again upon completing this column. Here’s a picture. Judge for yourself.

I’m not alone. According to the federal government, about half the National Basketball Association is obese. Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt are obese. Scrawny Johnny Depp is "overweight." Even the president, whose White House doctor recently pronounced him to be in top physical condition, is "overweight" by government standards.

You're probably fat, too. The average woman is 5 foot 3 inches tall. By the time she hits 141 pounds, the government says she is officially "overweight." At 170, she's "obese." The average man of 5 feet, 10 inches hits "overweight" at 174 pounds. By 209 pounds, he's "obese." Something is wrong here. When people like Cruise, world-class athletes and a fit president are being told by the government that they need to lose weight, perhaps there’s something wrong with our metric.

And indeed there is. The government’s method of telling us whether or not we’re overweight is the Body Mass Index. It’s a crude system that even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concedes on its Web site shouldn’t be used by itself to determine individual health. It doesn’t account for age, gender or ethnicity, and it doesn’t distinguish between muscle tissue and fat. That’s why the people whom the government says we should strive to look like are actually unhealthy by the government’s own standards. Or to put it another way, if we all followed the government’s advice and joined a gym, we’d probably make the obesity and overweight statistics worse, not better.

So when the government, the media, or nutrition activists make bold pronouncements about how two-thirds of America is overweight or obese, it might help to keep in mind that this is the standard they’re using. And it gets worse.

Before 1997, present-day Radley Balko wouldn’t be obese. He’d be a bit "overweight" (which sounds about right). But in 1997, the government redefined what it means to be both obese and overweight. It lowered the bar. Twenty-nine million Americans went to bed at normal weight and magically woke up overweight the next morning. None of them gained a pound.

Suddenly, the government said, these people were at risk for a host of ailments and illnesses they weren’t at risk for the night before. When you hear about how many of us are overweight or obese now as compared to the early 1990s, keep in mind that a large number of us became overweight not by snacking on corn chips, but by government fiat.

Since 1990, the government has also been telling us that 300,000 people die each year due to obesity. A few years ago, they revised that figure upward, to 400,000. That number is everywhere. Time and again we were told that obesity was soon to overtake smoking as the number one cause of preventable death in America. A Lexis search for the terms "obesity" and "400,000" turns up thousands of media hits.

But last April, a study commissioned by the National Institutes of Health urged by critics of the obesity hysteria confirmed what less hysterical health researchers had suspected all along. The 400,000 figure was wrong. And not by a little bit. The actual figure is closer to 100,000. And guess what? According to recent research, people who are slightly "overweight" are actually healthier than those who are normal weight. When you factor in the number of lives saved by being modestly overweight, the number of people who die due to obesity drops to around 25,000.

The CDC has been reluctant to embrace the new study’s figure. That might have something to do with the fact that the CDC’s director, Julie Gerberding, was co-author of the 400,000 study. In fact, a subsequent internal investigation revealed that the CDC may have actually known that the original study was flawed! It seems the study was published over objections from peer-reviewers due to internal politics. In other words, because the boss wrote the study.

When we see a study on the health effects of smoking that was funded by Philip Morris, we rightly read it with some skepticism. The numbers may still be right, but we’re more cautious about verifying their accuracy. But when we see alarmist data from the federal government, we always seem to take it at face value. If the government says everyone’s getting fat, everyone must be getting fat. If the government says obesity is killing us, obesity must be killing us. We assume the government always has our best interests at heart.

The truth is, government public health agencies are plagued by the same biases and politicking as privately funded groups. Federal agencies charged with securing the "public health" have an interest in making "public health" prospects appear pretty dim. If they can establish that the public health is at risk, there’s more reason for them to get a bump from Congress come budget time. This isn’t to say all government health researchers are corrupt. But these studies aren’t published in a vacuum. The Gerberding saga alone is proof of that.

Lawmakers then use these studies to formulate public policy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a nutrition activist or Congressman cite the "400,000" figure just before calling for some kind of immediate government intervention. Usually, those laws are aimed at limiting the kinds of choices we’re allowed to make as consumers. Make no mistake, these fallacious studies have immediate, real-world consequences for you and me.

Perhaps it's time we applied some accountability to government agencies and their leaders who abuse science and statistics. It’s certainly time our lawmakers stopped biting on every alarmist health study without a hint of suspicion or skepticism.

Radley Balko maintains a Weblog at:

Respond to the Writer