Fat is Fit!

Relax--you really do look good in those jeans. Well, maybe not good. But not unhealthy either. University of Colorado's Paul Campos, whose The Diet Myth was reviewed in reason by Jacob Sullum, takes a huge bite out of claims oozing out of Harvard and other elite institutions about obesity and illness.

The Harvard School of Public Health...for many years has been pushing a phony claim with great success. The story is simple: That it's well-established scientific fact that being "overweight"--that is, having a body mass index figure of between 25 and 30--is, in the words of Harvard professors Walter Willett and Meir Stampfer, "a major contributor to morbidity and mortality." This claim has been put forward over and over again by various members of the School of Public Health's faculty, with little or no qualification. According to this line of argument, there's simply no real scientific dispute about the "fact" that average-height women who weigh between 146 and a 174 pounds, and average-height men who weigh between 175 and 209 pounds, are putting their lives and health at risk. Furthermore, according to Willett, such people should try to reduce their weights toward the low end of the government-approved "normal" BMI range of 18.5 to 24.9 (the low end of the range is 108 and 129 pounds for women and men respectively).

It's difficult to exaggerate the extent to which the actual scientific evidence fails to support any of this. In fact, the current evidence suggests that what the Harvard crew is saying is not merely false, but closer to the precise opposite of the truth. For the most part, the so-called "overweight" BMI range doesn't even correlate with overall increased health risk. Indeed "overweight," so-called, often correlates with the lowest mortality rates. (This has led to much chin-scratching over the "paradox" of why "overweight" people often have better average life expectancy and overall health than "normal weight" people. The solution suggested by Occam's Razor--that these definitions make no sense--rarely occurs to those who puzzle over this conundrum)....

A planet where apes descended from man where fat people are healthy and skinny people sick? What madness is this? Campos' whole argument about why the conventional view on BMI etc. is wrong is well worth reading. And his conclusion as to why such a weak understanding of the facts dominates public discussion on the matter is worth pondering, too:

One reason the Harvard claims are treated with such respect is that they tell people what they want to hear. Their claims dovetail perfectly with social prejudices that declare one can never be too rich or too thin, and with the widespread desire to believe that sickness and death can be avoided if one follows the rules laid down by the appropriate authority figures. Combine these factors with the social cachet wielded by the Harvard name, a willingness to make brazen assertions that run from serious exaggerations to outright lies, and lazy journalism of the "some say the Earth is flat; others claim it's round; the truth no doubt lies somewhere in the middle" type...and you have a recipe for an epidemic of wildly misleading statements dressed up in the guise of authoritative scientific discourse.

With the right sauce, btw, wildly misleading statement can taste really good. Whole enchilada, smothered in cheese and sour cream, here.

reason on fat stuff here.

Hat Tip: Film critic extraordinaire Alan Vanneman.

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  • ||

    One thing that's rarely noted is that Body Mass Index is a ridiculously arbitrary measure that barely correlates to actually health.

    For instance, I am 6' 2" and 210 pounds. This gives me a BMI of 27, which apparently means that I am overweight. However, I have about 12% body fat and use the extended scale on the Army Physical Fitness test (in other words, I score at least 100 on every event).

    Disclosure: I still have some fat on my lower stomach, much to my chagrin. I'm a fatty.

  • ||

    jody,

    That's your own fault for having a body not shaped like a cylinder (which is the assumption behind the BMI).

  • ||

    A toast: To healthy women.

  • Travis||

    As long as they roll out "plump hump #3" I don't care what they say. By the way, "plump hump #1 & #2" were excellent.

  • Episiarch||

    It's fun to bust the BMI bullshit for true believers when you are in great shape and then tell them that according to the BMI you are overweight (6'0, 185lbs, no fat, all muscle, BMI=25.1).

    They sputter and make excuses, but they're looking at you and see the evidence directly in front of them.

  • ce||

    Jody is right. There was a big article a year to two back about the horrible BMIs of Tom Cruise and other Hollywood sex symbols. The problem with BMI is it doesn't distinguish between the weight of muscle and the weight of fat. Body fat percentage is a much better way to measure, and I don't understand why nobody seems to use it.

    And I'll raise my glass to the healthy women toast!

  • ||

    Body fat percentage is a much better way to measure, and I don't understand why nobody seems to use it.

    It's much harder to measure body fat than simply plug height and weight into a formula.

  • ||

    The late great journalist Cathy Siepp talked about how after she was diagnosed with lung cancer, people would turn white after she told them that she had never smoked, never worked in a bar, and never lived with anyone who smoked and had always been thin, athletic and ate a healthy diet. She described a certain perverse pleasure in scaring the hell out of people. People have convinced themselves that only the sinful, smokers, fat people, drug users, etc.. ever get sick.

  • Rich Ard||

    Cheers!

    ...takes a huge bite out of claims oozing out of Harvard and other elite institutions about obesity and illness.



    Think you're making the same mistake everyone's gigglin' about above - while BMI isn't a good indicator of health, carrying around twenty double-quarter-pounders worth of energy reserves ain't neither.

  • ||

    The BMI is enough to make any sane person a tin-foil hat runway model.

    The medical industry revises the BMI that suddenly makes professional athletes overweight and viola!, we have an obesity "epidemic" that only the public health scolds and social engineers can fix.
    Cue the lawyers and regulators. Release the hounds.

  • ||

    File "weight" under "religion" and a host of other issues. Why are your hips anyone's business but your own?

  • Leonardo||

    The women I know who weigh around the "ideal" 108 pounds are either extremely skinny or extremely short. For an average height woman a normal weight is much heavier than 108 lbs. BMI is a dumb measure as it fails to take into account muscle weight or physique.

  • ||

    ...and with the widespread desire to believe that sickness and death can be avoided if one follows the rules laid down by the appropriate authority figures.

    I've long pointed out that Jim Fixx is dead and Keith Richards is still alive. Some people get lucky in the health gene lottery, some don't. I'm not saying that lifestyle has no effect on health and longevity, but it sure ain't the Holy Grail.

  • ||

    BTW, Mae West was overweight too. Didn't she look terrible? And she only lived till the age of 87.

  • ||

    Repeat after me: Live well, eat healthy and die anyway.

    Heck, I work out just for the sake of vanity. That and get the missus and my doctor to stop with the nagging already.

    I will admit that I do get off on the runners high a bit and I do *feel* better.

  • ||

    This report is interesting the context that just yesterday many were saying that Britney Spears was "fat" during her performance at the VMA's.

    We're all in trouble if that's the standard.

  • ||

    My theory: It's plainly obvious that there's such thing as too thin as well as too fat, and there is a weight optimum for most people somewhere in the middle. But to the Harvard School of Public Health, this is simply too complicated a notion to present to the masses. Since there probably are, on aggregate, more people who are too fat than too thin, fat is the root of all evil. Furthermore, it's much easier to sell a simple, stupid concept like the War on Fat to politicians that the War on Non-Ideal Weights for Various Individuals.

  • ||

    I've long pointed out that Jim Fixx is dead and Keith Richards is still alive.

    But those are the classic "exceptions that prove the rule", aren't they?

  • Edward||

    The New Republic is such a good journal.

  • ||

    But those are the classic "exceptions that prove the rule", aren't they?

    Dan T., I'm not going to waste my time listing a hundred or a thousand celebs, that lived unhealthy lives to a ripe old age, or that died young for no apparent lifestyle reasons. You can google, look them up yourself.

  • ||

    Dan T., I'm not going to waste my time listing a hundred or a thousand celebs, that lived unhealthy lives to a ripe old age, or that died young for no apparent lifestyle reasons. You can google, look them up yourself.

    Come on, you know what I'm saying here. The only reason Jim Fixx is notable is because he died at a (sort of) young age despite being a guru of running. In general, there's no way that the average life span of physically fit people does not exceed that of hard-partying rock stars.

  • ||

    I continue to be amazed that anyone anywhere trusts BMI. The idea that a formula that simplistic can tell you anything meaningful about your health should be ridiculous on its face, but apparently some people are just that stupid.

  • ||

    "But those are the classic "exceptions that prove the rule", aren't they?"

    Arrrgh! Exceptions never "prove" any rule. Exceptions always disprove a rule!

    Stop saying it right now.

  • Episiarch||

    The idea that a formula that simplistic can tell you anything meaningful about your health should be ridiculous on its face, but apparently some people are just that stupid.

    No, they're not stupid--they see the value in a rigid tool that allows them to classify people as "unhealthy" and then control them in the name of "public health". Seeing as 30 million Americans became "overweight" the day they adopted the BMI in the US, that ought to tell you something.

  • ||

    Arrrgh! Exceptions never "prove" any rule. Exceptions always disprove a rule!

    "Prove" in this contest means "test," not "confirm as valid." If the rule can accommodate an apparent exception, it passes.

    No, they're not stupid--they see the value in a rigid tool that allows them to classify people as "unhealthy" and then control them in the name of "public health".

    But they don't trust it; they're just using it. Petty evil I can accept. It's the idea that some saps out there genuinely think BMI is worth worrying about it that gets to me.

  • ||

    It's not a perfect measurement. But it's the easiest way to guestimate body fat percent.

    If you don't think there are too many fat people in the US you've got your eyes shut. Go to the suburbs (city people tend to be thinner, they walk more), go to the mall. Look at the number of people who are developing type-2 diabetes earlier and earlier.

  • ||

    Britney's body looked different than it used to, but she still looked very good. Knowing what the standards are, I think she should have worn a black spandexy thing. The change wouldn't even have been noticable if she had.

    I'm 5'5" which is pretty much the average height for an American woman. According to the BMI calculator I just used, my ideal weight is 126 lbs. and the low end of my healthy range is about 112 lbs. I know I look better at 126 than 112, and the only time I've ever weighed as little as 112 since reaching my adult height, it was due to depression and loss of interest in food. If had a slighter frame 112 might not be so bad.

    Personally, I don't have a problem with the BMI itself, but any study which uses it as the sole indicator of healthy weight is deeply flawed. The reason it is used is because it is easy to calculate and plug into a regression equation. Any discussion of BMI that appears online with a BMI calculator should include all the caveats about muscle mass and % body fat. They should also point out that people who are healthiest at the lower and upper ends of their range are more rare that people who are healthiest somewhere in the middle. A discussion of other health indicators, especially cardiovascular indicators, would be useful too.

  • ||

    "The exception that proves the rule" is not an expression meant to be taken literally.

    Rather, it expresses the idea that because someone can name a noteworthy exception indicates that, in fact, there is a valid rule.

    For example, if it were not very unusual that a running guru would have a heart attack in his early 50's while running, nobody would ever bring up Jim Fixx's name in the first place.

  • ||

    Britney looked fine (bad outfit though). But for a dancer (she's not much of a singer), you need to have a more athletic body.

    By-the-way, she showed up 4 hours late to rehearsal with a frozen margarita in hand.

  • ||

    "If you don't think there are too many fat people in the US you've got your eyes shut."

    No... I just think someone else's body weight is their business, not mine. Weight is just another extension of the nanny state into people's personal lives. The point of the story is that packing a few extra pounds may actually not be such a bad thing. The problem with fat is like the problem with environmentalism. Dogma quickly replaces science. At least with environmental issues, we are talking about areas of common concern. When it comes to weight, it is what one does with one's own body... just like with drugs, drinking, wearing a motorcycle helmet, etc. I can't help but notice how many posters manage to work in information on their own personal size, shape and fitness level. H&R feels a little like Gold's Gym where the two percent body fat workout warriors crowd in front of the mirrors to engage in the odd dance of preening and complaining about body flaws.

  • Edward||

    I would probably be fat if I weren't wealthy. Ever notice that most successful people conform to contemporary standards of what looks good and what's considered healthy? That's because we can afford to. It's all a question of fashion. Fat, ironically, seems to be a poverty issue. The poor dress badly and have atrocious hair styles, too.

  • ||

    Everything I've read indicates that lifespan is about 95% genetic, and that living a healthy life has more to do with making your "golden years" less excruciating than with extending them.

    To me, moderate exercise is the real issue. There are a handful of people at the margins who go apeshit at the buffet table, but for most people it's just a matter of taking a nice long walk every day. That has more benefits than just weight reduction, too. It's amazing how well a person can think while taking a walk.

    Of course, the people who think that a 5'4" woman shouldn't weigh over 108 lbs. have other issues. That basically requires a starvation diet for most women, since heavy exercise is going to result in increased muscle mass and weight.

  • MattXIV||

    J sub D,

    At least among famous musicians, there does seem to be a correlation with increased mortality. Keith Richards may be inexplicably long-lived, but the same lifestyle didn't work out so well for Brian Jones.

  • ||

    "No... I just think someone else's body weight is their business, not mine. Weight is just another extension of the nanny state into people's personal lives."

    Well, it is my business when I have to sit between two, 400 hundred pound people on a plane.

  • ||

    At least among famous musicians, there does seem to be a correlation with increased mortality. Keith Richards may be inexplicably long-lived, but the same lifestyle didn't work out so well for Brian Jones.

    Of course Brian Jones was probably murderd, . He'd have probably lived weeks longer if not for that. You point is incontroverible. I'm not saying that a healthy lifestyle is unimportant. I'm just saying that your genetic makeup is at as important as the normal range of lifestyles in determining longevity/vitality. IOW,you can't cheat the grim reaper.

  • ||

    Unfortunately, no one (to my knowledge) has ever done a study using life expectancy (a good surrogate for what is meant by "health") with weight (which weight would you use - 1 year before death or 10 years - one can imagine the affect of terminal illness on weight)and correlating it to weight. There is no serious scientific dispute that calorie restriction increases lifespan, just as there is no serious scientific dispute that your lifespan is best predicted by the lifespan of your parents (unless they stepped in front of a bus). I'm not sure the years from 78 to 82 are worth missing too many hot fudge sundaes.

  • ||

    We're all in trouble if that's the standard.



    But that is the whole point Dan T. To make a standard of fitness that makes everyone unhealthy, so that the government and health nannies can control our lives. You don't want whole swaths of the public to be exempt from government lifestyle control, do you?

    If there wasn't a sensationalist issue such as "obesity epidemic", people might decide that other people's life style choices are their own buisness.

    I thought you were on the side of the health nannies, Dan T? Shouldn't you be supporting the idea that Brittany Spears is too fat? Have you head some sort of change of heart or something?

  • ||

    I am 70 inches tall.

    I weigh 180 pounds.

    I have a 32-inch waist.

    I can run five miles at 7mph. I do cardio at least five days per week and I lift weights at least five days per week.

    But according to the BMI chart, I am seriously overweight and disgustingly fat and should probably just go ahead and kill myself because I'm going to die of cancer and diabetes, because I am so horribly, horribly fat.

  • ||

    Jim Bob

    But according to the BMI chart, I am seriously overweight and disgustingly fat and should probably just go ahead and kill myself because I'm going to die of cancer and diabetes, because I am so horribly, horribly fat.

    No you shouldn't. As a determined sloth and couch potato, I think you should kill yourself because "I can run five miles at 7mph. I do cardio at least five days per week and I lift weights at least five days per week."

    I feel the current fitness craze is entirely due to the current permissive age which allowed masochism to come out of the closet.

  • ||

    "But according to the BMI chart, I am seriously overweight and disgustingly fat and should probably just go ahead and kill myself because I'm going to die of cancer and diabetes, because I am so horribly, horribly fat."

    I computed your BMI (25.8), it says you're slightly over-weight.

  • ||

    I feel the current fitness craze is entirely due to the current permissive age which allowed masochism to come out of the closet.

    Too funny. Looking at myself recently, I'd have to say... you're right :)

    I don't have the lowest body fat percentage in the world, but it's smack in the middle of what's consdiered "healthy" for my hight. This being said, being only 5'8" and 144lbs, my BMI falls to the lower side of the "normal" category.

  • miche||

    I just calculated mine and got 19.3. I think that I'll have a drink and a smoke now instead of going to the gym.

  • ||

    I am also very healthy, so I spit on all of you who try to make people who fall within the "normal" BMI range seem sickly and pale

  • Jennifer||

    BMI was stupid enough when there were two sets of standards for it, but why the hell do they now have only one standard BMI calculator that is supposed to apply to both adult men and adult women? A healthy woman is supposed to have a higher percentage of body fat than a healthy man; what hallucinatory jackass thought it was a good idea to hold both sexes to the same standard?

    And I also wonder, compared to the old two-chart system, how the difference was calculated: are women held to the lower-fat standards of men, are men held to the higher-fat standards of women, or did they split the difference so that BOTH genders are held to unrealistic standards?

  • ||

    Most of the charts / calculator I've looked at (yahoo search on BMI calculator) had different criteria for men and women, children and adults.

  • Jennifer||

    Most of the charts / calculator I've looked at (yahoo search on BMI calculator) had different criteria for men and women, children and adults.

    Google search on "BMI calculator," and the very first link to appear is from the heart-and-lung subgroup of the National Institutes of Health; it has one calculator, does not ask your gender, and says "Body mass index (BMI) is a measure of body fat based on height and weight that applies to both adult men and women."

    My tax dollars in action! Woo hoo!

    http://www.nhlbisupport.com/bmi/

    I'm an 18.5, so I'll go enjoy a cholesterol-laden cheeseburger, followed by a cigarette, and gloat about how incredibly fucking healthy and therefore moral I am.

  • ||

    I thought you were on the side of the health nannies, Dan T? Shouldn't you be supporting the idea that Brittany Spears is too fat? Have you head some sort of change of heart or something?

    Don't get me wrong, I still adhere to the notion that general well-being of people in a society is a concern of that society but this doesn't mean that the standards of good health should be unrealistic.

  • ||

    For instance, I am 6' 2" and 210 pounds. This gives me a BMI of 27, which apparently means that I am overweight. However, I have about 12% body fat and use the extended scale on the Army Physical Fitness test (in other words, I score at least 100 on every event).

    Jody, I'll go you one better. I'm 6'2", 235 pounds. According to the chart, I'm obese and at high risk. Never mind that I work out daily and lift weights -- bloody chart says I'm loaded with unhealthy muscle.

    Oh, and the middle of the healthy range is 170. Please. I was 170 pounds in high school. I was skin and bones, no muscle or fat to speak of, and was regularly teased for being so skinny.

    Reason #23,567 not to trust PC government-paid researchers.

  • ||

    BMI is only a guide. It's designed around an average body type and not weight lifters.

    I'm 6'2" and at my peak, I weighed 210. I smugly dismissed my BMI because hey, I lift weights, I have more muscle than average. Now I'm down to 175 and can still lift the same amount of weight and I no longer need blood pressure medication.

  • Jennifer||

    BMI is only a guide. It's designed around an average body type and not weight lifters.

    Except that it assumes the average body type of all humanity should be applied to every individual member thereof.

  • Episiarch||

    I'm 6'2" and at my peak, I weighed 210. I smugly dismissed my BMI because hey, I lift weights, I have more muscle than average. Now I'm down to 175 and can still lift the same amount of weight and I no longer need blood pressure medication.

    Sounds like you like the BMI because it supports your own personal experience. That doesn't mean squat for anybody else. And you might want to look for tapeworm eggs in your shit*.

    * just kidding -- South Bronx Parasite Diet, baby!

  • ||

    I read somewhere that the negative health effects of obeseity could be almost entirely attributed to diabetes, which also increases the chance of heart disease.

    I have no links or any other corroborating evidence, because I am too fat and lazy to look it up.

  • ||

    The only time to worry about your BMI is when it exceeds your IQ.

  • ||

    No you shouldn't. As a determined sloth and couch potato, I think you should kill yourself because "I can run five miles at 7mph. I do cardio at least five days per week and I lift weights at least five days per week."

    Aresen,

    I work out because I enjoy working out; it feels good. But I'm going to assume you're kidding and laugh with you. My friends rag on me because I enjoy exercise and I never really hear the end of it.

    I feel the current fitness craze is entirely due to the current permissive age which allowed masochism to come out of the closet.

    Not really sure what you mean by this. There is no element of masochism to my exercise routine. I do not believe that being skinny necessarily means being healthy.

    It is true that I am a steady gym-goer. I see all body types in the gym. Often the strongest men are the ones with big torsos, big legs, and some extra fat around the middle. There are many skinny people who run on treadmills and ride bikes. There are a few beefcakes, Fridge Rockgroin types, who look ridiculous, with huge torsos and huge legs and tiny waists.

    Incidentally, I lift for strength and not necessarily for bulging muscles. Looking at me you would not think that I can move the kind of weight I am capable of moving. To myself I think I look like a man of average build, which is fine. Lifting weights does not mean that one has
    muscle dysmorphia
    .

    I do encourage my friends and family to exercise, but not because I am concerned with everyone being skinny or having a perfect body. Exercise is good for a body's cardiovascular system, and lifting weight increases bone density, which is especially good for ladies. My own mother now lifts weights and is very, very fit for a 50-year-old woman.

    And, I enjoy cheesecake. mmmmmmmmm

  • ||

    There is no element of masochism to my exercise routine.

    Sure, sure, that's what the exercise freaks all say in public.

    In private, they whisper "No pain, no gain."

    ;P

  • ||

    And, I enjoy cheesecake. mmmmmmmmm

    And what about the beefcake?

  • ||

    I am guessing any ( average height) man who only weighed 129 lbs could probably not get an erection.

    My friends who I consider super-skinny are at least 150. The only people I know who are athletic and weigh less than ~180-200 are midgets or guys with very narrow shoulders/rib cage.

  • Space Monkey||

    Does being athletic really mean healthy?

    I have not seen the stats, but I imagine skinny Japanese people will have better life expectancies than gym rats.

    For people who surround themselves with fat friends and family, I could see the BMI provide a useful service by being an outside evaluation.

    All these people that are upset with BMI should look around at elementary schools, IHOPs, and DMVs. We are a nation of fat people. Not athletic, well-built, muscular people, but fat people.

    Unless BMI gains some sort of compulsory aspect (like insurance rates), it's nothing to get excited about. Military considers BMI, but they check body fat % if your BMI is too high.

    Sorry for length

  • ||

    Does being athletic really mean healthy?

    The answer to that question depends on how you define "athletic" and "healthy." I don't doubt that some people work out purely for cosmetic reasons, but I am not one of them. To me health includes a mental aspect of feeling good and for me much of that is associated with vigorous exercise.

    Sure, sure, that's what the exercise freaks all say in public.

    In private, they whisper "No pain, no gain."

    ;P


    I whisper "Apo Pantos Kakodaimonos."

    And what about the beefcake?

    I am going to e-mail you my recipe for Pacific Red Snapper tacos.

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