The United States is the fattest nation on earth. Sixty-five percen of American adults are overweight; 30 percent are obese. According to the American Obesity Association, 127 million are overweight, 60 million Americans are obese and 9 million are "severely obese." In the decade between 1991 and 2001, obesity figures ballooned along with our own figures: from 12 percent of us being obese in 1991 to 21 percent in 2001. Almost double. In ten years. (p. 10)It's important to note before debunking this that Americans have, on average, put on eight to ten extra pounds over the last 25 years. It's also important to note that in spite of that, we're healthier than we've ever been in the history of the country.
Now to the debunking. A huge part of the "ballooning" Spurlock speaks of has nothing to do with overeating. It's due to the fact that in 1998, the U.S. government redefined what it meant to be obese. The Centers for Disease Countrol lowered the bar. One magic night in 1998, then, 29 million Americans went to bed of "normal" weight, and woke up "overweight" -- without ever gaining a pound. Millions more went to bed "overweight," and woke up "obese." That's not the fault of McDonalds or Frito lay, or Baskin-Robins. It's the result of an alarmist government moving the goalposts to manufacture hysteria. My favorite quote comes from a Washington Post, written shortly after the decision...
"… 97 million adults -- nearly 55 percent of the U.S. population -- would be considered overweight, placing them at increased risk of such health problems as diabetes, elevated blood cholesterol, heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure."Of course, none of these people's risk for these conditions increased overnight. The government merely drew a largely arbitrary line, and announced that one side of that line would now be healthy, and the other side wouldn't.
Of course, all of these statistics flow from the Body Mass Index, or BMI. BMI is by and large a completely arbitrary measure of health. It doesn't account for age, sex, gender, body type, or ethnicity. It also doesn't distinguish between fat tissue and muscle tissue (the latter is more dense). By now, you've probably heard about how big, muscle-bound athletes are classified as "obese" by the government. By BMI standards, more than half the NBA is obese or overweight. But in fact, any person who works out regularly is likely to fall into the "overweight" or "obese" categories. According to the government, for example, Johnny Depp is overweight. And Tom Cruise is obese. If your build is similar to theirs, you're probably obese or overweight, too (if you're wondering, the government considers me obsese, too -- here's a recent picture). Should give you an idea of how specious a tool the BMI really is.
Look at it this way: Muscle mass is denser than fat mass. If you've ever started a regular workout regimen after a few months of inactivity, you'll know that your weight tends to go up, not down, after the first few weeks. You're building muscle. Which means if ten people of normal build who don't exercise joined a gym, their collective BMI would go up, not down. But they'd be adding to the overweight-obesity statistics.
On it's own website, the Centers for Disease Control writes:
Two people can have the same BMI, but a different percent body fat. A bodybuilder with a large muscle mass and a low percent body fat may have the same BMI as a person who has more body fat because BMI is calculated using weight and height only.The CDC's accompanying table shows a sketch of an obviously flabby man and obviously very fit man and admits that according to the government's method of calculating obesity, there is no difference between them. Remember, when people like S purlock say things like "127 million Americans are overweight," this is how they're arriving at those figures.
This is a good reminder that BMI is only one piece of a person's health profile. It is important to talk with your doctor about other measures and risk factors. (e.g., waist circumference, smoking, physical activity level, and diet.)
If the CDC advises against using BMI as the sole indicator of overall health on an individual level, why are we using BMI and only BMI to gauge the overall health of the nation? And why are people like Spurlock throwing these numbers around in an effort to influence public policy?
Spurlock mentions the American Obesity Association. For someone so skeptical of the motivations of corporations, I'm surprised he didn't do a bit more research on AOA.
Just last week, the Seattle Times ran a report on how and why the BMI was lowered in 1998. Guess who was behind it? the American Obesity Association. And a plethora of nutrition activists, drug companies, and professional scolds who had a stake in getting the government to call more of its citizens fat. Writes the Times:
In May 1995, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) asked 24 experts to write guidelines for diagnosing and treating obesity. The expert panel officially defined obesity as a BMI of 30 or higher, and overweight as a BMI above 25 and below 30. The panel, which included the pharmacologist who created the phen-fen combo, was criticized for its ties to the drug and weight-loss industries.There is some evidence that extreme, morbid obesity is on the rise, though it still affects a realtively small percentage of the population. No one is advocating morbid obesity, here. But the idea that we as a nation putting on pounds, and spiraling toward a health care catastrophe just isn't supported by the facts. And when you read somewhere where it seems to be, odds are, the facts you're reading were manufactured and pushed by agents with a financial stake in promoting the hype, agents like the American Obesity Association. Even the Center for Science in the Public Interest, whom Spurlock consults thoughout the book and which is always eager to hype the obesity "threat," doubts the integrity of AOA. Center for Consumer Freedom (disclosure: a food industry-funded group) sheds light on AOA here.
At the hearings, Interneuron presented data showing an obesity pandemic and said desperate measures were required to stop it from prematurely killing 300,000 Americans a year.
That controversial figure came from weight-loss experts and researchers who used epidemiological data from decades-old health studies to build the case that excess body fat was a crisis more urgent than even AIDS.
Also at the hearing was a newly formed group, the American Obesity Association, which built a case for treating obesity as a chronic disease. Funded largely by drug companies, including two involved with Redux, the association was headed by Dr. Richard Atkinson, an internist who advocated gastric bypass for severe obesity and who later founded a company to test for what he believed might be an "obesity virus."
At the hearing, the association positioned itself as a patient-advocacy organization, though it offered no patients to testify for the drug.
NOTE: A commenter points out that my link to Tom Cruise pointed to a lookalike photo. Here's a picture of Tom Cruise. Not that it does much to undermine the point.