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.