Junkfood Science: Skepticism in action

March 31, 2007

Skepticism in action

Sometimes we find a journalist who is thinking. Saskatoon Star Phoenix columnist, Les MacPherson, takes a skeptical eye to warnings of impending doom surrounding the obesity crisis in today’s paper:

Dealing with the weighty subject of obesity

...The latest warning of impending doom comes from the House of Commons, always a reliable source of grim tidings. This time the deadly threat is childhood obesity. According to a Commons health committee, it could be the deadliest threat we've ever faced. So widespread and so unhealthy is childhood obesity, warns a committee report, that we could be raising the first-ever generation of Canadians whose life expectancy is less than that of their parents.

This would be a terrible setback. Life expectancy is a measure of health, prosperity and progress. For it to be rolled back is a major failure of our society.....But wait a minute. Tubs of lard though we may be, Canadians' life expectancy has been going nowhere but up. Today, the average is age 80. Ten years ago it was 79. Ten years before that it was 77. And so on. This continuing improvement in life expectancy is among the greatest achievements of western civilization. It also puts to rest the myths that we're awash in deadly industrial toxins, or that capitalism is inherently unhealthy. This does not exactly correspond with more and more people living into their 100s.

What's unhealthy, if you ask me, is nature. The record seems to confirm it. Life expectancy for our prehistoric ancestors was about age 20. Living in a state of nature would appear to be worse for you than smoking three packs a day....There's plenty of evidence of increased waistlines. But where's the evidence of increased mortality? If obesity is going to kill our kids early, it should be killing their obese grandparents right about now. And yet, life expectancy is only increasing.

Meanwhile, deaths due to cardiac and circulatory disease are down. This is the opposite of what you'd expect if a deadly plague of obesity was descending upon us. Maybe it's not the killer we've been led to believe.....

Great howl, Mr. MacPherson.

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