The So-Called Obesity "Epidemic"

I was planning to include a category called “The So-Called Obesity ‘Epidemic'” in the next Daily Dose, so I thought I should first explain what I mean by that.

Back in June, there was an article in The Washington Post called “Judging Fat People.” Here are some excerpts:
“Be honest: What’s your first reaction when you encounter an obese person? I’m guessing it’s not sympathy.”

Don’t think the fat person doesn’t notice. … [T]he stigma associated with being overweight or obese is enormous and has broad implications. … [S]ociety’s disdain for overweight people often contributes to their feeling defeated, to a sense of “nihilism” that makes them just want to give up any efforts to lose weight. …
As one whose weight has fluctuated over the years, I know that being overweight can stem from all kinds of circumstances, from emotional stress to the simple fact of being relegated to sitting at a desk all day. I know I feel crummy when I’m heavier than I should be, and I can tell when other people notice my weight, too. It would be nice if we could all cut each other a break.


The article included a poll asking if overweight people deserved sympathy. 51% voted yes. 44% voted no, including those who believe “Most overweight people just need to eat less and move around more.” Scientific studies have shown that’s just not true, but there’s a lot of money to be made by perpetuating that belief.

4% voted “I’ve got lots to say about this; see my comment below.” That included my vote, and here is the comment:

Prejudice against those who are overweight is an unfortunate social phenomenon that says a great deal about modern American culture. It wasn’t that long ago (100 years) that weight was a sign of success.
It was a relief today to find a news story on a study showing that extra pounds protect people from an early death. Reports on that story were outnumbered, however, by articles on childhood obesity and pancreatic cancer.

No one has a financial interest in telling the public that being overweight is not unhealthy. The weight-loss industry, fast-food industry, processed food industry, pharmaceutical industry, and researchers renewing their grants to study the obesity “epidemic” are understandably not objective on this subject.

What’s unhealthy is eating junk food and not exercising at least a modest amount. Unfortunately junk food and lack of exercise lead to both disease and overweight. To draw the conclusion that being overweight is the cause of disease is to confuse correlation with cause and effect.

For an intelligent refutation of the misinformation the public has received on obesity and its characterization as an epidemic, I recommend:
Rethinking Thin by Gina Kolata
Fat Politics by J. Eric Oliver
The Diet Myth by Paul Campos (previously titled The Obesity Myth)
The End of Overeating by David Kessler
The Gospel of Food by Barry Glassner
The Fattening of America by Eric A. Finkelstein and Laurie Zuckerman
Obesity, Business and Public Policy by J. Zoltan and Alan Lyles
Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession by Don Kulick and Anne Meneley
A little harder to find, but well worth reading, is an essay by social and cultural historian Peter N. Stearns called “Fat in America.” It appears in Cultures of the Abdomen.

Guilt trips really do not work effectively. Making people feel personally deficient as they face weight problems does not motivate remediation very widely, and often leads to compounding behaviors. … Contemporary pressures toward excess weight need to be seen as social, and not just or even primarily as individual issues.

Disparaging judgments about people who are overweight are irrational, hurtful, and unkind. As the Post article says, let’s all cut each other a break.

Related posts:
Obesity: Moving beyond willpower vs. the food-industrial complex
Is agriculture bad for your health?
How much exercise do we really need?
Health Culture Daily Dose #10: Obesity Politics
Health Culture Daily Dose #9: Obesity Politics
Health Culture Daily Dose #5: Obesity Politics

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