How Politicians, Corporations, and the Media Use Science and Statistics to Manipulate the Public
by Morris E. Chafetz, M.D.
by Nelson Current, a division of Thomas Nelson, Inc.
Big Fat Liars is the winner of the August 2005 Lysander Spooner Award for Advancing the Literature of Liberty. For more information about the Lysander Spooner Awards, CLICK HERE.
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The excerpt, below, is Chapter 15 of the book, Big Fat Liars. Enjoy!
How Politicians, Corporations, and the Media Use Science and Statistics to Manipulate the Public
Morris E. Chafetz, M.D.
CHAPTER 15: OBESITY
It is not likely that anyone who is fat has gained anything by the federal government telling him so. Yet the United States—and now, the entire western world—is embroiled in a frenzy over what is generally referred to as "the obesity crisis." People sit in front of their televisions and munch cupcakes and potato chips and cluck to themselves over this "crisis," and no doubt some of them demand that the government do something. Lawyers file lawsuits against vendors of foods that, misused by people who got fat and who apparently didn't want to be fat, are said to be the cause of our national chubbiness. Time magazine devotes most of an issue to fatness, never questioning the initial premise that we are obese and have no right to be.
Quack diets, always the subject of interest in grocery store tabloids and the topic of what passes for conversation at second-tier cocktail parties, became all the rage. The most fashionable of these, the subject of an advertising campaign and "news" coverage designed to play to that fashionability rather than impart information, encourages people to gobble up protein and fat and eschew carbohydrates. In our national panic over fatness, we are promoting a tacit policy that is likely to produce a lot of weary, cranky people who have heart disease—if other government statistics, the ones that tell us about diseases of the coronary arteries, are to be believed.
"Scarsdale diet, grapefruit diet, Beverly Hills diet, Cambridge diet, liquid protein diet, cabbage soup diet and, of course, Atkins diet and South Beach diet: The names change, the formulas alter, but the gimmick diet never goes away," began an editorial in the Washington Post on September 6, 2004, in the midst of what has become a national frenzy over weight. Or, more specifically, over overweight.
Yet at about the same time, the New York Times published an editorial in which the paper expressed its foursquare opposition to—sugar: "If your mother ever told you that eating sweets would spoil your dinner, she was right." The problem? "[T]he more sugar you consume, generally in the form of 'added' sugars like high-fructose corn syrup, the less likely you are to eat adequate amounts of nutritious food." The editorial went on to say, in a fashion typical of that newspaper, that the government ought to do more.
It is an established physiological fact that sugar tells the brain that you have been fed, turning off the hunger mechanism. It can, therefore, as the Times noted, cause you to eat less. It can cause you to eat less of the nutritional foods you need, yes, but it can also cause you to reduce your intake of fatty fare. While it is trendy to condemn carbohydrates, it cannot escape notice that bodybuilders and athletes consume carbs and avoid fatty foods. Five days after the Times editorial appeared, fifty-eight-year-old former president Bill Clinton underwent heart-bypass surgery. People had remarked in recent weeks how good the former chief executive looked, how slim and trim he was. He had been on one of the high-protein, high-fat, low-carbohydrate diets. Now his coronary arteries were clogged with fat. Nobody's arteries ever got clogged with sugar.
The government has told us that we should be obsessed with obesity, and there has been no shortage of opportunists eager to gain power over us by dictating the form that obsession should take.
In late July 2004, published reports championed the claim that we are too fat because we do not smoke enough. The reasoning went something like this: government efforts to get people to stop smoking have worked. When people stop smoking, their appetites for food increase. So they eat more and get fat. Or so it was claimed.
Aside from the fact that if people want to be fat (or, for that matter, smoke) it ought to be left up to them, the ridiculousness of the obesity frenzy comes from the fact that it is in many ways a false alarm, brought about not by a change in our national girth but by a change in bookkeeping of vital statistics.
The story of the "obesity epidemic" is an excellent case of how questionable science unquestioned has led to a national panic, the enrichment of lawyers, and further erosion of your right to make your choices about how you care to live your life.
In late 2001, Surgeon General David Satcher released a "Call to action to prevent and decrease overweight and obesity," announcing, "The nation must take action to assist Americans in balancing healthful eating with regular physical activity." That was just the beginning. Within a five-month period: * President Bush unveiled a "Health and Fitness Initiative," signing an executive order creating a "Personal Fitness Interagency Working Group" to report on ways the federal government can "promote personal fitness"; * Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson launched a $190 million media campaign ("VERB: It's What You Do") urging children to get more exercise; * Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Christopher Dodd (D-CT), and Bill Frist (R-TN) introduced the "Improved Nutrition and Physical Activity Act" (IMPACT) to allocate another $254 million to battle expanding waistlines, including another $125 million media campaign; * The IRS reversed a long-standing rule to allow deductions for medical expenses undertaken for weight reduction.
This flurry of activity was the culmination of a campaign that had been building since 1998, when the National Institutes of Health announced that a majority of American adults were overweight. Public health experts, it seems, are unanimous on this judgement. Excess weight, declared NIH, is "a growing public health problem that affects 97 million American adults—55 percent of the population." The Food and Drug Administration agreed, calling obesity a "widespread, chronic disease." The Social Security Administration concurred that "Obesity is a complex, chronic disease."
Not only is obesity a disease, say the experts, it is an epidemic: "Overweight and obesity... have reached epidemic proportions in the United States," wrote Satcher. "Obesity in the United States is truly epidemic," testified William H. Dietz of the Department of Health and Human Services. "Obesity is an epidemic and should be taken as seriously as any infectious disease epidemic," echoed Jeffrey P. Koplan, director of the Centers for Disease Control.
Public health authorities have responded to various epidemics in the past by quarantine, draining swamps, improving sanitation, adding chlorine to drinking water, and vaccinating the vulnerable. The parallel drawn by the government in this case, however, is not to such epidemics as influenza or typhus, but to tobacco. "Overweight and obesity may soon cause as much preventable disease and death as cigarette smoking," said Satcher in a press conference accompanying the report's release.
New York University nutritionist Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, follows Satcher's logic to its conclusion: "Sellers of food products do not attract the same kind of attention as purveyors of drugs or tobacco," writes Nestle. "They should." In June 2004 she would join Yale psychologist Kelly Brownell, writing in Time that "Obesity is a global problem. Is irresponsibility an epidemic around the world?" (To which the answer might very well be "yes," because it has so long served the purposes of those who exercise power over people to discourage personal responsibility in favor of doing what one is told to do.)
One suggested approach to the obesity "problem" is to restrict food advertising, as cigarette advertising is now restricted. "How different is Ronald McDonald from Joe Camel?" asks Brownell. "Maybe food ads should be erased from television the way cigarette ads were," suggests columnist Susan Ager in The Detroit Free Press.
Another frequently heard proposal is a "fat tax" analogous to taxes on cigarettes. "Congress and state legislatures could shift the focus [from personal responsibility] to the environment by taxing foods with little nutritional value," says Brownell. "We could envision taxes on butter, potato chips, whole milk, cheeses and meat," agrees Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. California has already considered such a tax—on soft drinks—but dropped the proposal in May. Some proposals go further: "Maybe the government should mandate nutrition standards for [restaurants] and supermarkets.... Maybe restaurant portions should be regulated," writes Ager. "Maybe vending machines should be banned unless they stock only low-fat snacks."
Yet another approach is class-action suits like those by state attorneys general against tobacco companies. Already tort lawyers have begun to go after large fast-food companies, hoping to add them to the herd they regularly milk.
When Congress was debating lawsuits against tobacco companies, Senator Phil Gramm asked, "Where does this end? If we don't hold people accountable for decisions they make, does it end with tobacco? Does it end with alcohol? Does it end with fattening foods?"
Gramm was attempting to make a reductio ad absurdum argument, to reduce the attack on tobacco companies to absurdity. Yet no sooner had tobacco companies settled their lawsuits than attorneys involved in these suits turned their attention to fast food. Indeed, when the Justice Department launched the tobacco suits in 1999, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine recommended that it "also investigate preparing a case against major meat producers and retailers."
Lawyers fresh from the $242 billion tobacco settlements filed class-action suits against a number of fast-food restaurants on behalf of plaintiffs including a four-hundred-pound fifteen-year-old in New York City. A federal judge threw out the suit in January 2003, but the lawyers filed an amended suit the following month. The case is significant in that it was the opening shot in a war of litigation that is likely to last many decades, as have various permutations of tobacco lawsuits.
Of course, much of it is a lie foisted off by the nanny state, which has taken responsibility for our own health away from us, and by opportunistic attorneys. The likelihood of reform is all but nonexistent, with lawyers making up more than half of the U.S. Senate and an impressive portion of the House of Representatives. Is obesity really a disease? Are Americans really in the midst of an obesity epidemic? How do we know if we are overweight? What is obesity?
"Overweight" is generally defined as weighing more than average for one's height, while obesity is defined as having 25 percent or more body fat for men, or 30 percent or more body fat for women. The National Institutes of Health bases estimates of the prevalence of overweight and obesity in the population on surveys taken through the years by CDC.
From 1960 to 1980, according to these surveys, the proportion of American adults who were overweight stayed relatively constant at around 45 percent. Then something changed: from 1980 to 2000, the proportion said to be overweight increased to 64 percent, thus going from less than half to almost two-thirds of the total adult population.
For obesity, the reported increase for the period was even sharper: The percentage of adults who were obese more than doubled to over 30 percent, while the prevalence of extreme obesity rose faster yet, more than doubling in a decade, to just over 2 percent of all adults. The largest relative increase was for children and teens (six to nineteen years). The proportion of kids said to be overweight has tripled since 1980, reaching 15 percent of young people in 2000.
These startling figures are behind assertions of an "obesity epidemic." But the statistics underlying these figures should be examined with great skepticism. In recent years, the federal government changed its definitions of overweight and obesity, thus labeling a lot of people as dangerously fat, not by their having changed at all but by the standards having been altered. Nor was this due to new discoveries that produced alarming news about body fat—it was merely a bookkeeping change.
Up until 1998—under the old definitions—a man of average height (5 feet 9 inches) was considered overweight at around 190 pounds, and a woman of average height (5 feet 4 inches) at 160. But then the official standards were changed, so that now the average man is officially overweight at 175 pounds, and the average woman at around 145. With the stroke of a pen, more than 35 million Americans suddenly became overweight—without gaining an ounce.
The government changed its official thresholds of overweight and obesity in order to bring the U.S. definitions into line with those used by other countries and the World Health Organization, thus simplifying international comparisons of national health statistics. But the real, flesh-and-blood data actually go in the other direction!
Indeed, significant segments of the population in past years were losing weight, not gaining. For example, the average weight of women aged 25 to 69 fell substantially between 1954 and 1972, according to life insurance studies. These were extensive surveys, involving a base of nearly nine million people over nearly four decades. A 1987 review by the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that these were the most reliable of 25 major prospective studies which had been done up to that time on weight and longevity. Nor should that be surprising; many studies are done by academicians who are funded by grants in which they must show something, with the accuracy of that something being of secondary concern, but the life insurance industry lives and dies (so to speak) on the strength of its actuarial numbers. And the life insurance companies were not alone in noticing a trend. In addition to the statistics assembled by the life insurance industry, "The prevalence of overweight in white men in their twenties to forties... decreased from the early 1970s to the late 1970s," according to NIH. As we shall see, however, these data, derived largely from surveys by CDC, may be less reliable than insurance data, which are based on actual weights and measurements by doctors.
Moreover, neither males nor females in the U.S. population should be, on average, gaining weight, if government data on caloric consumption and exercise are accurate.
Officially recommended caloric intake levels for men of average size range up to 2,538 calories a day, while those for women range up to 1,982. (These recommendations are for "sedentary" men and women; caloric intake recommendations are higher for more active people.)
Yet according to the Department of Agriculture, American males consumed an average of 2,344 calories per day in 1994-96, while American females consumed an average of only 1,638—neither above the official guidelines.
If these figures are correct, even a sedentary average American man's daily calorie consumption fell within the recommended range, and thus his weight for the period measured should have been stable. What is more surprising, if these data can be believed, the average American woman—even if sedentary—must have been losing weight back in the middle 1990s.
According to these figures, the average American woman is consuming from 178 to 344 fewer calories per day than is recommended for her daily energy needs. That is an annual deficit of between 64,970 and 125,560 calories. At 3,500 calories per pound, that means that American women must be losing in the neighborhood of 18-35 pounds each, every year.
These results are obviously questionable, because that which they predict is clearly not happening. If every woman in the U.S. lost even 18 pounds per year, we would noticce it; in that not every woman loses that amount, it would mean that some lose even more. (The 35-pounds-per-year figure is abundantly ridiculous, for at that rate it would take only three years for a 105-pound woman to entirely disappear!) The surveys cited are compiled by sending interviewers out to knock on doors and ask people to recall what they ate over the prior 24 hours. Because the surveys are voluntary and unverified, people who eat a lot may refuse to participate, or underestimate their consumption.
So how are these standards arrived at? What do they include and what do they leave out? What is actually being measured? Is weight really the key factor in determining human health, or are other variables as significant as weight, or possibly even more so?
The main official measurement used in assessing the "obesity epidemic" is something called the "Body Mass Index" (BMI), a ratio of weight to height. BMI is calculated by dividing a person's weight in kilograms by the square of his or her height.
From 1990 to 2000, average BMI increased about six percent, from 24.9 to 26.5, according to an October article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. For our average woman, that represents a gain of ten pounds in as many years; for the average man, 12 pounds in a decade.
Until 1998, the federal government defined overweight as a BMI of 27.8 or greater in men, and 27.3 or greater in women; it defined obesity as a BMI of 31.1 or greater for men, and 32.3 for women. Since changing the standards in 1998, the government now considers both men and women overweight at a BMI of 25 or greater, and officially obese at 30 or greater.
Because BMI is a ratio of height to weight, it cannot distinguish between fat and muscle. Muscle is much denser and heavier than fat, and skews BMI calculations upward. But health risks increase not with weight as such, but with the percentage and distribution of body fat. "One problem with using BMI as a measurement tool is that very muscular people may fall into the 'overweight' category when they are actually healthy and fit," as NIH observed in 1996.
Thus Michael Jordan, Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, and Harrison Ford are overweight under the new standards, while Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Barry Sanders, and Sylvester Stallone are all officially obese—as is the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose previous career did not include any comedies that might have been called "The Tubby Terminator" or "Conan the Corpulent."
There is no consensus in the scientific community as to exactly where to draw the line between healthy weight and overweight. "[T]he health risks associated with overweight and obesity do not conform to rigid cutoff points," according to the NIH. "Health risks increase gradually as BMI increases."
These estimates are "based on a sample of only 1,446 people conducted over seven months in 1999," according to the Wall Street Journal. The paper quoted the director of the CDC's division of nutrition and physical activity to the effect that "you need about three years [of data] for a confident estimate."
The CDC survey involves interviewers knocking on doors and asking some 5,000 interviewees per year their height and weight (among other things), from which their BMIs are calculated. Interviewers also invite 10 to 12 percent of interviewees into "Mobile Examination Units"—tractor trailers containing clinics where participants are measured and weighed.
Because participation is voluntary, this survey may also suffer from self-selection bias. Very fat or very thin people may refuse to participate, while very muscular or athletic types (whose high BMIs do not actually indicate excess body fat) may be overrepresented.
Even if the surveys present an accurate measure of BMI distribution, the problem remains that BMI is only a proxy for true overweight or obesity defined in terms of body fat. BMI "is not a measure of body fatness per se," noted a 1997 paper by CDC researchers in the journal Obesity Research. "Because, strictly speaking, obesity is defined as excess adipose tissue [fat], there has been a conscious effort not to associate this term [obesity]" with the BMI per se. However, added the researchers, "at BMI levels in excess of 30, people are generally overweight... and hence could generally be considered obese." The problem comes in for people whose BMIs are between 25 and 30—officially "overweight" but not obese. In this range, BMI is much more likely to mistake muscle for fat, and so overstate the prevalence of overweight. Also, while the health risks of obesity are well established, research suggests that the alleged health risks of this more moderate range of overweight are controversial.
"The risks of moderate overweight are almost negligible, especially for women, if they exist at all." says University of North Dakota School of Medicine nutritionist Frances M. Berg. "[T]he risks of being moderately overweight have been exaggerated by health professionals and the media, causing people to turn to diets that are more risky than the few extra pounds they carry." Indeed, actuarial data from the insurance studies referred to above demonstrate that higher BMI numbers were actually healthier than lower numbers as people aged. Above age fifty-five, a BMI below 25 actually increased risk of mortality. By age seventy, the lowest death rate was associated with a BMI of about 28, well into the government's definition of overweight, and approaching officially obese.
People in good physical shape may be more likely than fat or underweight people to participate voluntarily in government surveys asking one's weight. Fitter people tend to have high BMIs, without actually being fat at all. If such people are overrepresented in such surveys, the results tell us nothing about the actual fatness of Americans in general.
Because it cannot distinguish between muscle and fat, BMI is only a rough approximation of how fat a person is. To complicate matters further, body fat itself is only a proxy for poor diet and lack of physical activity, which appear to be the true risk factors for diseases commonly blamed on obesity or high BMI. Taken together, these caveats might give consumers cause to take assertions of an obesity epidemic with a grain of salt.
"[Y]ou do not need the BMI to find out if you are fat," writes Senior FAA Aviation Medical Examiner Glenn R. Stoutt, Jr., M.D. "[J]ust take off your clothes and look in a mirror, see how your clothes fit, or see how much fat you can hold between your fingers."
Pause for a moment and let all this... yes, "digest" is the right word. Our society is more appearance-conscious than ever before. Even small towns have health clubs, though small towns also are often populated by folks who engage in physical activity such that they are likely to have a healthy amount of dense muscle tissue. There is a national campaign, as there has been since the Kennedy administration, for physical fitness. Common sense tells us that to the extent we have gained national weight, a good portion of it is muscle. Part of the "obesity epidemic" could well be because people have followed the government's advice and attained a degree of fitness. A friend who in his late forties decided he was not comfortable with a "middle-age bulge" undertook an exercise regimen that included sit-ups, chin-ups, weight training, and outdoor exercise designed to stimulate his heart and lungs. Each day he stood on the scales. The pounds did not melt away. When he began my 5'10" friend weighed about 190 pounds—within normal range under the old standards and a little overweight under the new ones. He wore pants with a 36-inch waist. As his exercise continued, his pant size dropped to 32, his physical abilities had increased, and he was noticeably more muscular—and he weighed 190 pounds and in all his rippling-muscle glory is still officially fat.
Aforementioned Arnold Schwarzenegger is the listed author, along with a writer named Bill Dobbins, of a book entitled The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding. It is a remarkable book for many reasons, one of which is its recognition that people are not alike. It recognizes that some people tend to be lean, narrow-shouldered, with long arms, legs, and necks; some tend to be what one would describe as "average" build; and some tend more to store fat, have broad shoulders and short necks, legs, and arms. This, the book notes, is a function of their nature. To be a bodybuilder, the first group needs to work very hard to gain weight at all, never mind the effort in making that weight into muscle. The middle group has little dietary concern. The last group must both work for muscle and diet to be a successful competitive bodybuilder.
The observation in the book is an all-too-rare statement of the obvious. Some people are physically better inclined to be football players, while others are more naturally physically talented for basketball. This isn't to say that with hard work a member of one group cannot achieve success in the other. What it is to say is that one size definitely does not fit all—despite what the government, the circling flock of lawyers, and the chicken-little news media would have you believe in an effort to gain control over you or your money.
Nevertheless, according to the government, even moderate overweight is killing people. "Approximately 300,000 deaths a year are currently associated with overweight and obesity," claims Satcher. His source for this assertion was a 1993 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found "300,000 people die each year from illness related to dietary factors and sedentary lifestyle." Did the study list those 300,000 people for even one year? Of course not. As with all such statistics, it was a guess. An educated guess, most likely, but certainly a guess, as is just about any statistic that ends in five zeroes.
Satcher's substitution of "overweight and obesity" for "dietary factors and sedentary lifestyle" prompted a clarification from the authors of that study in a 1998 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine: "The [300,000] figure applies broadly to the combined effects of various dietary factors and activity patterns that are too sedentary, not to the narrower effect of obesity alone." Such as, perhaps, sitting home terrified while watching television "news" broadcasts that say you're too fat.
The following year, JAMA published a study that actually did conclude that obesity kills about 300,000 people annually. However, said the authors, "Our calculations assume that all excess mortality in obese people is due to their obesity," which is itself a powerful reason to go read something else. This study ignored such factors as diet, activity levels, and family history.
Furthermore, "the 300,000 deaths per year figure was derived without taking into account factors such as yo-yo dieting and diet drug use, both of which have been shown to have devastating effects on health," wrote the University of Colorado's Paul Campos. "Nor were variables such as class—poor people die sooner than the well-off—and social discrimination, which has been shown to have a very negative impact on health, taken into account."
In contrast, a 1996 study in the American Journal of Nutrition found that the best predictor of mortality was cardiovascular fitness independent of body weight, BMI, or percentage of body fat. Obese people by BMI or percent body fat standards who exercised had half the death rate of normal weighted individuals who did not exercise. The true risk factors were not BMI or even body fat, but activity and diet.
The study found that overweight or obese people who walked as little as a half-hour a day had lower death rates than people of normal weight who undertook less physical activity. "[L]ow fitness is a more powerful predictor of mortality than obesity," testified Tim Church, M.D., in congressional obesity hearings this year. "The proportion of deaths attributable to low fitness in many populations is higher than the proportion attributed to... obesity.... [D]eath rates for low-fit individuals... are two to three times higher than death rates in high-fit individuals. These results are seen in... the fat and the thin...." Beyond that, found the Journal of Nutrition study, when diet and activity levels were controlled, "a high body mass index (BMI) did not have a significant effect on cardiovascular mortality."
"The data linking overweight and death... are limited, fragmentary, and often ambiguous," said NEJM in an editorial. "Most of the evidence is either indirect or derived from [studies with] serious methodologic flaws. Many studies fail to consider confounding variables, which are extremely difficult to assess and control.... Thus, although some claim that every year 300,000 deaths... are caused by obesity, that figure is by no means well-established."
The story so far: The obesity epidemic we hear so much about is at least to some extent bogus; even the measuring system that determines the relative fatness of people is phony, lumping the fit among the fat and taking no account of differing body types—the sometimes true statement that a person is "big boned.". And even if the epidemic were real, there is nothing particularly wrong with obesity alone.
There's more. Many medical conditions linked to obesity have actually been decreasing in prevalence. "Other conditions, such as hypercholesterolemia and hypertension, declined... at the same time that the prevalence of obesity was increasing," according to JAMA. "Total cardiovascular mortality and mortality from coronary heart disease and stroke have also declined over these years." These are the years during which we have become a nation of lard-laden citizens, supposedly.
"Although overweight and obesity are caused by many factors, in most individuals, weight gain results from a combination of excess calorie consumption and inadequate physical activity," according to HHS. "[T]he data are confusing, but the causes of the obesity epidemic most likely are too much food and too little physical activity," agrees Katherine Flegal, an epidemiologist at the National Center for Health Statistics.
Your level of physical activity is important in determining how many calories you should consume daily, according to a September 2002 report from the National Academy of Sciences. Are current Americans, as Satcher said, "the most sedentary generation in the history of the world"?
The data do not support this contention. Thirty-one million Americans now belong to health clubs, and 40 percent of these go to the gym at least twice a week. Since 1990—while obesity and overweight have apparently increased—the proportion of Americans who report no leisure time physical activity has actually declined about 6 percent, according to the CDC. However, because the survey from which this estimate is derived is voluntary, people who do not exercise may refuse to participate. Because the data are self-reported and not independently verified, participants may overestimate the amount of exercise they get.
So, how much exercise is enough?
The National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine recommends "sixty minutes of daily moderate intensity physical activity (e.g., walking/jogging at 4 to 5 mph)."
The American College of Sports Medicine is concerned that this recommendation may actually cause people to exercise less. "Focus on sixty minutes per day may cause Americans to be confused, and doubt that thirty minutes a day, or shorter bursts of activity such as three ten-minute walks, provides any health benefit," warns the group. "[A]dditional benefits can be obtained by greater amounts of activity, but... thirty minutes of moderate intensity activity each day provides substantial health benefits for sedentary adults."
The Surgeon General agrees that "a minimum of thirty minutes of physical activity of moderate intensity (such as brisk walking) on most, if not all, days of the week," adding that "greater health benefits can be obtained by engaging in physical activity of more vigorous intensity or of longer duration." The CDC concurs: "People of all ages benefit from moderate physical activity, such as thirty minutes of brisk walking five or more times a week."
Steven Blair of The Cooper Institute says that "thirty minutes/day [of physical activity]... reduces risk of early mortality, CHD, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers by about 50 percent.... Sixty minutes/day would drop morbidity and mortality risk by another 10 to 15 percent."
The most important factor for good health is not weight, but eating well and getting regular exercise. Consumers would do well to take some of the effort (and $33 billion per year) currently spent on weight-loss fads, and put it into eating a sensible, balanced diet and getting regular exercise. If more people did that, not only would they have better health, but many might find that they get a more svelte physique into the bargain. But what business is it of the government? (We know what business it is of the lawyers; it is their business to find or create the impression of problems, find someone to blame, shake down that someone, and grow, metaphorically if not literally, fat in the process.)
Obesity is now more common among the poor than the rich, according to government data—a startling reversal of the historical situation. This may be because those currently regarded as poor are able to consume as much, or work as little, as only the rich could in the past. If this is so, it suggests that the historical trend of generally increasing prosperity—if permitted to continue—will result in reversing the obesity epidemic, just as it has resulted in reversing population growth rates around the world.
Not considered in the studies of national trends is the national ethnic makeup. It is not a matter of prejudice but of fact that different immigrant populations tend toward different physiques, without that saying anything at all about their health or longevity. Over the years different regions of the world have contributed more or less to national growth due to immigration. But in the name of political correctness and out of fear that someone will shout "racism" (as if nationality were a race), it is almost forbidden to take such things into account—which is itself too bad, in that different groups may well have special medical needs that honest studies could identify. Conversely, those different groups may well have physiological strengths from which we could learn.
But when you get right down to it, the study that matters is a study of one—you—or maybe a study of several ones, if you have children for whom you are responsible. Diet and levels of physical activity are matters of personal preference. The only justification for interfering in the personal preferences of others is that the government now bears the cost of health care for those who suffer illness due to their own choices. This is the rationale for regulation of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. It is now put forward as a reason for the experts to dictate your diet and portion sizes.
In Maoist China, the government decreed that the people assemble each morning for mandatory calisthenics. This was regarded at the time in the U.S. as a paternalistic assault on the individual. Yet if lawsuits, regulations, taxes, and bans are justified in the interests of reducing obesity, why not compulsory exercise? If the idea seems far-fetched, remember that the idea of suing McDonald's because some people who ate there are fat was only yesterday derided as ludicrous.
As the experts assume responsibility for more areas of life that were once the province of the individual, the individual gives up responsibility. In surrendering responsibility, we surrender freedom. In becoming the wards of paternalistic experts, we trade our self-respect for their protection, and they obtain increased power over the most personal aspects of our lives.
But it is more, even, than that. Yes, the government says that many of you are fat, even those of you who followed other government decrees that you become fit. The government says, itself and through studies that it funded with your money, that you should walk four or five miles each and every day. (One wonders when a parent—asked in his or her fat kid's lawsuit against the donut shop why it was that the parent didn't notice the kid was getting fat—will offer the following defense: "I was out doing the government-mandated, hour-long walk instead of being a parent, which any good parent will tell you provides plenty of exercise on its own.")
Again we see that generalization is not possible, that the range of possible humans and actual humans is so vast that any study of any group larger than one has a built-in problem. Even among the studies cited here, which deal with varying sizes of groups, we see that "overweight" is a healthy condition past a certain age. More than that, were you to ask the author of any study to specify with certainty when a person who weighed twenty-five pounds too much would die as a result thereof, that author couldn't. How about fifty pounds? Nope. Well, one hundred pounds, then? One hundred fifty pounds? Two hundred? Still no answer. We are too different to make any hard and fast rules in such things.
As this book was going to press, another revealing new report was released. After years of the most dire forecasts about the danger of being overweight and the hundreds of thousands of people killed by obesity each year, the Centers for Disease Control issued a startling new report that might well have been entitled "Never mind." The report stated that obesity kills about 26,000 Americans annually—not the 365,000 the CDC had estimated only three months earlier. What's more, the CDC found, being moderately "overweight" by the government's standards actually causes people to live longer. The CDC estimated that about 85,000 people who would otherwise die each year continue to live as a result of being overweight. Whether this set of statistics is any more reliable than the earlier ones remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, fat people have a right to be fat, if that is their choice. The description above of the dubious science in connection with the health effects of the issue merely illustrates the slipshod process whereby a questionable conclusion was reached and taken as mainstream "fact. It is intended neither to justify fatness nor to denigrate it. Your life is up to you, or ought to be, so long as your choices do not make you a burden upon others. Unfortunately, by seizing the burden more and more of responsibility for the health of the nation, the government has more and more taken, too, the "right" of telling you how you may or may not live. We have seen the proposals whereby it would become more expensive to be fat—with the additional money going to the government. Taxes designed to change your behavior are called "sin taxes." They are why so much of the cost of a bottle of liquor or a pack of cigarettes—the vast majority of the cost in the latter case—goes to the government. (This produces a bizarre paradox: if everyone in the country stopped smoking and drinking today, tomorrow the government would be in big trouble, so much has it come to rely on our doing things it officially wishes we didn't.) When the government begins to tax fatty foods, it will rake in even more of your money, which it believes it can spend more wisely than you can.
Not only do you have a right to be fat, you have a right—with one caveat—to do unhealthy things. The one caveat is the extent to which you are responsible for others, whether, for instance, you are a parent. If you are the parent of a child who is so fat as to be unhealthy, the chances are very good that you are a bad parent. If you are so fat that you cannot be a proper parent, you're a bad parent, too. Rights invariably carry responsibilities, and self-respect demands that both be embraced equally.
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Reprinted with permission from the publisher of Big Fat Liars by Morris Chafetz, Nelson Current, a division of Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, Tennessee, © 2005.