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Ignore the “Obese Police”

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Unless you’ve been unconscious, live in a cave, or are a member of the lost tribe of the Amazon, you’ve heard about the overweight/obesity “epidemic.” You've also been subjected to myriad reports, studies, reviews, and opinions that fat is bad and that too many people have too much of it. Television shows like The Biggest Loser portray health as a matter of losing weight at all costs, and media outlets provide us with almost daily reminders that fat is bad.

Fat people are portrayed as lazy, greedy, lacking moral character, and there have even been opinions they are using up more than their fair share of natural resources (check this out; it isn’t from the Onion.com, it’s meant to be serious).

For almost two generations, society has tried to eradicate forms of discrimination based on gender, sexual preference, religious beliefs, and race.  However, now we have cultivated dislike, distaste, and derision for people who are stamped with this innocuous label of “overweight,” or who violate the tenets of the Body Mass Index (BMI).

In the 1950s we had the Red Scare and the fear that there was a “Red under every bed.” Now we have the Obese Police and their cry that there is “Fat under every hat.” The obesity scare is just an updated form of irrational hysteria.

People are – and have been – dieting more than ever, but according to the “Obese Police” we still have way too many overweight folks out there. Personal trainers and other so-called exercise and nutrition experts are delivering the message that thinner equals healthier, and that a lower BMI score is a valid measure of a person’s level of fitness and health. 

The problem with all of this is that there really isn’t any reliable scientific evidence to back up these sky-is-falling assertions that obesity is a disease, an epidemic, a pandemic, and that fat itself is responsible for any diseased condition of any kind. However, what we have in spades are half-assed studies that produce half-assed conclusions that are reported as bona fide proof that fat is the root of all evil.

The most recent example of this is a study that was reported by the Reuters news service at the end of April that told us, “Heavier people’s brains may age faster.” Reuters reported that this study, conducted at the San Francisco VA Medical Center, concluded people with a higher BMI (and who therefore were overweight) were likely to experience a speeding up of the brain’s aging process and be at a greater risk of suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s. According to researchers who studied 50 “healthy middle-aged men and women” – 5 obese, 15 “overweight” and 30 “normal” weight – those with the highest BMI had the lowest levels of chemicals in their brain that serve as a marker for overall brain health.

The problems with this study, and its conclusion, are many. First of all, BMI is a notoriously terrible and outright unreliable way to determine if someone is fit, overweight, underweight or any other quantifiably significant measurement. BMI is determined simply by taking the ratio of a person’s body weight to their height. Anyone who puts any credence in this measurement is lazy and/or has an agenda that has nothing to do with health and fitness. For instance, a person with low body weight who doesn’t get proper nutrition and smokes would have what these researchers call a “good” BMI and as a result be fit or healthy, while the person who eats a balanced diet, exercises and has higher body weight and increased muscle mass would score a “bad” BMI.

Playing Devil’s Advocate – or Healthy Skeptic – since this study included healthy middle-aged adults, these researchers could have just as easily concluded that increased muscle mass can help speed up the brain’s aging process, but that conclusion would reveal how silly this research is.   Plus, it's easier to pick on fat than it is to do the work and find the real reason that people get sick.

How many different ways can I say that the BMI is nonsense?

Another problem comes in the form of a contradiction provided by the researchers themselves. The study is described as looking at 50 healthy individuals, and yet 20 of these folks are obese or overweight as determined by the researchers. How can this be? If obesity is a disease and fat causes all kinds of problems, how can these people be considered healthy? People who are overweight are in a diseased state, so how can people be categorized as healthy by the very same folks who have determined that they are sick?  This would be like saying smokers are healthy.

The more you read about this study, the more you realize that “there isn’t any there there.”

The Reuters story concludes with this passage, “The data didn’t allow them [the researchers] to determine if the brain abnormalities might be related to body fat alone or if it suggests other health problems, nutrition, or sedentary living, they add. But if other research that does address these factors confirms the current findings, the researchers say, the results could provide important clues to changes in the brain that might precede dementia [emphasis added].”

Basically this is like saying that research indicates that coughing can lead to lung cancer. Seriously, coughing, like body fat, is a symptom and not a cause. If these researchers had given some serious thought to the design of the study, they could have added fitness, lifestyle, and nutritional components to their research, but they didn’t.  As a result we’ll have to rely on other researchers to do a better job and come up with more conclusive data that will allow for a valid conclusion, one way or another.

The real cynics out there might say that these researchers wanted to reach an inconclusive conclusion, a conclusion that points an impotent finger of doubt at fat as a health risk, and that maybe a well designed study would have found that inactivity, a bad diet, or smoking is the real culprit. Others might say that some people are so sure that fat is the fall guy (or fall girl) that some researchers have gotten lazy.

My solution is to ignore the Obese Police and their hysterical proclamations.

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About Sal Marinello

  • Nice one. Reminds me of one of my favorite episodes of Penn and Teller’s Bullshit!.

    Glad to see someone ELSE finally jumping on the anti-epidemic bandwagon.

  • sal m

    thanks for the compliment…that’s a great show!

  • I really don’t get the over concern about fat. If you were to believe doctors and BMI, I’d be way over, but to look at me, you’d think not. Plus, I’m 20 pounds less than the supposed “norm” of someone my height, so I should be in hog heaven.

    If you eat sensibly, work out sensibly, you should have no problems.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Excellent Article… In all seriousness,considering the BMI scale is an absolutely ridiculous tool what would you consider to be obese? (30-40% body fat?)

    I agree with you that fat isn’t necessarily an epidemic but I don’t agree that it’s just a symptom.
    When I was quite a bit overweight it did change my sex drive and I felt more pressure on my joints. My wife noticed me panting more often over the smallest increases in heart rate. So, for those people who are “obese”, that extra body fat could definitely be a cause for other health issues.

  • brian
    fat is certainly a symptom and here are 2 pretty good definitions.
    1. any phenomenon or circumstance accompanying something and serving as evidence of it.
    2. a sign or indication of something.
    fat, like a cough, is a classic symptom in that they both are evidence or an indication of something. in the case of fat this “something” can be inactivity, poor eating habits or genetics.
    however, there’s no evidence that fat itself causes anything. if someone has gained weight and as a result loses capability or function, it’s not the fat itself that is the culprit.

    with regard to determining what obesity or overweight is, this is highly variable from person to person. the person who is normally 6 feet tall, 185 pounds and gains weight to become 210 pounds because they stop exercising and/or eat more than they need, is not the same as the person who is normally the same height and weight.

    the bottom line is that fat doesn’t cause anything.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    I see your point but I still don’t agree 100%.

  • Larry Bozo Harmon is dead and Abe Vigoda is still alive. Just an update.

  • sal m

    not just an update, but another indication that there is not a benevolent supreme being that is actively involved in the goings on of mankind.

  • BMI…

    I believe the unscientific approch to the obesity issue helps perpetuate obesity and is purely a marketing technique used to scare people into buying products.

    BMI should be demonized by the health and fitness industry. And peple made to fell like witch doctors if they still use it. That is the only way to change that scenerio.

    I use a Body Composition Analyser and scales are not allowed in any of my studios. This allows people to understand how important muscle is in how your body works , not just looks. As the BCA units get cheaper I hope this becomes the norm for everybody.

    Now about the real obesity crisis…

    It is a crisis and people are dying, and they are dying very badly. The most common sight I am seeing in my mortuary is obese people dying of septic shock , this is where their legs get infected ulcers due to type2 diabetes.

    They either lose the leg or they lose their life.

    For most losing the leg is a death sentence anyway and it is a painfull way to go.

    Morbid obesity such as mentioned above is the tip of the iceberg of clinical obesity.


    I used to see this problem maybe 6 times a year prior to the 1990s. I had 32 cases last year. The population base has not gone up 500%.

    No media hype there. Just cold hard facts.

    Just a reminder of your personal opinion of overweight people Sal…

    “fat people are fat because they choose to be fat. they buy and eat – overeat – the foods, they ignore the advice of society and the medical community and they are the ones who are responsible for their sedentary and unhealthy lifestyles”

    I would say that counts as a “low” opinion of someone , wouldn’t you ?

  • N. Uddin

    I don’t think the issue is whether this study provides the definitive answer/link between obesity and brain activity; it doesn’t, and the study does a full disclosure in the end of the article.

    I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding about the process of scientific research. To assume that scientific research must always provide a definite answer to the question at hand and portraying anything less than that as not worthy of consideration is simplistic at best. Scientific research is always open to questions and improvements. It’s assumptions, methods, and conclusions are all open for debate, and that is the preferred way of broadening our collective knowledge as a society. Scientific research not only answers a question, but also generates other question which need to be answered with future research. It is a process that charts a circuitous path to the center of our query. As such, criticism of this study’s assumptions, methods, and conclusion are certainly open for debate. Might I add, suggestions for future research is always welcomed. But, to label the researchers as “obese police” certainly does a disservice for the society as a whole as valid research with real life implications may be ignored in the future. I certainly agree that BMI may not be the best indicator of a person’s health. Other factors may certainly play a contributing factor such as health, diet, exercise, genetic predisposition, environmental factors, etc. But these are to be explored in future research. It is also important to acknowledge that this study may have sparked more questions about the issue so that we can which may lead to different conclusions. That is how scientific processes work.

    So, it is important to take a moment and understand that such “with us or against us” rhetoric is neither helpful in the scientific community or in the lives of people who are suffering from both social stigma and medical conditions linked to obesity.

  • sal m

    by not including simple lifestyle questions in this study the researchers were engaged in a futile endeavor, and as i state, came to conclusions that add nothing to the discussion and if anything serve to muddy the waters.

    the media outlets, especially ones that are supposed to be reporting the news and not slanting it, should include the full disclosure at the beginning of the item in the lead and in the headline, as this disclosure renders meaningless the message/angle that fat is to blame, the approach that most news reports used.

    these researchers and those reporting these “results” with the fat is to blame slant are the ones responsible for stigmatizing people who don’t live up to baseless guidelines erected by those who follow and promote the weight-centric approach.

  • In my experience researchers are not above being very media savy and pointing their conclusions in the direction of whatever popular opinion might get their name printed in the paper.