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Special Forces: Deprogram

Pudging the Truth

Are We Really As Obese As the Media Claim?

by Denyse O'Leary

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), we are in the midst of a worldwide epidemic of . . . love handles. One billion humans worldwide are, by WHO's reckoning, "overweight,” and of these sinners, 300 million are "obese.” The increased consumption of high-calorie food, especially in developing countries, is the disease's vector.

WHO blames economic growth, modernization, urbanization, and globalization. Indeed, obesity targets the world's cities, where food is cheap and close at hand. Victims, we are warned, face increased midlife risks of chronic diseases such as type II diabetes, cardiovascular problems, hypertension, and stroke.

If this sounds surreal, it should. WHO bureaucrats present a happy ending—an end to famine, unimaginable a century ago—as if it were a catastrophe. What if WHO put the matter like this:

Regions once routinely stalked by the Third Horseman of the Apocalypse, famine!, now face . . . the battle of the bulges. Yes, entirely contrary to earlier expert predictions, the epidemic that stalks the globe today is less work, more food, and two-digit dress sizes. It targets people who did not die from malnutrition and communicable disease in early childhood. They are the first generation in their culture to collectively figure out the distinctly modern task of mass healthy aging. Today, it seems, we are comic rather than tragic. We get out of shape before we run out of time. And in the long run, we shall all be dead.

Well, if WHO explained it that way, we would all kneel down and give thanks for our unaccustomed worldwide abundance, entirely dissipating the sense of chronic crisis on which public agencies depend to secure and increase their funding. Which is precisely why they do not explain it that way.

How big a problem is obesity anyway? That depends.

Childhood obesity is a genuine problem. It is increasing quickly but primarily on account of widely approved social choices. Despite activist claims, high-calorie fast food is not the main problem. I know, because I was a child back in the 1950s. Children then tucked happily into greasy grilled cheese sandwiches, heaps of buttered potatoes drowned in rivers of gravy, and huge banana splits whenever we could get them—indulgences that would horrify today's calorie-conscious, hyper-health supermom.

But . . . in that pre-microwave era, cooking was labor intensive, so children ate mostly at home at mealtimes. Between home and school we were largely unsupervised—definitely a no-no today—and we rode bikes, swam, or ran for hours on end.

Fat? Most of us couldn't get fat if we tried.

Today, by contrast, the internet turns out kids whose best-exercised body parts are their index fingers. But what parent of an obese child is going to move to a remote area, give away the TV, the Xbox, and the microwave, buy the kid a rattletrap bike and helmet, and go back to peeling potatoes?

Actually, one needn't return to the 1950s. Any solution would be countercultural. Today's children will ride bikes and stay slim if their parents take them on bike trips. But the parents must then forego working overtime to pay for their next big purchase. Thus, our affluent society makes good health a question of choice, not chance.

And what about us adults? Most of what we hear about adult obesity is myth. For example, the sensational Centers for Disease Control claim that obesity kills 400,000 Americans per year was withdrawn in 2005. Careful research offered 25,815 as a realistic death rate.

Another myth—one so widely believed that it cannot be refuted by any evidence—is that dieting is the best way to lose weight. Every checkout-counter magazine tells us so, and therefore it must be true.

The reality is that, over time, only one in ten—or possibly twenty—people who attempt to lose weight by dieting will keep that weight off. Balance that against claims for the latest miracle diet on which one woman lost 100 lbs.

But isn't overweight, as defined by doctors, dangerous to health? Not necessarily, provided the overweight person is active. In The Obesity Myth (2004), law professor Paul Campos, who struggled for years with weight problems and then began to research the issue, argues that the true health risks are often distorted or exaggerated. He notes that "fat active people have half the mortality rate of thin sedentary people, and the same mortality rate as thin active people.”

He makes a powerful case that—generally speaking—lack of vigorous physical activity underlies many health problems attributed to obesity, and that obsessive dieting is more harmful to health than obesity.

Also—and this is not something you will often hear from a media dependent on weight loss obsessions—if you are overweight and want to improve your health, you are probably better off NOT to diet.

A recent randomized clinical trial at UC Davis showed that overweight women between the ages of 30 and 45 were healthier if they did not diet. The dieters and the non-dieters ended up weighing the same years later, but the non-dieters were both healthier and happier.

Campos suggests that the current campaign against obesity is actually a class war between thin, upper-class, socially admired women and well-endowed, lower-echelon women who are comfortable with less conspicuous achievements (and more avoirdupois).

He argues, "Americans who would never dream of consciously allowing themselves to be disgusted by someone's skin color, or religion, or social class, often feel no compunction about expressing the disgust elicited in them by the sight of people who weigh anything from a lot to a little more than our current absurdly restrictive cultural ideal.”

Absurdly restrictive? Picture the ancient beauties in tight jeans. Curiously, even as food multiplies, it has become a forbidden substance for women, an Eve's apple with no savior more lovable or reliable than the latest magazine diet. 

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