Obesity

The Flatness of Fatness

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The prevalence of obesity among American women, and possibly among men as well, seems to have reached a plateau, according to a CDC analysis of the latest data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Overall, the share of American adults who are considered obese, meaning they have body mass indexes of 30 or more (equivalent to a weight of 203 pounds or more for a man who is five feet, nine inches tall), has more than doubled since the late 1970s, when it was about 15 percent. But the rate for women, which was 35 percent in the 2005-06 NHANES, has not increased significantly since 1999, while the rate for men was 33 percent in 2005-06, the same as in the 2004-05 survey. Fat warrior Kelly Brownell, who has repeatedly predicted that the current generation of children will have shorter life spans than their parents because they're so damned fat (even though there's no evidence to support that prediction), grudgingly concedes that the latest NHANES numbers are sorta good news, telling New York Times science reporter Gina Kolata:

There is slight joy in fact that the number has not increased since 2003. But it is mainly discouraging news that the number has not gone down at all.

Madelyn Fernstrom, director of the weight management program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, has a different perspective:

She said there might be more to it than people finally reaching the limit of how fat they can get.

Instead, Dr. Fernstrom said, many Americans are setting more rational weight goals and discovering that even if they cannot lose much weight, they can try to avoid gaining.

The national goal of no more than 15 percent of Americans being obese is "unrealistic," she said, even counterproductive. And the so-called normal weight defined as a body mass index, or B.M.I., of 18 to 25 is impossible for many people to maintain.

"When the bar is set too high, people do nothing," Dr. Fernstrom said. "Whether it's 7 to 10 fruits and veggies a day when people can't even get to 5, or 75 minutes of physical activity when 20 is hard for most people, or a B.M.I. under 25."

As I noted in a recent column, the scientific basis for setting the preferred BMI range at 18 to 25 is questionable, since people in the "overweight" (but not obese) category have the lowest mortality rates. And as Kolata points out in her book Rethinking Thin, it's not clear that people who lose weight become healthier as a result of shedding pounds, as opposed to the lifestyle changes that go along with it. Look for my review of Kolata's book in the January issue of reason.

Is it only a coincidence that obesity's upward trend has leveled off around the same time as the downward trend in smoking? Maybe, although smoking is associated with lower weight, probably because it curbs appetite, quickens metabolism, and/or serves as an alternative form of oral gratification. Still, the health risks posed by a pack-a-day cigarette habit seem to be quite a bit worse than the health risks associated with being "overweight," although you might not guess that from listening to anti-fat alarmists like Kelly Brownell.

NEXT: On Chavez and Laughland

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  1. Maybe, although smoking is associated with lower weight, probably because it curbs appetite, quickens metabolism, and/or serves as an alternative form of oral gratification.
    I guess that explains why I stopped giving cunnilingus after I started smoking.

  2. This is unacceptable.
    We need the government to lower the BMI standards. Then we can have a fresh new crisis on our hands and get back to normal.

  3. anyone know why they use BMI as a measure…is it just because it’s easy?

  4. They use BMI because it is an accurate indicator for 95% of humanity. BMI was a great improvement over height/weight charts. Percentage of body fat is the best measure, but it requires someone who knows what they are doing to measure it.

    Whenever one of my chunky bretheren talks about how bogus BMI is I always offer to calculate body fat % so they will know exactly where they stand. All have refused because they don’t want to really know.

    If your BMI says you are obese, you almost always are obese. If you think you aren’t, find out your body fat %.

  5. I dunno, when I was a vagrant yoot, every suburban housewive in our neighborhood wore a ratty turquoise green, egg stained chenille bathrobe, a modified beehive, was about 100 lbs overweight, and they stood around in gaggles throughout the neighborhood smoking and gassing about how much trouble my sister was going to give my parents once she hit puberty.

    It is my humble opinion that people take a hell of a lot better care of themselves then they did back in the day. You should see the Mom’s at my kid’s school (and, Dude, when they came over to my place for Bunco!).

    I mean, they ain’t twenty and hotter than a three dollar pistola, but most are attractive to great looking, well dressed, and definitely MILF material, even for us young guys. Except I’m married, so that’s only speculative for illustration purposes.

    Then again, maybe it’s just because we live in So Cal instead of Toledo.

    See, I believe in scientific inquiry.

  6. The prevalence of obesity among American women, and possibly among men as well, seems to have reached a plateau, according to a CDC analysis

    That’s because Clinton got the soda machines out the schools. See, it’s working.

    It’s like Global Warming(tm). If the observed effects aren’t as bad as the predicted effects, it’s because we finally take GW seriously (and because Al Gore got the peace prize, natch).

  7. TWC:

    You should see the Mom’s at my kid’s school

    I have (well, at my kid’s school, that is). The problem is, while they’re a lot more fit, they seem a lot more insufferable. I can’t put my finger on it, but the coiffed hair, the volvos, the Denis Kucinic bumper stickers… I think I’d rather go out with the one that’s 15 pounds overweight, but has a bumper sticker that says “I like to party”.

  8. Paul, yeah, we have a few of those insufferables but mostly these chicks are apathetic except if it involves something to do with school. Then, they are on it like a chicken on a Junebug.

    Ours are the typical families that are busy and not paying attention and have therefore allowed the Republic to slip away.

  9. BMI is a bogus index. I come in at a 27. I am 6’6″ and 240 lbs, I can bench 325, commute by bike 100 miles per week, and run 5 miles on Sunday (towards the store for beer). Obviously I am an overweight lardo with a high body fat %. I guess I will just take the body (which I am proud of) that is so bloated and horrible down to the river and drown myself (in beer, looking for easy cars and fast women).

    BMI is absolute bunk, and needs to be replace with something that makes more sense epidemiologically. If “overweight” people have lower mortality and similar quality of life then overweight is the new healthy.

  10. If “overweight” people have lower mortality and similar quality of life then overweight is the new healthy.

    But what of Global Warming?

  11. Not a big fan of the BMI. Under its guidelines, Arnold Schwarzenegger and dozens of other athletes and buff Hollywood types would be considered obese because muscle weighs more than fat. Body fat percentage might be a better scale, though.

  12. Due to having had thyroid problems for many years, I have been everything from painfully thin to actually obese. In the process, I saw exactly what my best weight was, 160 – 165. That is the weight I was when my stomach was flat but I didn’t look like I was on the verge of starvation. By BMI standards, I would be well into “overweight” at 160 (I am 5.7).

    I’m a barrel-chested guy so that makes sense. BMI works pretty well for mesomporphs, but not the ectomorphs or the endomorphs (like myself).

  13. Why the fuck do libertarians care so much about this issue. Are most libertarians fat?

  14. Why the fuck do libertarians care so much about this issue. Are most libertarians fat?

    No, Edward, we want to protect your right to remain so.

  15. Jesus Christ, we might be pretty much of a police state with SWAT teams knocking down every other door looking for drugs, but I’m pretty sure that anbody who wants to is free to be fat. I mean, what the fuck? What am I missing here?

  16. What am I missing here?

    Nothing, Edward, nothing. Pay it no mind.

  17. how much trouble my sister was going to give my parents once she hit puberty.

    And…? AND…?

  18. BMI just doesn’t work for a certain percentage of us. Either we’ve got a heck of a lot more muscle than standard, or we have big bones (which you can get from growing up doing dance or sports, by the way. I did ballet, have extremely thick bones from the waist down and have the kick of a mule.)

    Body fat percentage–much better. And even that, I’d take it with a grain of salt. Body shape (apple vs. pear) is strongly correlated with things like diabetes, so two people with the exact same body fat percentage might have wildly different health consequences from that.

  19. Jesus Christ, we might be pretty much of a police state with SWAT teams knocking down every other door looking for drugs, but I’m pretty sure that anbody who wants to is free to be fat. I mean, what the fuck? What am I missing here?

    Have you noticed all of the food restrictions being imposed on us in the name of anti-obesity?

  20. Imposed? Are you fucking nuts? Go buy yourself a Krispy Kream.

  21. What am I missing here?

    Does anyone know how to make the symbol for “infinity” in HTML?

  22. Does anyone know how to make the symbol for “infinity” in HTML?

    DING DING DING…Stevo wins teh tubes, yet again.

    This is Stevo’s world; we just live in it.

  23. DING DING DING…Stevo wins teh tubes, yet again.

    I set him up.

  24. Yes BMI is a rough estimate and doesn’t work for everyone, but for the vast majority of people it does. I know everyone else that posts here has Arnold-like physiques or are professional athletes, but for the rest of us peons, it works pretty well.

  25. BTW, I don’t support the whole war on fat and I’m living proof that you gain weight when you quit smoking, but the whole “BMI is worthless argument” pisses me off. It’s a rough, largely useful estimate. Body fat percentage is a better one, but requires slightly more expensive and less common tools than a bathroom scale.

  26. I was looking for that buff Arnold you keep mentioning but I could only find this guy

  27. BMI works poorly at extremes of height. Which makes sense as people get bigger cubically, not squaredly.

    So if you’re really tall, you have an argument. Otherwise, you’re a fatass with a bad case of denial.

  28. nebby @ 6:41

    “They use BMI because it is an accurate indicator for 95% of humanity. BMI was a great improvement over height/weight charts.”

    Dude, the BMI IS a height/weight chart. They just threw in some fancy cipherin’ to make it seem all real scientific and all that. But if you’re a certain hieght, then your weight determines your BMI. Muscle mass nor bodyfat have nuthin’ to do with anything.

  29. …or “height” even. Whatever.

  30. …or perhaps “hight”

    Jeez, it’s way past bedtime.

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