Wellness

An Epidemic of Fear of (Being) Fat

Is our obsession with weight bad for our health?


Thursday, May 07, 2009

It's finally happening—fat people in America are getting fed up.

They're tired of taking it on their cushioned chins from comedians and commentators on national television who otherwise would not dare treat another minority with such disdain and unchecked callousness. Daily, with a boldness that is copied in everyday exchanges among our citizens, the chattering class demonstrates how fat is the number one, publicly acceptable prejudice in America. But their freedom to be offensive is supported by official statistics that show that the fat are a majority in America, and therefore fair, if slower-moving, game. Official statistics categorize 60 percent of Americans as overweight and one out of four as obese. Break out the numbers specifically for aging male Baby Boomers and seniors and the stats are even more distressing—practically three out of four mature adults—peaking at 77.2 percent of men between 65 and 74, and 73.1 percent of women between 55 and 64—are classified as overweight or obese.

So the insults are hurled on the back of these dubious numbers, which we are fed through "studies" conducted by government agencies under the influence of the morbidly profitable food and pharmaceutical industries and a voracious new lobby, the $50-billion-a-year weight-loss industry. Then, conveniently classified overweight and obese Americans are asked to digest the HMO's spurious cost analyses that place the blame for spiraling health-care costs at the feet of the fat. Rather than lowering the cost of health care, the HMOs rally alarmists who flog phantom statistics ("400,000 premature deaths owing to obesity annually") to pave their way out of providing aspects of coverage, discourage people from seeking regular medical attention with demoralizing attacks, or altogether avoid insuring people whose "condition" allegedly makes them greatly predisposed to disease—a bogeyman challenged by the latest research in medical science.

"Given that Americans are enjoying longer lives and better health than ever before," says University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos in his book, The Diet Myth: Why America's Obsession with Weight is Hazardous to Your Health, "the claim that nearly four out of five of us are running serious health risks because of our weight sounds exactly like the sort of exaggeration that can produce a cultural epidemic of fear." He classifies "fat hysteria" as "the leading moral panic of our time." This panic has institutionalized our prejudice. We tend to stereotypically characterize fat people as mouth-breathers, unemployable, out of control, morally reprehensible—an embarrassing lot. The opinion of fat people most Americans hold is that they "do it to themselves," that people can exercise will and make choices to exercise and their choice is to sit on their prodigious derrieres and eat.

But as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, "You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own set of facts." The latest facts on obesity and longevity don't contest that living lethargically is bad for you, but the facts, as gathered by a number of independent and reputable sources—scientific and academic, with no multi-billion-dollar agenda—do present formidable evidence that there are any number of contributors to being fat. (They include a block in leptin or insulin receptivity, an insufficiency of heat-producing fat cells and hypothyroidism or other glandular conditions.) New studies are finding links between overweight and sleep disorders and depression. The facts don't dispute that, for some, "the glands are in the hands." But there is further scientific evidence that fat and fit are not mutually exclusive and that a sedentary thin person is likelier to drop dead of a heart attack than a chunk who's on the go.

Professor Glenn Gaesser of the University of Virginia and author of Big Fat Lies: The Truth about Your Weight and Your Health (Gurze Books, 2002) was called a "contrarian" when he wrote that "men and women medically classified as overweight who exercise regularly and are physically fit, yet remain above the ranges recommended by the height-weight tables, have lower death rates than thin men and women who do not exercise and are unfit, and have death rates comparable to thin and average-weight men and women who do exercise and are fit—proving that fitness, not thinness, is what really matters in terms of health."

Perhaps the most harmful aspect of the misinformation Gaesser sees perpetuated in popular press and advertising is the increase in unhealthy fad dieting. He is particularly concerned by the extreme strategies of regimes like those that profess to burn fat quickly, which have been shown by many opponents to have negative long-term health impact. "Chronic efforts at weight loss may be responsible for more deaths than 'excess weight' itself," he writes in the Harvard Health Policy Review.

In Fat Politics: The Real Story behind America's Obesity Epidemic, (Oxford University Press, 2005) author J. Eric Oliver (a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and former Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Scholar at Yale) backs up Gaesser and makes the case that obesity in America is a real concern, but our true national health problem is panic over obesity—stirred by a "public health establishment" that supports the findings of special-interest-funded science. A 2005 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reduced the number of premature deaths associated with overweight and obesity from an earlier figure of 400,000 (a figure that The Diet Myth argued was deeply flawed and could not possibly be correct) to a more reasonable 25,000.

And acclaimed nutritionist Marion Nestle weighs in with yet another hypothesis that adds agribusiness and food processing into the obesity mix. In Food Politics (2002), Nestle says that the food industry now produces 3,800 calories a day for every person in the United States— 50 per cent more than what is required for daily well-being and a 500 calorie-a-day increase since 1970. She also makes the connection between the rise in the average American's weight beginning in the late 1970s and "advances" in food processing and agribusiness subsidies. Add to that the serial appointment over the last decade of cronies and lobbyists as the overseers at the USDA and FDA, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Bloated statistics, hidden agendas and compromised science marked the Bush administration, but is a correction coming from the Obama administration? When so many people who are being (mis-)classified as fat realize that they are no longer a powerless, bully-able minority, what will happen? "When 'they' become 'us,' everything changes," writes Barbara Bruno Altman, Ph.D., and editor of Dimensions, an online journal devoted to fat acceptance. "And when 'we' exercise our discretion about who gets our money, people and businesses listen to us."

So watch out, America. The people you have humiliated and isolated and subjected to the absolute cruelty of the human race are primed to strike back. And when fat people gather together as an activist community, there'll be no getting around them.

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