Commentators across the political spectrum recently joined in celebration of a report that fat doesn't really kill—at least, not as much as we used to think. The study, published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that people who are moderately overweight actually have lower mortality rates than people of normal weight. Some normally level-headed pundits responded with gleeful fantasies of feasting on steak in their old age while their carrot-munching peers go to an early grave. But the glee may be dangerously premature.
The new study by Katherine Flegal and her colleagues claims that excess weight causes "only" about 25,000 deaths in the United States annually, far below the earlier Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figure of 365,000. Yet, significantly, the CDC is not revising its official estimate—which is based on six previous major studies. It's not unusual for different studies to yield contradictory results; the scientific consensus emerges from an overview of all available research. The Flegal study is hardly the last word.
Science writer Michael Fumento, who has contributed to Reason and is the author of the 1997 book, Fat of the Land: The Obesity Epidemic and How Overweight Americans Can Help Themselves, critiques the study in the online edition of The New Republic. He notes that the national survey data used in the study were collected at three points. The sample surveyed earliest had death rates close to the previous CDC findings. The much lower figure comes from adding the later data which, Fumento says, did not allow enough time for higher weight-related mortality to show up.
Others note that many people classified as overweight in the study may not be "fat" at all. The study relied on Body Mass Index, a measurement that does not distinguish between weight from body fat and muscle, and even consigns some professional athletes to the ranks of the overweight.
But let's look at what the Flegal study actually said—and didn't say.
The study didn't say that you don't need to exercise. Nor did the study say that severe obesity is harmless: Its death toll was estimated at 112,000 a year. (The 25,000 figure was obtained by subtracting the estimated 86,000 fewer deaths among the moderately overweight compared to people of "normal" weight.) The researchers concluded that being more than 40 pounds overweight is indeed hazardous. Yet the activists who agitate for "fat acceptance" want us to believe there's nothing wrong with 400 pounds of excess fat.
Evidence of obesity hazards continues to mount. But two other new studies showing that obesity significantly increases the risk of stroke and dementia went unnoticed.
The backlash against "fatophobia" comes from different quarters. To many conservatives and libertarians, the idea of government-prescribed healthy eating seems like "the nanny state" at its worst. They fear that a "war on obesity" will mirror some of the excesses of the antismoking crusade, with less freedom of choice, higher taxes to encourage "good" behavior, and Draconian action against "sinful" businesses. These concerns are not groundless, but it's hardly a manifestation of creeping totalitarianism for the public health establishment to flag obesity's dangers, or for social norms to encourage healthy living.
Partly, the backlash on the right is also an adolescent rebellion against politically correct authority: If the liberal do-gooders say Big Macs are bad for you, let's stuff ourselves with Big Macs just to spite them.
Meanwhile, some on the left regard health-based concerns about obesity as a smokescreen for antifat prejudice. To them, disapproval of anything "different" is plain bigotry, and looking askance at a 300-pound shopper with a cart full of junk food is no better than giving dirty looks to an interracial couple. These attitudes are compounded by the radical feminist belief that women are oppressed by patriarchal ideals of beauty and thinness, and that "fat liberation" is a corollary of women's liberation.
There's nothing liberated about eating one's way into diabetes, strokes, heart attacks, and other ailments. No, that extra donut won't spell your doom. But it will be tragic if ideologically motivated hype about the new study is taken by some as a license to forgo responsible eating and physical fitness.
Correction: Last week's column stated that Jonathan Bean is the only Republican in the history department at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Michael R. Davidson, a lecturer in the department since last year, reports that he is also a registered Republican.