do we have an “obesity epidemic” in this country? are the grave warnings from public health officials warranted or is there more to the story?
Do We Have An Obesity Epidemic?
Today I want to focus on the ‘obesity epidemic’ that public health officials have said is ravaging our country and harming our children.
There’s a lot to this topic so I’m going to break it up into shorter, more digestible parts over the course of a few posts.
What is often presented as an ‘obesity epidemic’ in this country is actually a national hysteria and fear mongering unfounded by the current research we have to date.
It provides us permission to remain complicit in the fatphobia and weight stigma that persists in this world.
“We don’t have an epidemic of obesity; our epidemic is one of judgement, bias, and hyperbole”
– Linda Bacon & Lucy Aphramor, Body Respect
While individuals medically defined as ‘overweight’ and ‘obese’ (which, I just want to add, are the majority of us Americans, according to public health statistics) are harmed exponentially more as a result of this, in reality, everyone suffers.
It basically puts all of us into one of two buckets:
- Being shamed and treated unfairly for being fat
- Living our lives in fear of ever becoming fat
Misinformation about weight is so deeply ingrained in our societal landscape (i.e. the constant subjection to images of thin individuals positioned as ‘desirable,’ ‘attractive’ & ‘healthy’ vs. fat individuals shown as ‘lazy’ and ‘gluttonous’) that we’ve simply come to accept it as fact, rather than looking at what the evidence shows us.
In 1998, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) the government agency in charge of setting the official BMI categories for Americans, changed the thresholds for what qualified as ‘overweight’ and ‘obese.’ This meant that you may have gone to bed as ‘normal weight’ and woke up as ‘overweight’ without having gained an ounce of weight. This change in and of itself was troubling, but we’ll dive even deeper into just how troubling in a bit.
Then, in 2002, the current Surgeon General announced that obesity was “the terror within, a threat that is every bit as real to America as the weapons of mass destruction.”
With America already on high alert with regards to terrorism due to the events of September 11th, this statement only further catapulted the unfounded fear of an ‘obesity epidemic’ in our country.
This pronouncement, proclaimed in this way along with the fact that nearly 40 million Americans woke up now in the ‘at-risk’ BMI categories, implied that not only did we have a serious problem on our hands, but that we were awash in research and evidence proving the danger of fat and excess weight (not to mention a successful & beneficial intervention to reverse the effects. FYI: we have neither).
Much of the fear of obesity is founded in falsehoods so often repeated that they have become accepted as truth (only fueled further by cultural bias and the deep pockets of those with vested interest in the weight loss industry).
For instance, there’s a large body of research indicating that individuals in the ‘overweight’ BMI category live longer than people in the “normal” BMI category and that individuals deemed “obese” live at least as long as individuals in the “normal” category.
In addition, the proclamation that higher weight = ‘increased risk for disease’ completely disregards the fact that there are plenty of thin individuals who get the same diseases we have come to blame solely on a higher weight (more on this next week!). Despite this however, the ‘obesity kills’ messaging persists.
A Quick Note on the BMI Categories
Speaking of BMI categories, when coming up with them, the evidence showed that a decrease in health was not seen until someone achieved a BMI of 40. However, the standard for ‘overweight’ begins at a BMI of 25 and ‘obese’ at a BMI of 30.
When this was questioned, the reasoning provided was that the committee who set these standards received a lot of pressure to conform to international standards (set by the World Health Organization). Further digging found that the WHO worked with the International Obesity Task Force (IOTF) to come up with these recommendations.
Making matters even more murky, at the time of this standard setting, those companies providing the greatest amount of funding were two pharma companies that had the only weight-loss drugs on the market. So it was in their best interest to make as many people fall into the ‘overweight’ and ‘obese’ categories as possible.
As you might be catching on, BMI itself is wrought with issues and is really not a valuable measure of health.
It’s critical to understand that so much of the hysteria around obesity is not based in fact and is unnecessarily leading us to high rates of dieting, disordered eating and eating disorders. It’s dangerous that this type of fear-mongering is out there without showcasing the full picture.
As Christy Harrison says in her book Anti-Diet, “The average weight in the U.S. may have crept up a little from 1985 to 1998, but that was hardly a mass outbreak of disease. Instead, the ‘obesity epidemic’ is really a moral panic that has a lot more to do with diet culture’s skewed beliefs about weight than with any actual threat to public health.”
Next week we’ll dive a little more into this topic with a look at the ‘diseases of obesity.’
- Bacon, L. & Aphramor, L. (2014). Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand About Weight. Dallas, TX. BenBella Books, p. 8-10.
- Harrison, C. (2019). Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating. Great Britain. Yellow Kite.
disclaimer: the content that I share in this space should be used for informational and educational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for medical or mental health advice and does not constitute a client/practitioner relationship.