Junkfood Science: Say it isn’t so — Part two

November 26, 2006

Say it isn’t so — Part two

Nothing compares to the all-out, massive, well-organized efforts to preserve the “obesity crisis”that began last year after senior research scientists inside the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics exposed the war on obesity — begun by their own director of the CDC, Julie Gerberding, and Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson — as a grossly exaggerated and fabricated scare campaign. These whistleblowers proved, as had been written about here, that the study, looking for correlations between weight and premature death that had been created to lay the foundation for billions of dollars in government and industry “obesity” initiatives, and popular with an enormous throng of marketing and political interests all using the “obesity crisis,” had been derived from poor data and had flagrant methodological flaws. How bad was it? It didn’t even account for aging, the single biggest risk factor for death, in its computer model!

This new study, led by Katherine Flegal, which the scientific community recognized as a vastly superior study and the most accurate to date, used recent and solid information that included actual measurements on real people representative of today’s population. It documented:

· “Overweight" and "obesity” is not associated with 400,000 deaths, as the special interests had (and continue to) claimed, but together perhaps 25,815 extra deaths — far fewer than the deaths attributed to motor vehicles or firearms. In fact, that links fat to 2% to 3% of all “preventable” deaths.

· Among nonsmoking people under age 60, being “overweight” (BMI 25-30) and “obese” (BMI 30-35) was actually associated with lower risks for premature death than those of "normal" weight.

· Especially troubling is that being thin is 25% more dangerous than being the government recommended “normal” weight (BMI 18.5-25).

· And being thin accounts for 37,746 premature deaths. More than even being the most extremely “obese” (BMI >35)!

· Worse, being thin is riskiest of all for those over age 60 and puts them at double the risk of “normal” weight. It’s even riskier than being the most extremely “obese.”

While the very real dangers of thinness are virtually ignored, the risks of “obesity” are greatly overstated. For adults under 60, “obesity” only reaches the same risks as being underweight at the uppermost extremes of BMI (>35). That represents a mere 8.3% of the population — a far cry from the government’s claim that 66% of us are “too fat.” [And more detailed breakdowns show health risks associated with extreme obesity actually don’t come into play until much higher BMIs.]

Within hours of the release of this potentially devastating study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, special interests — notably, doctors from Harvard School of Public Health, along with the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and the CDC — quickly rallied press conferences and media releases to deny and spin the findings and attempt to discredit them in the minds of the credulous public. They made noises about it failing to consider smoking, of reversing causality and attributing higher deaths among thin due to the fact they are sick or old, and of not considering the long-term effects of obesity. These spin doctors assumed, correctly, that the media would simply repeat their assertions and not a single reporter would go to the actual study to realize they were nonsense.

Flegal and her associates had analyzed the data in a myriad of ways and had accounted for smoking, chronic diseases and preexisting health problems, involuntary weight loss, and long-term obesity ... and each time the results were the same.

Reporters who’d read the journals where this controversy had been raging could have learned that the “obesity is deadly” studies done by researchers from Harvard, the American Cancer Society and CDC that were being so vehemently defended, had looked at self-reported data from select groups of people that weren’t representative of the population and had excluded nearly 90 percent of the deaths in their analyses to get the results they wanted. Among other such studies, you’ll find all sorts of other shenanigans.

One of the funniest statements came from the director of the CDC who held her own press conference on June 2nd to “translate our science more effectively.” In classic doublespeak, she said: “We need to be absolutely explicitly clear about one thing: obesity and overweight are critically important health threats in this country.” She appealed to reporters to communicate this “correction.”

The media fell into lockstep and did just that. ABC News said the CDC had “pledged to get scientists and the public back on track.” A Kansas City Star editorial called the Flegal study “shoddy research” that had “stunned health advocates.” The editorial said that in the CDC’s “latest embarrassing reversal...federal health officials last week returned to the basic theme they should never have abandoned: Obesity threatens human health.”

With that inconvenience — the truth — dealt with, the war on obesity proceeded without skipping a beat. If you missed this scoop, you may want to read “Obesity Crisis? ‘Oh, Never Mind!

The whole “obesity” thing has been an easy sell because our culture has come to believe so strongly that thin is better and fat is bad, and so loves to hate fat people, that the idea of questioning it is inconceivable.

© Szwarc 2006

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