If Everyone Is Overweight, Is Anyone?


"If current trends continue," says a new study in the journal Obesity, "all American adults" will be "overweight or obese" in four decades, imposing a heavy burden on the public treasury. One of the authors concedes that positing the indefinite continuation of "current trends" is "a big assumption." (In five decades, will more than 100 percent of the population be overweight?) I see some other problematic premises:

1. Since upward weight trends seem to have leveled off in recent years among both adults and children, the "current trends" are actually past trends, and so far they're not continuing.

2. The official definition of overweight seems increasingly arbitrary, especially since people who are overweight (but not obese) have lower mortality rates (during the study period) than people whose weight is deemed "healthy."

3. According to a widely cited estimate of weight-related health care costs, being merely overweight is not associated with a statistically significant increase in taxpayer-funded medical expenses.

4. Among the obese, extra annual health care costs seem to be offset by shorter life spans, so the net result (as with smoking) is to reduce taxpayer-funded expenses.

Yet the researchers insist that "timely, dramatic, and effective development and implementation of corrective programs/policies are needed to avoid the otherwise inevitable health and societal consequences implied by our projections." Translation: Give us more money for our vitally important research, or by 2048 we're all going to look like the levitating lard-asses in WALL-E.

I have no doubt the study's authors are sincere, but people have a remarkable ability to persuade themselves that what's in their interest is also in the public interest. It does not take a hardened cynic to suggest that obesity researchers publishing studies in the journal of the American Obesity Society might have an incentive to hype the threat posed by obesity. Yet one searches the resulting Reuters story in vain for a skeptical voice.

Here is my 2004 reason feature about the War on Fat.