Is being fat bad for your health? Obesity sceptics disagree

Obesity Campaign Poster

Obesity Campaign Poster (Photo credit: Pressbound)

For some years now,  obesity sceptics have argued against the mainstream medical and public health perspective on obesity. Writers such as Paul Campos (2004), Michael Gard and Jan Wright (Gard and Wright, 2005; Gard, 2011)  have published closely argued critiques of the obesity science literature. They persuasively identify the many inaccuracies, distortions, misleading assumptions and generalisations made in scientific and epidemiological research which have contributed to the idea that obesity is at ‘crisis’ or ‘epidemic’ levels and that being over the arbitrarily defined ‘normal’ BMI automatically damages people’s health.

Some specific points obesity sceptics make are as follows:

  • It is not the case that there are far greater numbers of fat people now compared to several decades ago. While there has been a modest increase in average weight, this does not represent an ‘epidemic of obesity’.
  • Life expectancy in western countries has risen, not fallen, despite alleged growing rates of obesity and the supposed life-threatening health conditions caused by obesity.
  • There is no statistical evidence that being fat necessarily equates to a greater risk of ill health or disease. Statistics show that only those people at the extreme end of the weight spectrum (the ‘morbidly obese’ in medical terminology) demonstrate negative health effects from their weight. The data show that higher body weight may even be protective of health in older people.
  • The epidemiological literature has been unable to demonstrate that significant weight loss improves fat people’s health status. Indeed continual attempts by fat people to lose weight can actually be negative to their health status if it involves extreme diets, being caught in a cycle of losing and gaining weight or poor dietary habits.
  • Fatness is often a symptom rather than the cause of ill health and disease.
  • There is no consensus from the scientific literature that people in contemporary western societies are less active now than in previous eras: indeed many people, particularly those from the middle-class, are highly physically active.
  • No clear association has been found between activity levels and childhood overweight and obesity, or between children’s television watching habits and their body weight.
  • Nor have studies conclusively demonstrated that relative levels of physical activity influence health status. Medical research has not been able to show how much exercise should be undertaken and how often to achieve and maintain good health and which diseases are affected or prevented by taking regular exercise.
  • It is also very difficult to demonstrate scientifically the relative influence of genes in body weight.

In all these areas there are many contradictory and conflicting findings from research studies, making it difficult to anyone to make confident statements about these issues. As these obesity sceptics point out, many of the generalisations made by obesity scientists and public health experts simply disregard the lack of consistent, clear or conclusive evidence for such statements as ‘obesity is caused by lack of exercise and eating too much’ and continue to reiterate these assertions.

What obesity sceptics present, in essence, is a detailed critique of the ways in which political agendas and pre-existing assumptions shape the reporting and interpretation of medical and epidemiological data relating to body mass. Quite apart of its relevance to debate about whether the obesity epidemic exists and how serious it is, such an analysis is valuable in drawing attention to the work practices and knowledge claims of medical and public health researchers.

The assertions and critiques of obesity sceptics have failed to make an impact on mainstream obesity science, government health policy and anti-obesity public health efforts. Journal articles concerning the dangers of obesity continue to appear in medical and public health journals with monotonous frequency. Alarmist predictions continue to receive attention in the mass media. Governments in western countries have also continued to invest large sums to fund health promotion campaigns seeking to counter obesity. For example, the American ‘Let’s Move’ campaign, directed at controlling childhood obesity, was launched by First Lady Michelle Obama in early 2010, while on the same day President Obama created a Taskforce on Childhood Obesity. The Australian ‘Swap It, Don’t Swap It’ anti-obesity campaign commenced in early 2011. It would seem that there are powerful political and career investments in continuing to ignore the arguments of the obesity sceptics.

References

Campos, P. (2004) The Obesity Myth. New York: Gotham Books.

Gard, M. and Wright, J. (2005) The Obesity Epidemic. London: Routledge.

Gard, M. (2011) The End of the Obesity Epidemic. London: Routledge.