Obesity Levels Off; Complacency Threatens to Reach Alarming Levels

Last year I noted that the prevalence of obesity among children and teenagers, after tripling between the '70s and the '90s, has leveled off at around 16 percent since 1999. Today The Wall Street Journal's "Numbers Guy," Carl Bialik, points out  that similar trends have been documented in Australia, France, Switzerland, Sweden, and New Zealand:

Obesity rates could have hit a plateau, some scientists propose, if only a certain percentage of children are genetically predisposed to obesity, and that share has gotten fat already. Timothy Olds, a professor of health sciences at the University of South Australia, believes genetics could play a role, but he also points to "all the little things people are doing to encourage healthy weight."

Some researchers argue the data used to produce these conclusions are flawed. And other scientists say that while the methodology of the recent batch of studies appears sound, the findings aren't definitive. Future surveys using different methodologies, they say, could show obesity rates on the move again.

Or so they hope. The disappointment among professional fat alarmists about recent weight data, which suggest the obesity rate has leveled off for American adults as well as children, is palpable. Bialik reports that William Dietz, director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was "surprised" by the failure of Americans to continue getting fatter, inasmuch as "prominent anti-obesity-awareness campaigns have only been around for a few years." Note the implication that government intervention is the only plausible explanation for changes in human behavior. "What I worry about is that people will read these numbers and think we've got this solved," says Dietz. "I'm encouraged by the results, but this is no time for complacency." Or for budget cutting. Such anxieties underlie press releases with headlines like "New CDC Study Finds No Increase in Obesity Among Adults; But Levels Still High," which are reminiscent of statements from the Office of National Drug Control Policy about the latest drug use survey data. 

As I noted in my 2008 review of Gina Kolata's book Rethinking Thin, research indicating that extra pounds are far less lethal than we'd been led to believe raised a similar alarm among fat warriors. They resisted a downward revision in the death roll attributed to obesity not because it was scientifically unjustified but because it sent the wrong message. Likewise, they argued that it was reckless to publish a study showing that people in the "overweight" (but not obese) range seem less prone to fatal diseases than people in the "healthy" range. "Your patients likely did not read the original article," said an editorial in the journal Obesity Management, "but they did likely hear about it in the news and the message they got was not to worry so much about overweight and obesity. I do not think this is the message you want them to have."

It's possible, of course, that American corpulence will resume its upward climb after resting for a while and catching its breath. But the latest numbers from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (for 2007–2008) should be released this fall, and Dietz presumably has had a peek at them by now. If they included any satisfyingly alarming news, he probably would not be worrying so much about complacency.

My 2004 Reason article about the War on Fat (surely a classic by now) is here.

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  • ||

    The high school cheerleadering camp on campus puts a lie to the notion that teen obesity is only at 16%. About half of them look like Violet Beauregarde right before she gets rolled out by the Oompa-Loompas and the other half are merely obese. It's like they are re-staged the "Mickey" video around here; I expect Toni Basil to come hobbling out of a dressing trailer on a cane any minute now.

  • ||

    Quit eating worthless crap (carbs). Eat fat and protein. Enjoy optimal health and body composition. That is all.

  • ||

    The institutional scientist, of course, is worried about what chaos is unleashed if the unwashed masses were exposed to scientific reality. Only the annointed are worthy of scientific truth.

  • ||

    So that's where Suge goes to get ideas for the great fiction.

  • ||

    Zeb:

    You are fat because of your genetics and your sedentary lifestyle.



    Genetics plays a part. But gluttony and sloth have little to nothing to do with it.

  • ||

    The disappointment among professional fat alarmists about recent weight data, which suggest the obesity rate has leveled off for American adults as well as children, is palpable.

    Of course. These people are parasites; they've marked out a specialty territory in something that, if they succeed and it goes away, they lose their specialty. They're exactly the same as MADD; if they succeed in their purported aims, they're out of a job. So you at first get moving the goalposts, and then mission creep.

    The high school cheerleadering camp on campus puts a lie to the notion that teen obesity is only at 16%.

    So you're saying that all the teen movie cheerleaders are just lies?

  • ||

    I bet you could come up with an altogether different study, using wholly different 'methodologies', that would show that there's no such thing as obesity.

    Science has lost all credibility when it comes to areas dealing with public policy issues. Scientific method has been replaced with the "Gimme More Money" method.

  • ||

    So you're saying that all the teen movie cheerleaders are just lies?

    Sorry, dude.

  • Zeb||

    "Genetics plays a part. But gluttony and sloth have little to nothing to do with it."

    I can't look at the linked material at the moment, so I may be missing something important, but I have a very hard time believing this. If this is true, then it will make no difference in weight if a fat person who sits in an office chair all day and then goes home and sits on the couch all night eating ice cream and chips starts running every day and eating carrots instead of ice cream.

  • ||

    True story, Sug. Circumstantial evidence: Forever 21 now has a plus size line (called "Images" or "True Woman" or something equally self-esteem-y). As though overweight teens weren't already taking up enough real estate at the mall. Now we have to see them in miniskirts and thigh-grazing tunics.

  • ||

    If this is true, then it will make no difference in weight if a fat person who sits in an office chair all day and then goes home and sits on the couch all night eating ice cream and chips starts running every day and eating carrots instead of ice cream.

    The exercise wouldn't make much difference, if any. Switching to carrots instead of ice cream and chips, would.

    See what you think after you watch and listen. What you do and don't do in terms of exercise appears to be far less relevant than what you eat and what you don't. But the conventional wisdom of "lazy and eats too much" makes so much "common sense" that it's almost as impossible to convince people otherwise, no matter how much evidence is provided.

    Skeptics of government and antistatists in general should pay close attention to Taubes' revelations in GOOD CALORIES, BAD CALORIES regarding the politicization of nutrition, which has allowed all this shoddy research (he refuses to call it "science") to become official policy. Quite simply, this low-fat propaganda bullshit is killing people.

  • ||

    "Hey, fat chicks need love too! But they gotta pay."

  • ||

    Dagny,

    It's not just the overweight that's weird, it's the elimination of the "middle class." I went to my cousin's high school graduation last year. There were no normal sized girls. They were either very chubby to obese or teeny-tiny petite/tall and razor-thin androgynous.

    Based on the influx of freshmen on campus, this seems to be the trend this year as well. Is there no happy medium any longer? Are we going to have to keep importing our hot girls from Canada?

  • ||

    OK, we have found the kind of inequality that is really threatening our nation. The gap between fat and thin is increasing! Redistribution of weight, not wealth!

  • ||

    Why is cannibalism your solution to everything? Are you secretly a Wendigo?

  • ||

    "It's lonely being a cannibal. Tough making friends."

  • ||

    Unfortunately, no. Epi has just forced me to watch Cannibal Holocaust Clockwork Orange-style too many times.

  • Mike Laursen||

    For the teenagers, it's probably due to this whole "sexting" trend covered in the latest issue of reason. If you're sending naked pictures of yourself to your friends, its gonna motivate you to keep off the pounds.

  • kilroy||

    It's energy, pure and simple.

    If you expend more energy than you take in, you will lose weight. If you take in more energy than you expend you may store that energy or pass it out, depending on genetic variability and the composition of the calories.

    You can always consume less than you expend and lose weight.

    Conservation of energy is a bitch!

  • Spartacus||

    Sugarfree, you're doing it wrong. You should be hanging out around the swim camps, which are, uh, highly impressive.

  • stuartl||

    The exercise wouldn't make much difference, if any. Switching to carrots instead of ice cream and chips, would.

    This is why Alan Webb and Michael Phelps are such fatties.

  • Gunboat Diplomacy||

    Anyone who tells you they don't eat and still get fat is lying.

    Proof? Every holocaust picture you have ever seen. Not a fatty in the bunch. Not one.

  • ||

    Spartacus,

    The pool's all the way on the other side of campus. :-(

  • FatFree||

    The high school cheerleadering camp on campus puts a lie to the notion that teen obesity is only at 16%.About half of them look like Violet Beauregarde right before she gets rolled out by the Oompa-Loompas and the other half are merely obese.

    Wow, I have no idea where you live, but the high school cheerleading camp on this campus thankfully gives no such impression. I mean, not that I have really looked or anything...

  • ||

    The high school cheerleadering camp on campus . . .

    I was so happy with SugarFree's post at this point. Then . . .

  • ||

    FatFree,

    Kentucky. The horror, the horror.

    We have many beautiful girls and women in the state, but none of them are going to cheercamp for some reason.

  • ev||

    Damaged justice----

    You're being disingenuous. Do I think that healthy eating trumps exercise? Yes. But as *insert forgotten handle here* pointed out, it's all about energy. If you run a few miles you're going to burn off lots of energy, lots of calories get expended in such exertion.

    If you expend more energy than you take in you will lose weight.

    It doesn't matter if you have a restrictive diet or if you eat like a madman and exercise. If you expend more calories than you take in..you will lose weight.

  • kilroy||

    Shit! I need a more memorable handle.

  • Ed||

    BMI seems like a straight-forward calculation to me. The only variation in methodologies would be the sample group, right?

    If "scientists" cannot agree to something so simple, then wouldn't that expose this as purely political positioning, no?

  • ||

    If you expend more energy than you take in you will lose weight.

    It doesn't matter if you have a restrictive diet or if you eat like a madman and exercise. If you expend more calories than you take in..you will lose weight.


    Read GOOD CALORIES, BAD CALORIES and see if you still believe that.

  • jtuf||

    From the Wall Street Journal article:

    "Most developed countries are not doing annual surveys," says Tim Lobstein, director of policy and programs for the International Obesity Taskforce, a London-based research and advocacy group. "We probably know more about growth patterns in cattle than we do for human children."



    This nicely sums up the attitude among public health experts. They long for the day when governments treat all children like cattle.

  • dfd||

    Read GOOD CALORIES, BAD CALORIES and see if you still believe that.

    It doesn't matter what the book says, the statement "If you expend more calories than you take in..you will lose weight." is incontrovertibly true as a mater of physics. It is as true, and closely analogous, as saying if you burn more gas driving than you pump into the tank, the amount of gas in the tank will go down.

    Now, you can argue that some foods are better than others for many reasons, but none of that changes the basic fact above.

  • ||

    It doesn't matter what the book says, the statement "If you expend more calories than you take in..you will lose weight." is incontrovertibly true as a mater of physics.

    You sound like everyone who complains that the author is ignorant of the laws of thermodynamics.

    Please read the book.

  • KD||

    damaged justice is right, Good Calories Bad Calories is highly worth the read. If you're not interested in learning about why the common conceptions of weight control are wrong, then you'll surely enjoy the first part of the book on the history of how so much misinformation became so standardized-- in short, a lot of it was government bureaucracy's fault and we wouldn't be in such a nutritional mess that we are today if the government had just stayed out of it.

  • ||

  • John Savard||

    Obesity is a problem, but it doesn't help when people see news stories about an "epidemic" of obesity. Obesity is not an infectious disease, and so people who eat properly and exercise are not placed in danger of catching it because other people have become obese. Transparently false attempts to stir up panic only serve to interfere with people giving this the legitimate concern it deserves.

  • ||

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