Here We Go Again! Jumping on the Obesity Epidemic Bandwagon

It was plastered all over the media with the usual, in exceedingly poor taste, accompanying pictures of headless fat people:

Obesity, Excess Weight Gain in US Continue Upswing

And, as could be expected, everyone proceeded to go off again on how we simply must do something to stop this seemingly unstoppable epidemic. But there is a major problem here. Neither the journalists who wrote the accounts nor many health professionals commenting on the research bothered to read between the lines.

The implied (well really not-so implied) message that weights in this country continue to go up is NOT SUPPORTED by the literature — even, in fact, THIS LITERATURE!

Here is the statement from the conclusion of the article that has everyone in such a tizzy: “Compared with 1988–1994, the distribution of the population’s weight status has increased in the past 20 years.”

Although this sounds straightforward at first blush, we have actually known for more than a decade that weights went up during the nineties (average person gained 10 or 11 pounds). However, the research is also clear that during the past 10 years WEIGHTS HAVE NOT INCREASED!

This article cleverly massages the data so that it looks like a continuing instead of a past trend.

As I have written about before, massaging and manipulating the data are not uncommon tactics in weight-loss research. The media, not being familiar with this, immediately jumped on board and bought into the more titillating conclusion that weights are still increasing — and we are off to the races.

Before anyone argues that this is just different data — please don’t be distracted — it is in fact the same data – from NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey). To help clarify the issue, here are the data as originally presented (interestingly in the same Journal) just a few years back:

BMI CHANGES IN THE UNITED STATES — MOST RECENT DATA

  • 1999–2012 — Adult Females — No change
  • 2003–2012 — Adult Males — No change
  • 1999–2008 — Kids & Teens — No Change*
  • 2008–2011 — Kids 2–4 — Slight Decrease

*Slight increase in the heaviest boys 6–19

If you wanted to give readers the impression that weights were still on the rise, the data massage here was really quite clever; however not very transparent (unless one really knows the literature) and unfortunately not at all accurate. We have an unhealthy obsession with weight in this country. As a result; children, women of all sizes, and increasing numbers of men suffer from an intense fear of fat that plays havoc with their self-esteem and promotes disordered eating and exercise behavior. Let’s not make this worse by paying less than close attention to the details of the research.

References: JAMA,2010;303(3):235-241, JAMA,2010;303(3):242-249, JAMA,2012;307:491–497

Jon Robison, PhD, MS, MAJon is an accomplished speaker, teacher, writer and consultant. He has spent his career advocating that health promotion shift away from its traditional, biomedical, control-oriented focus, with a particular interest in why people do what they do and don’t do what they don’t do. Jon has authored numerous articles and book chapters and is a frequent presenter at national and international conferences. He is also co-author of the book, “The Spirit & Science of Holistic Health — More than Broccoli, Jogging and Bottled Water, More than Yoga, Herbs and Meditation.” This work formed the foundation for one of the first truly holistic employee wellness programs — Kailo. Kailo won awards in both Canada and The United States, and the creators lovingly claim Jon as its father. Contact Jon at: jon@salveopartners.com or jonrobison.net.

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