Junkfood Science: The epidemic that wasn’t?

May 28, 2008

The epidemic that wasn’t?

The ‘epidemic of childhood obesity’ is increasingly harder to keep spinning. Each time another report with actual stats and positive health information is issued — facts that shatter any notion of a crisis — it must be buried or spun to try and convince us of a catastrophe.

The latest statistics on childhood overweight from the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They show that since the childhood growth charts were redesigned nearly a decade ago, there have been no statistically significant change in the percentages of young people at or above the 95th percentile (labeled as “overweight” and some are now calling “obese”).

This is significant because prior to 1999, the definition of “overweight” and how it was measured changed, as did surveillance. Even the NHANES surveys were redesigned several times. That makes it especially challenging for the public to readily see what’s happened and exactly how much children have grown. [See Creating an Epidemic.] The last statistical change that helped to accentuate public perceptions of an epidemic was when new child growth charts were issued in 2000, using BMIs rather than heights and weights (instantly placing nearly two-thirds of children in higher percentiles, despite no increase in their actual weights). An epidemic of obesity was declared by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson on March 9, 2004, launching an aggressive government campaign and massive funding to address a purported crisis. This was followed in 2005 by the Surgeon General Richard Carmona making the epidemic of childhood obesity a national priority and anti-obesity initiatives went into high gear. Claims of an epidemic of childhood obesity continued even while repeated reports were being issued by the National Center for Health Statistics continuing to show no actual increase in children’s sizes since 1999.

This new report adds the latest data through 2005-2006. The figures are based on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, which the CDC has gathered from a representative sampling of Americans since the 1960s and are considered the most reliable statistics available. Their findings state:

No statistically significant change in high BMI for age was found between 2003-2004 and 2005-2006. Although the estimate of BMI for age at or above the 95th percentile of the CDC growth charts decreased from 17.1% to 15.5% for children and adolescents aged 2 through 19 years, the change was not statistically significant.

Analyses of the trends in high BMI for age showed no statistically significant trend over the 4 time periods (1999-2000, 2001-2002, 2003-2004, and 2005-2006) for either boys or girls. Results were similar for non-Hispanic white, non-Hispanic black, and Mexican American boys and girls. Trends were not statistically significant for any racial/ethnic group... No statistically significant trend in high BMI for age was found over the time periods 1999-2000, 2001-2002, 2003- 2004, and 2005-2006... Even at the highest BMI for age level no change in prevalence was found between 2003-2004 and 2005-2006, either overall or by racial/ethnic group.

So, the most recent figures show 15.5% of children fall at or above the 95th percentile on the BMI growth charts, labeling them “overweight” (or “obese” depending on the source) — with no real change in nearly a decade.

The authors, Cynthia L. Ogden, Ph.D.; Margaret D. Carroll, MSPH; Katherine M. Flegal, Ph.D.; made a specific point of describing the new CDC growth charts created in 2000 based on BMI for ages that were constructed using population samples of U.S. children in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The arbitrarily selected percentiles, they said, were smoothed out but there was too sparse of data to accurately estimate children below 3rd or above 97th percentiles. Any “extrapolations beyond this range should be done with caution,” they concluded. This is a poignant caution as the bariatric industry attempts to define a new 99th percentile of the largest children to target for bariatric surgeries and lead us to believe their numbers are soaring.

The spin in the media attempting to downplay this report and preserve alarm about an epidemic of childhood obesity has exhibited near desperation as obesity interests frantically scream louder of a crisis. As this JAMA issue was released, Newsweek reported Dean Ornish, M.D. describing the “obesity epidemic spreading like cancer, metastasizing across the country... as though an alien force.” He suggested this latest figure might be just a statistical artifact and went on to describe the leadership of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in calling for a needed “social movement like none other” to change every aspect of our societal environment to reverse the epidemic of childhood obesity.

Most media has incorrectly reported this study as this being the first time in 25 years that skyrocketing childhood obesity rates have stabilized. The leveling off between 2003-4 and 2005-6 offers the first glimmer of hope, we’ve heard. Media has been similarly quick to report that it’s too soon for optimism or to tell if it’s real. The Associated Press graph appeared to show increases right up to this latest report:

Last night’s health segment on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams illustrated how vigorously this study’s findings are being downplayed. NBC’s chief science correspondent, Dr. Robert Bazell, said that, as we know from so many reports, the percentage of obese children in this country climbed steadily. Starting in 2006 it is beginning to level off, he reported. “No one is declaring victory,” he said. “This is still a big public health emergency.” It’s possible that all of those public health messages are having an effect, he told viewers, and it’s time to redouble our efforts. Viewers were shown this image of skyrocketing childhood obesity rates:

But, there have been no soaring rates of childhood obesity. Viewers were hoodwinked. Here is what the CDC actually illustrated in JAMA for childhood "obesity" rates among boys and girls since 1999:

A very different picture of an “epidemic,” isn’t it?

It’s easy to be fooled by graphs and illustrations, as was brilliantly described by Darrell Huff in the classic book on statistical reasoning, How to Lie with Statistics. In the chapter, “Gee-Whiz Graphs,” he illustrated how the very same statistics can be graphed to mislead people and appear to give any impression desired.

The past 24-hours, we’ve also heard some suggest that this plateau might be the result of successful anti-obesity programs to limit junk food and increase physical activity in schools. Perhaps things are working, the New York Times reported. We are to believe that childhood obesity programs — all of which have proven to be resounding failures in reducing childhood overweight — are actually successes.

The New York Times cited the Shape Up Somerville program in Massachusetts and the country’s most massive childhood obesity program in Arkansas as examples of successful programs being copied around the country. Never mind that, despite spending millions of dollars, neither actually demonstarted any positive changes in the children’s BMIs or health. We also have to forget that these programs were begun well after childhood obesity rates were already known to be flat.

The New York Times noted what’s probably the truest reason for concern about these latest CDC findings: “One worry is that as obesity rates stabilize, financing for childhood health efforts will wane.” While childhood “obesity” rates haven’t increased since 1999, CDC funding, alone, for "healthy" eating and physical activity programs to combat the nonevidenced epidemic has grown by more than 2,000%.

When will taxpayers call these special interests on their bluff and begin to hold them responsible for the massive amount of public moneys and resources they’ve spent in the name of a childhood obesity epidemic — money that could have gone a long way towards improving educational opportunities and healthcare for children and families? When will the public demand evidence-based public health policies? When will parents hold these obesity interests accountable for the harmful effects of their initiatives and the nonstop weight obsessions that have surrounded their children?

© 2008 Sandy Szwarc. All rights reserved.

Photo: Comedian John Park's Plate Spinning

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