Did You Know
Reprinted from The Rocky Mountain News
January 10, 2006
In one of its more inspired moments of genius, The Simpsons once featured an educational film narrated by the inimitable Troy McClure, entitled The Meat Council Presents: Meat and You: Partners in Freedom. (The film was part of the Council's Resistance is Futile series).
Jimmy, a naive young lad, asks McClure to clarify some of the complex issues surrounding the production and consumption of meat: "Mr. McClure, I have a crazy friend who says eating meat is wrong. Is he crazy?" "No Jimmy," Troy assures him, "your friend isn't crazy - just ignorant!"
I thought of this film while reading Eric Oliver's new book Fat Politics. Five years ago Oliver, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, organized a conference featuring some of the nation's leading obesity researchers, and came away with the idea of writing a book about the politics of dealing with what he assumed was a major health crisis.
Then an odd thing happened: Oliver started researching the medical literature on obesity and health, and gradually came to the conclusion that he was going to have to write a very different book from the one he had envisioned. "What I came to realize," Oliver writes, is "that contrary to the conventional wisdom, obesity is not a problem because 60 percent of Americans weigh 'too much.' Nor is it a problem because hundreds of thousands are dying from being too fat. Nor is it a problem because it costs us hundreds of billions in health-care expenditures. Obesity is not a problem for any of these reasons because none of them are true."
What Oliver found is that, except at statistical extremes, weight has little or no correlation with health; that in most cases those correlations that do exist appear to be symptoms rather than causes; that most people cannot significantly reduce their weight no matter how hard they try; and that many of the "treatments" sold by the weight-loss industry are far worse for health than even very high levels of body fat. (Neither one of us was aware of it at the time but I was coming to the same conclusions, as outlined in my book The Obesity Myth).
Fat Politics provides a particularly compelling analysis of the economic factors that have helped produce the current panic over fat. Oliver demonstrates how groups such as the American Obesity Association and the International Obesity Task Force, which successfully package themselves as objective scientific organizations, and which have played key roles in defining "obesity" as an epidemic disease, actually represent something else altogether.
"Like other organizations financed primarily by drug companies that don the 'neutral' mantle of science," Oliver writes, "the primary mission of the AOA and the IOTF is to lobby governments and advance particular scientific agendas that coincide with the pharmaceutical industry's goals. Few realize that the effort to establish a worldwide standard for what is overweight and obese was sponsored primarily by a company that makes a weight-loss pill."
Fat Politics is the latest illustration of what happens when an academic whose work is not actually funded by the weight-loss industry takes a look at the evidence regarding the relationship between weight and health. A very partial list of other researchers who have come to similarly skeptical conclusions includes people such as Reubin Andres, Linda Bacon, Steven Blair, Susan Bordo, Wayne Callaway, Tim Church, Paul Ernsberger, Katherine Flegal, Glenn Gaesser, Michael Gard, Joanne Ikeda Ancel Keys, Richard Klein, Kathleen Lebesco, Susie Orbach, Jon Robison, Abigail Saguy and Jan Wright.
(Oliver, Ernsberger, Gasser, Saguy and I have just published a review of the medical literature regarding this issue. Interested readers can obtain a copy by sending me an e-mail.)
Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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