Fat Politics – You’re Not as Fat as You Think You Are

Fat Politics: the Real Story behind America’s Obesity Epidemic

I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
Virginia O’Hanlon

Virginia O’Hanlon’s father instilled in his daughter a respect and expectation of integrity in the fourth estate. If you read it in the newspaper, it must certainly be true. As a society, we continue to follow this philosophy. The Weekly World News and related tabloids aside, we expect our news media to report the facts, and to have done the research required to support those facts.

Which is why I’ve got some shocking news. Despite what every news channel, radio station, newspaper and magazine in the western world would have us all believe, there is no obesity epidemic. I know that we’ve been told that, over and over again – it shows up in the media at least once a week – but the truth behind the reasons why will astound you.

Author Eric Oliver started out with the intention of creating yet another tome of hand-wringing despair about how super-sizing and corn syrup were making us all fat. Yet when he dug deeper into the research, when he searched deep down into all of the sources at his disposal, he discovered that America’s Obesity Epidemic is nothing but a huge sham.

One of the ongoing themes that I regularly repeat in the articles that I write is “know your source”. Every clinical study has been paid for by someone, and the name on the cheque often has a lot to do with the end results of that research. What Oliver uncovered as he researched his book was that the way we measure weight is so completely skewed and distorted that the studies and the findings are meaningless.

We all know that the BMI (Body Mass Index) is a grossly inaccurate measure of health. Using a calculation that compares weight and height, the BMI does not take age, muscle tone, frame size, or general state of health into consideration. Yet even though it was never originally intended to do so, it has become the standard for the medical profession to determine if a person is overweight.

In 1985, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) set the level for overweight at a BMI of 27.8 for men and 27.3 for women (we’ll disregard the fact that women generally carry a higher ratio of fat than men, but it’s another area where the use of BMI to calculate healthy weight is askew). In 1995, those levels were changed arbitrarily to make a BMI of 25 the new point at which a person was considered to be “overweight”. Instantly, hundreds of thousands of people who were a perfectly healthy weight were deemed to be overweight. That’s where our “obesity epidemic” comes from.

To understand this point, it is important to go back to the 1995 World Health Organization report that helped establish the idea that a person is overweight with a BMI of 25. This document probably had more impact on determining how obesity was defined than anything else. And who wrote this important document? Most of it was drafted and written under the auspices of the International Obesity Task Force (IOTF). On the surface, the IOTF seems to be a credible association of scientists interested in obesity research and policy. According to its website, the IOTF’s mission is to “inform the world about the urgency of the problem and to persuade governments [sic] that the time to act is now.” Their website also displays the logos of both the WHO and the International Association of the Study of Obesity, legitimate health organizations, making the IOTF seem like a purely scientific organization.

In reality, however, the IOTF is anything but an unbiased congress of scientists. The IOTF is an organization primarily funded by Hoffman-LaRoche (the maker of the weight-loss drug Xenical) and Abbott Laboratories (the maker of the weight-loss drug Meridia). Like other organizations financed primarily by drug companies that don the “neutral” mantle of science (including the American Obesity Association) the primary mission of the IOTF is to lobby governments and advance particular scientific agendas that coincide with the pharmaceutical industry’s goals. Indeed, the initial mission of the IOTF was to get the lower BMI standards imposed on the WHO report. Few realize that the effort to establish a world-wide standard for what is overweight and obese was sponsored primarily by a company that makes a weight-loss pill.

You got that? If you’re one of the folks who fall into the “overweight” category on the BMI chart (which would put you at an average of 10 to 20 pounds overweight by BMI standards – incidentally the demographic most likely to use and benefit from weight-loss pills), you’re considered “fat” because the drug companies lobbied the World Health Organization to change the standards. And they did so because, well, it’s a bit of a no-brainer, really – they want to sell you drugs.

The other really shocking aspect of Oliver’s book is the lack of any kind of correlation between being overweight and obese and the many, many illnesses associated with that state. According to Oliver, only two diseases have been conclusively linked to being overweight. One is the very logical osteoarthritis of weight-bearing joints (the heavier you are, the harder your joints have to work to propel you) and uterine cancer that comes from higher estrogen levels in heavier women. All the rest, the diabetes, the heart disease, the cancer – all are more prevalent in heavier people, but Oliver is adamant that there is no research that he found which demonstrates a direct link. He concludes that people who have a genetic predisposition to being overweight (most of us will never be skinny, no matter how much we diet and exercise, Oliver says, because our bodies are genetically pre-set to a particular weight range) may also have a predisposition to those diseases.

Another interesting aspect of Oliver’s work is his research into attitudes toward the overweight and obese. In many cultures, weight is still considered a measure of success, and is widely accepted in Western men. White women, however, are held to a mostly unattainable standard of thinness influenced by stature, wealth and sex. Ironically, Oliver finds women to be more sharply critical of another woman’s weight than men are, and traces a direct association between weight and the perception of wealth. Statistics still show that we are getting heavier, however, and Oliver offers an explanation for this as well. Remember that the figures used are often averages, so if a larger percent of the population is heavier, even by a few pounds, it will affect the final figure. And since, as a society, the average age of the population of the western world is higher than it was twenty years ago (due to the Baby Boomers and better healthcare allowing us to live longer), and older people tend to gain weight as they age, we have a higher average weight overall.

That’s not the whole story behind the reason we are generally getting heavier, though, and Oliver concedes that if you compare weight based on a specific age alone (say a 35-year-old in 2006 to a 35-year-old twenty years ago) we are definitely heavier now. But he believes the reasons for this are not as subversive as the mainstream media would have us believe. This is where he loses me a bit, because as much as his theories make such obvious sense, part of me still wants to blame it on McDonald’s.

Snacking and lack of activity are the two factors which Oliver points to as the reason for our widening behinds. And this too makes perfect sense. Cars ensure that we never have to walk anywhere, and few of us do any kind work around our homes that requires a great amount of exertion. Technology has given us a lot of extra time to sit in front of our computers, televisions and video games. And what else do we do while we relax in front of our various boxes while being entertained? We snack, of course, and not on healthy things like apples or carrot sticks. When we curl up in front of a DVD, we are most likely to have popcorn, potato chips, candy or other treats that are high in calories and fat and low in nutritional value. All accompanied by a big glass of soda pop, of course. Snacking and a general lack of activity were not factors even twenty years ago, and Oliver wholeheartedly believes that a combination of the two is what is causing us all to gain weight.

I’m sure there are lobbyists for the various drug companies out there who are already writing up press releases to discount Eric Oliver’s very provocative work. But even if you disagree with Oliver’s theories regarding the reasons why we’re all gaining weight and what should be done about it (less snacking, more exercise, and a whole lot of fat acceptance are Oliver’s suggestions), it’s important that everyone read Fat Politics for the chapters on BMI and drug company pressure if nothing else. That we’ve all allowed the wool to be pulled over our eyes – that our governments have been the willing pawns of big pharma – is absolutely disgraceful. Just say No! to the BMI, and to diet pills and diet programmes of all types.

And don’t believe everything you read in the paper.