I said something tonight which seemed to surprise my friends, and now I feel the need to talk about it a little, so I'm laying it out here: I don't believe in the "obesity epidemic." I mean that I really don't believe it exists.
My essential reading for this is a 2005/2006 scientific article:The epidemiology of overweight and obesity: public health crisis or moral panic?
Paul Campos, et al. International Journal of Epidemiology.
Selections follow, but I suggest reading it all. It is scientfic, but readable, and a fantastic article that states the claims the claims the medical/scientific communities have been making, and swiftly knocks them down. For example:Claim #2: ‘Mortality rates increase with increasing degrees of overweight, as measured by BMI.’—WHO, 2003 (p. 61)2
This claim, central to arguments that higher than average body mass amount to a major public health problem, is at best weakly supported by the epidemiological literature. Except at true statistical extremes, high body mass is a very weak predictor of mortality, and may even be protective in older populations.Claim #4: Significant long-term weight loss is a practical goal, and will improve health.
At present, this claim is almost completely unsupported by the epidemiological literature. It is a remarkable fact that the central premise of the current war on fat—that turning obese and overweight people into so-called ‘normal weight’ individuals will improve their health—remains an untested hypothesis. One main reason the hypothesis remains untested is because there is no method available to produce the result that would have to be produced—significant long-term weight loss, in statistically significant cohorts—in order to test the claim.
The authors also speculate on social and political factors contributing to this moral panic:In particular, organizations like the International Obesity Task Force (which has authored many of the WHO reports on obesity) and the American Obesity Association (which has actively campaigned to have obesity officially designated as a ‘disease’) have been largely funded by pharmaceutical and weight-loss companies.
Moral panics are typical during times of rapid social change and involve an exaggeration or fabrication of risks, the use of disaster analogies, and the projection of societal anxieties onto a stigmatized group.47,48
Public opinion studies also show that negative attitudes towards the obese are highly correlated with negative attitudes towards minorities and the poor, such as the belief that all these groups are lazy and lack self-control and will power. This suggests that anxieties about racial integration and immigration may be an underlying cause of some of the concern over obesity.49–51
Previous work indicates that moral panics often displace broader anxieties about changing gender roles.49,53 While this hypothesis deserves further research, a recent advertisement that ran in a major American newspaper suggests that this may be at play in the obesity panic. This advertisement blames ‘30 years of feminist careerism’ for an epidemic of childhood obesity and diabetes: ‘With most mothers working, too few adults and children eat balanced, nutritious, portion-controlled home-cooked meals.
However, other works suggest that some portion of the population's weight gain can be attributed to smoking cessation,56 which runs counter to the assumption that the country's weight gain is evidence of both moral laxity and a harbinger of declining overall health.