Scholar uncovers the story behind the 'obesity epidemic'

November 15, 2005

Despite its growing weight, America does not have an "obesity epidemic," according to new research by Eric Oliver, Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Chicago.

The idea that Americans' increasing girth is a catastrophic disease is largely a myth promoted by the weight loss industry and diet doctors, writes Oliver in a new book, Fat Politics; the Real Story behind America's Obesity Epidemic. "It is our panic over our weight gain rather than the weight itself that is probably causing the most harm," Oliver argues.

Oliver contends there is no scientific evidence to suggest that people who are current classified as "overweight" and even most Americans who qualify as "obese" are under any direct threat from their body weight.

This is partly because the current standards of what is "overweight" and "obese" are defined at very low levels - George Bush is technically overweight while Arnold Schwarznegger is "obese." But it is also because most people confuse body weight with the real sources of health and well-being, such as diet and exercise.

In most cases, the relationship between fat and disease is simply an association, he explains. People who are overweight may also have heart disease, for instance, but there is no proof that being overweight causes the heart disease, he said.

"There are only a few medical conditions that have been shown convincingly to be caused by excess body fat, such as osteoarthritis of weight bearing joints and uterine cancer that comes from higher estrogen levels in heavier women, although this can be treated medically without weight loss," he said. "For most medical conditions, it is diet, exercise, and genetics that are the real causes. Weight is merely an associated symptom."

Yet Americans continue to be told that they need to lose weight, Oliver believes, partly because weight is so much easier to measure than diet and exercise. It is also because of American values that consider overweight a sign of sloth and thinness a mark of social status, Oliver said. "But the most important factor," Oliver argues, "behind America's 'obesity epidemic' is the weight loss industry and public health establishment.

Weight loss is a multi-billion dollar industry in America, Oliver notes, and this industry is trying to put a health spin on what is a largely cosmetic product. Diet doctors and weight-loss companies have established organizations with names such as the American Obesity Association to promote their interests. That group convinced federal health officials to designate obesity as a disease in 2004 and has lobbied for tax deductions for obesity treatments. Yet the American Obesity Association is largely funded by weight loss companies, including, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Hoffman- La Roche (makers of the weight-loss drug Xenical) and Slim Fast.

The federal government has also been complicit in this, Oliver contends. He writes that officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have used maps that distort America's weight gain, making it seem like a spreading epidemic. The have also released faulty estimates about the amount of deaths attributable to obesity and made false claims that obesity was soon to be America's number one cause of preventable death.

Oliver argues that by making body weight a barometer of wellness, public health officials and doctors are sending the wrong message - that being heavy, even if you exercise and eat right, is unhealthy while being thin, even if you smoke or starve yourself, is good.

As a result, Oliver contends, millions of Americans are putting their health at risk with fad diets, dangerous drugs, or even extreme measures, such as gastric-bypass surgeries, which cause over 1,000 deaths annually and complications such as kidney diseases, cancer and heart failure. "The irony," Oliver says, "is that stomach stapling does not guarantee weight loss." After the surgeries, most people gain some weight back and 30 percent of the people receiving the surgeries gain all their weight back.

Oliver argues that it is time to stop making body weight an indicator of a person's health.

"We could end the obesity epidemic right now if we desired--all we would need to do is to redefine obesity according to the real criterion of a disease. If we simply classified obesity as a level where body fat is incontrovertibly pathological, only a fraction of Americans would qualify and this 'epidemic' would vanish," Oliver said.

University of Chicago

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