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


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.