Obesity

Will the Obesity Plateau Allow Us to Take a Breather From Paternalistic Panic?

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The latest data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, reported online in The Journal of the American Medical Association yesterday, confirm that obesity rates, after rising for two decades beginning in the early 1980s, have remained more or less steady during the last decade. A bit more than a third of adults (35 percent) were classified as obese in the 2009-10 survey, essentially the same as in 2003-04. "Over the 12-year period from 1999 through 2010," the researchers report, "obesity showed no significant increase among women overall." Obesity (defined, controversially and imprecisely, as a body mass index of 30 or more) continued rising among men a bit longer, but the rate in the most recent survey "did not differ significantly…from the previous 6 years."

The Los Angeles Times bizarrely attributes the leveling off of the upward trend in obesity to interventions such as "nutritional information on food packaging and revising school lunch menus." The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act took effect in 1991, while school lunch reform is an ongoing movement that began only in recent years. How could either policy explain why women kept getting fatter until 1999 or why men's BMIs continued rising until 2003? The New York Times is more cautious. "While it's possible that public education efforts around healthful eating and exercise have had some effect," writes health reporter Tara Parker-Pope, "it may be that the population has reached a biological saturation point in terms of obesity, and that those most vulnerable have already become obese." David Ludwig, director of the childhood obesity program at Children's Hospital in Boston, tells her, "Until we actually see declines in body mass index we can't confidently say prevention efforts have succeeded."

Maybe not even then. Not everything that happens in the world can be explained by government policies, let alone by the intent of those policies. Aside from its health implications, the stabilization of BMI trends may provide some relief from the weight panic that has been feeding all manner of paternalistic schemes since the phrase obesity epidemic was first uttered. Previous Reason coverage of the obesity plateau here.

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119 responses to “Will the Obesity Plateau Allow Us to Take a Breather From Paternalistic Panic?

  1. Plateau for last decade?

    Correlation between global temperature and obesity?

    1. “I’ve just completed Michelle’s Nature trick of adding in the real BMI to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Meme’s to hide the decline.”

    2. The connection is obvious!

  2. Not everything that happens in the world can be explained by government policies, let alone by the intent of those policies.

    That’s heresy.

  3. Will the Obesity Plateau Allow Us to Take a Breather From Paternalistic Panic?

    “Malnutrition posited as cause of Obesity Plateau, Gov’t considering options to combat the problem.”

    Shorter Answer: no. never.

    1. hell no…if anything, look for some bureaucracy to spring forth taking credit of the plateau, something about “having raised the level of awareness”. I’m also aware that most politicians are lying opportunists but I don’t see anything that stops that.

    2. “Malnutrition posited as cause of Obesity Plateau, Gov’t considering options to combat the problem.”

      Funny, one of the first things I ever learned about obesity (long before I got that way) was how prevalent it is among the malnourished.

  4. BMI is so imprecise that it is absolutely meaningless. By the BMI measure every defensive back in the NFL is overweight and every linebacker is obese. I guess we use BMI because we don’t have a better way to measure obesity writ large. Which is to say we have no way to measure obesity at all and should stop pretending that we do. This is all complete and utter nonsense.

    1. When NFL players retire, they almost all immediately lost 50 lbs or gain 100.

      While the BMI is a joke for them, they really are mostly at an unsustainable weight.

    2. I view BMI much like I view IQ. Imprecise, but largely correct. The fact is, the large majority of people claimed to be obese by BMI are not NFL linebackers or weightlifters. Most people with 80 IQs are demonstrably dumber than someone with 120.

      I think my last BMI was 30.5. Guess what? I’m fat. I lift weights and have decent muscle mass. Still fat.

      1. I think the BMI range is off.

        I have, at my current height (6′), been everthing from 125 to 215.

        Lets do some calculations.

        18 year old robc, 125#, BMI 17.0, “underweight”. This is technically correct, but looking at pictures of myself from then, I would go more with “released from concentration camp”.

        22 year old robc, 145#, BMI 19.7, “nomal weight”. Bullshit, I was still too damn thin.

        30 year old robc, 175#, BMI 23.7, “normal weight”. Correct, this is my optimal weight, IMO, but its not in the middle of the range.

        42 year old robc, 215#, BMI 29.2, “overweight”. True, but its on the border of obese, and while I want to lose 20-30 pounds (175 is a pipedream), Im not close to obese.

        1. I’m an inch taller than you and the same age and this accords with my experience. Last time me and the doc discussed my weight, he said I should weigh less than I did when I was 23 and on jump status in the 82nd. That’s never going to happen again short of a debilitating disease. I’ll be happy if I get down under 200.

          1. after 20 years in Fayetteville, my takeaway is that a majority of Army folk qualify as obese when using BMI. It is a measure that does not account for muscle.

            1. it also does not account for increased bone density

              contrary to popular belief, many sports that increase weight do not just do it with muscle mass. they also increase bone density, which also bumps up the weight.

              if you do heavy weight bearing exercise (powerlifting, olympic weightlifting), your BONES get heavier also

            2. ^^THIS^^

              I think these measurements in general fail to account for groups who, on average, will have a lot more lean muscle mass (and bone density, as dunphy notes) than…whatever control group they used to figure out what constitutes an average BMI.

              1. i had a foot pursuit once where i chased a guy who jumped off a ledge over 10 ft on to concrete. i followed. at a bodyweight of 215 plus 25 lbs of gear, that’s 240 lbs hitting the ground. my boot almost exploded. just ripped apart.

                all i suffered was a bone bruise. dr.s said to thank weighlifting, because extra bone density was the only reason i didn’t shatter my leg

                yet another reason why weightlifting is cool

                to quote rippetoe: strong people are harder to kill and more useful in general

        2. You were 125 and 6 feet tall? What the fuck, dude? I’m also 6 foot. When I was 15 and ran 6 miles a day as warmup for soccer practice, I never got below 165. 125 is unthinkable.

          1. I was short and thin, then grew a hell of a lot in a hurry.

            Which made me tall and concentration camp thin.

            1. I’m going to call you Beanpole from now on, rob. What do you weigh now, 140?

              1. I’m going to call him Sarah Plain and Tall.

              2. 215ish, anything but a beanpole.

          2. I’m 6’2, and the lightest I was at this height was 160-something. 175 or so when I graduated from high school, and I was skinny. Little less than 20 pounds heavier now, but I put on most of that during my gym hound years.

          3. I’m about 5’11” and still weigh around 130 at 33. My weight has not changed at all in 10 years.

        3. I’ve always weighed 135 ever since I hit 5’9″. Never less, never more.

          BMI says I’m borderline anorexic.

          1. That was me until I got married.

            I maybe could claim 5′ 10″ though. I’m pretty sure that if I played for the Red Sox the media guide would list me as 5′ 10″. That’s my standard for public declaration of height.

        4. This largely accords with my experience. Pen & Teller did a good Bullshit on this subject.

        5. I think the BMI range is off.

          This is really the heart of the matter. But properly increasing the median decreases the justification for nutritional busybodies to meddle in our affairs, so it’ll never happen.

        6. I think the BMI range is off.

          Overweight people are likely to be more healthy than normal people… yep, it’s off!

      2. What about people who have never had their BMI or IQ tested?

        How…How do we know if we’re good or bad?

        1. I can usually tell by looking at them.

          1. Or talking to them. Some people talk fat.

            1. The way Obama talks clean?

              1. No negro dialect even.

      3. I view BMI much like I view IQ. Imprecise, but largely correct. The fact is, the large majority of people claimed to be obese by BMI are not NFL linebackers or weightlifters.

        ____________________

        Perhaps so, but to know whether we have an obesity eopidemic, we need to know how many people who are “obese” according to BMI are NOT athletes, naturally thick and muscular, etc. And BMI tells us nothing about that. It is surely true that a high BMI correlates with what we would call real obesity — i.e., being really damn fat — but that’s not enough of a basis on which to make broad declarations about public health.

        1. But even if BMI was super-duper-accurate, I don’t believe the government should be “solving” obesity, so that’s not really an issue with my quibble.

          Body fat percentage is a better measure, but they become just as imprecise if performed without going in a water tank, an impracticality for everyone seeing a doctor.

          1. obviously this means that Obamacare failed in not mandating displacement tanks in every doctors office and hospital.

      4. I’d agree with SF, more or less. BMI is a useful metric for populations, but not very useful or meaningful when applied to individuals. When talking about an individual, you don’t need a number to tell if he is fat.

      5. At 10% body fat, I weigh 220 lbs. If I were to lift weights, I’d probably end up weighing closer to 240 or so.

        At 6’2″, that’d make me overweight, according to the BMI.

        The problem is it doesn’t take into account different skeletal structures, nor does it take into account muscle mass. So, while it may work for the majority of the Europeans it was designed for, it doesn’t translate over to people who have bodies that do not fit the average European mold.

    3. Uh, no BMI is reasonably accurate. The threshold at which obesity is defined is absolutely arbitrary; that’s the problem.

  5. NO Fatso!

    1. Hey, I like that:

      Ate three Big Macs for lunch and washed them down with a chocolate milkshake. No fatso.

      1. pause.

        …ok, sorry, i had to finish chewing.

  6. Aside from its health implications, the stabilization of BMI trends may provide some relief from the weight panic that has been feeding all manner of paternalistic schemes since the phrase obesity epidemic was first uttered.

    Perhaps – let’s hope. I have been and am skeptical of an arbitrary body mass index that would place someone like Marilyn Monroe on the “obese” side with no regard to people’s appreciation of beautifully-built curves and lust-inducing protuberances.

  7. “Not everything that happens in the world can be explained by government policies, let alone by the intent of those policies.”

    How sad is it that this is not common sense?

    1. I believe you can thank government schools for that.

      1. I remember coming home from high school in the early 90’s and my father regularly asking me how the spin cycle was that day. I often answered by spewing some liberal garbage that I didn’t understand because I thought my AP history teacher was so damn smart.

        Fortunately for me, liberalism was simply a form of temporary insanity.

        1. I too exited public schools a liberal zombie believing that government was the source of all that is good in the world.

          For a few years I was Tony.

          Then I discovered that the people who are supposed to help you didn’t give a shit, and that in fact all they cared about was their ability to commit acts that would be criminal if committed by anyone else.

          I now define government as the people who can freely hurt you and steal your stuff because they’re the ones who are supposed to help you when someone tries to hurt you or steal your stuff.

          1. I too exited public schools a liberal zombie believing that government was the source of all that is good in the world.

            Both of my teenage daughters have been in public schools for their entire scholastic careers. The older one will graduate H.S. in June. I am so thankful that they actually have listened to my wife and me and believed us when we have explained to them that although it really sounds awful, snobbish and elitist to say it, they really are smarter than the majority of the population – which often includes their teachers. And they have come home on more than one occasion to tell us, with requisite eye-rolling, about something stupid – or simply wrong – one of their teachers said that day.

            They have so far managed to make it through the public schools while still retaining the ability and desire to make up their own minds.

            Warms a feller’s heart (sniff).

            1. I was living with my father at the time who is a devout socialist who was shacked up with a communist.
              They only encouraged my indoctrination.
              I can only hope that I will be able to save my now two year old daughter from the same fate.

              1. jesus christ.

                ok, now i have a some sympathy for you and your disorders.

                it becomes clear now

                post traumatic stockholm syndrome

            2. I am so thankful that they actually have listened . . . when we have explained to them that although it really sounds awful, snobbish and elitist to say it, they really are smarter than the majority of the population . . .

              I tell my daughter the same thing, and she’s only 11. I haven’t really had her drink the libertarian Kool-Aid yet, I figure there’s plenty of time for that later on. For now, let her be a kid. But she has already been taught that guns are good, so I’ve at least laid the foundation.

          2. I now define government as the people who can freely hurt you and steal your stuff because they’re the ones who are supposed to help you when someone tries to hurt you or steal your stuff.

            And when a few of the worst of their people magically disappear they make a really big fuss of it too.

      2. I, too, went to the sort of high school where the teachers attributed everything good to government and everything bad to capitalism. Even then, I knew that that wasn’t so, but I also knew to regurgitate the teachers’ nonsense to get through school.

        1. I was always too busy covertly reading Dune to pay that much attention to the teachers.

          1. Yeah, Herbert, Heinlein, Niven… they killed my GPA so badly they made me retake my SAT twice.

    2. Le sens commun est fort rare.

      1. Common sense ain’t so common.

  8. I’m 5’8″ and 160lbs, which puts me at a BMI of 24.3, just under the overweight range of 25. The last time I had my body fat percentage checked (6 months ago, same weight) it was 5.3%. To me it is pretty clear I am underweight and could really use an additional 15-20 pounds. So I think there are some obvious problems with using BMI as a metric for obesity.

    1. I think BMI makes more sense for women. I am 5’8″ too and if I were anything close to 160 lbs I would definitely be fat. It says the lowest 5’8″ people should be is 122 and again that probably works for most women but not at all for most dudes.

      1. The BMI scale was invented by a European back in the 1800s. It’s a useful scale for generally malnourished industrial workers, not so much for decently fed cubicle monkeys.

      2. BMI is stupid because it tries to put every peg in the same square hole. It’s probably true that it’s more accurate for women, but my dating life suggests that even your example is inaccurate. The last girlfriend I had before my fiancee was 5’8 and rail thin at 160 lbs (she did a ton of distance running at that weight) and my fiancee is 5’7 and looks nearly anorexic when she gets to 150.

        Personally I think BMI needs both a range bump and a modifier for skeletal frame. As it stands now it’s near worthless to individuals or populations.

        1. Probably body fat % is a much more useful measure for most people when it comes to attractiveness, which is what we’re all really interested in, isn’t it? 20 lbs of muscle looks a whole lot different than 20 lbs of fat. And of course frame size makes a huge difference too.

          1. maybe that’s because you surround yourself with women who are not athletes.

            look at these women. many women in these weightclasses qualify as obese or near so.

            because they have the increased muscularity, bone density, etc. that comes with being an athlete, and incredibly hawt…

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRkfaG38t7Y

            1. Lovely children. The second one, Marilou, reminds me of a young lady who took a cane class with me for a couple years.

              1. marilou is heart achingly beautiful. and the camera does not do her justice. in person, she is… amazing

                1. Much like the young lady I mentioned, who also didn’t photograph well. That may have been part why she was almost completely unaware of her beauty.

          2. Dunphy is right about this, Beloved Dags. Your friends are apparently all anorexics.

        2. I am not fat, I’m big boned!

          1. I’m big-boned. And I’m fat too, though you could make a good-looking woman and a fair-sized dog from what I’ve lost.

      3. BMI is just as nonsensical of an individual measurement for women as it is for men. My sister, for example, is 5’7″ and 160 pounds, but since she’s always been an amateur gymnast, she has a ton of muscle and looks like she weighs 130 at most.

        I recently crossed into the “obese” category, and I couldn’t be happier about it. Soon I will crush the puny 250lb threshold.

        1. i got up to 233 for a brief bit, just so i could do a contest as a “superheavy”.

          1. Superheavy in BJJ tournaments is 225 or 100 kilos, depending on who’s running it. I can cut down to that weight, but cutting sucks balls, so fuck it. Besides, I like fighting the fat boys.

            1. it kind of amazes me that i could be (and was briefly) a “superheavy”. granted, many people in that category tip the scales at around 260-330, and i was JUST a couple of pounds in.

              heck, look at the size of linemen these days, and then check some stats from the 50’s, etc. back in the day, a 230-250 lb linemen was really big.

          2. Also, that seems very strange that 105(?) kg was the beginning of superheavy. Isn’t it 125 in international meets?

            1. not in olympic style weightlifting

              are you referring to powerlifting? powerlifting has so many different orgs, fwiw, i have no idea

              i’ve competed in two powerlifting orgs, but there are so many i can’t keep track

              Olifting has one governing body … IWF

              in the USA, we have USAW, who acts under the IWF

              weight classes are standardized worldwide. since we are an olympic sport, it is VERY standardized

        2. ime, gymnasts make great weightlifters. some of the best lifters we see transition from gymnastics

          e.g.

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v…..re=related

          melanie

          1. I’ve been trying to convince her that she’d like Oly lifting. The problem is that she thinks she hates gyms, since she’s never been to a good one.

            1. if you could get her into an Olifting gym, i bet she’d love it.

              gymnasts tend to pick up the complex movements really well, they have great proprioception, great work ethic, flexibility, strength, etc.

              the main drawback is they tend to have (relatively) weak legs (especially male gymnasts) but that is fixable

              if you were seattle area, i could hook her up with the former olympic team coach, etc.

              tell me where you are, and i’ll check on what coaches are in the area

              1. She’s in Aberdeen, MD right now.

                1. How do you guys get started with this stuff?

                  1. Just find a weightlifting or powerlifting club and join up. If there aren’t any around, buy Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe and do precisely what he says until you’ve learned what you’re doing.

                    1. rippetoe KNOWS powerlifting, but please … for the children… ignore his Olympic Weightlifting advice. he’s a laughingstock amongst OLers especially when it comes to technique

    2. BMI was also designed for normative body types. You get really odd results when you try to apply the arbitrary standards to people with, say, long legs and short torsos.

  9. Get with the program, dude. If the outcome is positive, it’s due to government policy. If the outcome is negative, it’s due to “market failure”.

  10. If fast food is so bad, why does Mayor McCheese keep getting reelected?

    1. See the latest from David Harsanyi further on up yonder blog.

      It’s a conKochspiracy, man!

  11. Will the Obesity Plateau Allow Us to Take a Breather From Paternalistic Panic?

    Is this some kind of trick question?

  12. “BMI disclaimer: It may overestimate body fat in athletes and others who have a muscular build.”

    Muscular build being defined as anyone deviating from a 5’9″ 165lbs adult male who doesn’t workout, eat right, and has what an athlete would call a “skinny fat” physique.

    So it’s essentially just a pointless excuse for federal jobs.

    1. BMI “works” for the vast majority of the population that registers as obese, because the vast majority of them are skinny fat, or just plain fat fat.

      but it’s still a stupid metric when applied to individuals because there is no distinction between fat and LBM

    2. So it’s essentially just a pointless excuse for federal jobs.
      ——————————-

      you mean there is an excuse for federal jobs that is not pointless?

  13. Will the Obesity Plateau Allow Us to Take a Breather From Paternalistic Panic?

    Let me be clear – and I speak for both Michelle and myself:

    No.

  14. Right now, while reading this article, I am happily chowing down on a big pile of BBQ beef brisket with cole slaw, baked beans and mac n’ cheese.

    I will, however, forgo the brownie I am craving.

    1. I will, however, forgo the brownie I am craving.

      Splitter!

  15. I’m 6’2″ – 205 to 210 pounds. You would never look at me and say “boy, that guy is overweight.”

    Of course, I’ve been weightlifting off and on for over a decade. I can’t even imagine being the 145 pounds I used to be when I graduated from high school. Or even the 175ish I used to be before weightlifting.

    I’ve always had large ‘farmer legs’ as I call ’em, with really big calves and thick thighs. Perfect for plowing… er the fertile soil.

    1. Big calves are very attractive on men. Not sure if y’all hear that enough.

      1. I’ve never heard that brought up before.

        1. It is a weird thing to compliment someone on! I think bigger guys just get them naturally from walking their big selves around. They look nice even on dudes with a little “more to love” situation going on.

          1. I think calves are one of those genetically-based body parts. Lots of guys have solid ones despite having spent next to zero time in a gym and others work themselves to death to no avail.

            They are equally sexy on women; it’s probably the high heel effect.

            1. I’ve actually gotten compliments on my calves from uh, serious hardcore bodybuilders. They wanted to know my ‘secret’.

              One of my gal pal mentions my leg size with some awe.

              1. Calves are also regarded amongst bodybuilders as the hardest body part to make up for a lack of genetics. Iow, for those who have good calves genetics, it’s not that difficult, but considering the day to day stress the gastrocnemius and soleus deal with, they are difficult to hypertrophy if you don’t have the genetics for them. West African blacks, according to the CW tend to have high calf attachments and they often lament that fact.

          2. Dammit! Fuck my shitty calf genetics.

            “Why did Lisa dump me? Is it because of my small calves? They’re the hardest place to add mass!”

            1. You’ll just have to stand in knee deep water if you ever hope to attract a mate.

  16. I think it’s more like a butte than a plateau.

  17. obesity is not defined “controversially” by the BMI.

    it is simply WRONG to define it that way

    it HAPPENS to be a fair proxy for many nonathletic people, since in their case (absent a tumah) excess WEIGHT = excess fat

    so, it has utility in that regards

    but for any individual saying they have that BMI does NOT say they are obese, because it doesn’t distinguish LBM from fat.

  18. also, the idea that there is an obesity panic etc. is silly.

    the obesity problem is real, and it has gross (pun intended) real world consequences- massive costs, and especially when so many of those costs attach to others and not just the individual, this needs to be accepted

    this is in NO way an endorsement of nannystate bullshit to try to fight a war on obesity (god forbid) but the MAJORITY of chronic disease and health care costs (by a wide margin) are due to self-chosen behaviors , to wit eating like a fucking moron, smoking, and not exercising

    just because these are self regarding acts, doesn’t make them any less tragic

    we are talking literally millions of severely sick people, countless deaths, etc.

    1. the point remains that for the vast majority of the fat and obese, their condition is a self-inflicted wound, often correctable by modifying behavior. But, never doubt govt’s ability to manufacture a bureaucratic solution where none is needed.

      1. And the other point is that many of those self inflicted health care costs end up costing others, iow us responsible people…. Our insurance costs, etc . Are higher etc. because of these people (granted, my employer pays 100percent of my very generous plan but still) 🙂

        1. Are there special techniques for handcuffing the supermorbidly obese? Such as if their wrists are too fat for the cuffs, or if they can’t get their hands close enough together – either in front of or behind their bodies – to get the cuffs on?

          1. When I worked Hawaii we used to carry ankle cuffs. Many Pacifc islanders just too big for handcuffs

        2. You are not entitled to some thing costing any specific amount of money any more than fatties are entitled to have their costs assumed by others. Your point revolves around something that is not a result of obesity.

          1. jesus christ, dood. catcht ehsarcasm much?

            i am “entitled” to my insurance, because as a MATTER OF CONTRACTS (contracts… how do those work), that’s what my employer gives us due to our BARGAINING

    2. also, the idea that there is an obesity panic etc. is silly

      The only obesity panic is when you wake up in a cold sweat after a night of clubbing and drinking, realizing that you’re in a strange bed and that there’s a morbidly obese woman snoring away next to you – and your clothes are nowhere to be found . . .

  19. Use the BME scale – Before My Eyes!

    >I cant define obesity, but i know it when i see it.

  20. Why does nobody bring up the fact that in 1998, the government redefined the definition of Obese, lowering the BMI number required to be given that label?

    There are millions of people who instantly went from healthy weight to obese without gaining an ounce. How much of that is considered to be part of the “explosion”?

    We’re really comparing apples to oranges here. Don’t worry though. I’m sure any moment now they’ll redefine what Obese means again, adding more people to the category so that we can declare another emergency.

  21. Will the Obesity Plateau Allow Us to Take a Breather From Paternalistic Panic?

    But the nannying is working! That means we need to redouble our efforts!

  22. A good point, Nick, but I’m sure they’ll just say that this wasn’t arbitrary but based on recent findings, blah, blah.

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