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Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2006 10:48 am

Girth of a nation

Statistics about obesity may be overblown

Illustration by Don Coker/MCT

It’s finally happened. Fat people in America are fed up.

They’ve had their fill of state-by-state maps rolled out by the government that suggest that obesity is a raging national epidemic, of being labeled exemplars of the new “ugly American” and thereby dismissed by callow image-makers because “God don’t like ugly,” and of being made scapegoats who symbolize the soft underbelly of our greatest fear — that as a people we may be currently operating on an empty moral stomach.

They will no longer swallow the official statistics that categorize 60 percent of all Americans as overweight and one of four as obese, because these numbers have been manufactured by government agencies under the influence of the morbidly profitable food and pharmaceutical industries and the voracious $50 billion-a-year weight-loss industry.

They can no longer digest the big health-care insurers, whose alarmists flog phantom statistics (400,000 premature deaths owing to obesity annually) and spurious cost analyses that place the blame for spiraling health-care costs at the feet of the fat. In fact, the HMO’s true motivation is to weasel out of providing comprehensive coverage, or discourage people from seeking regular medical attention with their demoralizing attacks, or avoid insuring people altogether whose condition allegedly makes them greatly predisposed to disease — a bogeyman challenged by the latest research in medical science.

And, finally, they’re tired of taking it on the double chins from every comedian and commentator and fashionista on national television, who would not dare to denigrate any other minority with such callousness and who daily demonstrate how fat is the No. 1 publicly acceptable prejudice in America.

“Given that Americans are enjoying longer lives and better health than ever before,” says University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos in his book The Diet Myth: Why America’s Obsession with Weight is Hazardous to Your Health, “the claim that four out of five of us are running serious health risks because of our weight sounds exactly like the sort of exaggeration that can produce a cultural epidemic of fear.” He classifies “fat hysteria” as “the leading moral panic of our time.”

This panic has institutionalized our prejudice. We tend to stereotypically characterize fat people as unemployable, out of control, morally reprehensible — an embarrassing lot. Most Americans hold the opinion that fat people “do it to themselves,” that people can exercise will and make choices to exercise and their choice is to sit on their fat butts and eat.

But, as the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said: “You are entitled to your own opinions but you are not entitled to your own set of facts.” The latest facts on obesity and longevity don’t contest that sitting on your butt is bad for you, but data gathered by a number of independent and reputable sources — scientific and academic, with no multibillion-dollar agenda — do present formidable evidence that there are numerous contributors to being fat (whether it’s due to a block in leptin or insulin receptivity, an insufficiency of heat-producing fat cells, hypothyroidism, or other glandular conditions). The facts don’t dispute that, for some, the glands are in the hands. But there is further scientific evidence that fat and fit are not mutually exclusive and that a sedentary type A skinny malink is likelier to drop dead of a heart attack than is an overweight person on the go.

Prof. Glenn Gaesser of the University of Virginia and author of Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health, was called a “contrarian” when he wrote that “men and women medically classified as overweight who exercise regularly and are physically fit, yet remain above the ranges recommended by the height-weight tables, have lower death rates than thin men and women who do not exercise and are unfit, and have death rates comparable to thin and average-weight men and women who do exercise and are fit — proving that fitness, not thinness, is what really matters in terms of health.”

Perhaps the most harmful aspect of the misinformation Gaesser sees perpetuated in popular press and advertising is the increase in unhealthy fad dieting. He’s particularly concerned by extreme regimens that supposedly burn fat quickly, which have been shown by many opponents to have a negative long-term health impact. “Chronic efforts at weight loss may be responsible for more deaths than ‘excess weight’ itself,” he writes in the Harvard Health Policy Review.

In Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America’s Obesity Epidemic, author J. Eric Oliver (a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and former Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Scholar at Yale) backs up Gaesser and makes the case that obesity in America is a real concern but our true national health problem is panic over obesity — stirred by a “public-health establishment” that supports the findings of special-interest-funded science. These findings are vindicated by a 2005 study published in the Journal of American Medical Association. The study found that, in the year 2000, the risk of premature death among Americans labeled “overweight” and “obese” by the government was lower than that among Americans who were not “overweight” and “obese.” The study also reduces the number of premature deaths associated with overweight and obesity from an earlier figure of 400,000 (a figure that The Diet Myth argued could not possibly be correct) to 25,000.

Acclaimed nutritionist Marion Nestle weighs in with yet another hypothesis that adds agribusiness and food processing into the obesity mix. In Food Politics, Nestle says that the food industry now produces 3,800 calories a day for every person in the United States — 50 percent more than what is required for daily well-being and a 500-calorie-a-day increase since 1970. She also makes the connection between the rise in the average American’s weight beginning in the late 1970s to “advances” in food processing and agribusiness subsidies and the mammoth effort by marketers to turn us into a Fast Food Nation. Add to that the serial appointment of cronies and lobbyists as the overseers at the USDA and FDA, and you have a recipe for disaster.

But is a correction coming from those elected and appointed to protect us? Behind the bloated statistics, hidden agendas, and compromised science, the Bush administration — offering proof only that the “trickle-down” theory does work in disseminating misinformation — seeks to pin the blame on the Porker, the literal figure) at the end of the food chain of our overconsuming culture (forget the obvious hypocrisy). When we are plagued by high health-care costs that can compromise our quality of life, Dubya would have us see the misshapen silhouettes of fat folks in the same way he spooked people into believing that gay marriage was the pernicious agent loosening the pillars of faith. His father did the same thing when he used the image of a feral-looking Willie Horton to promote the base and baseless notion that blacks were responsible for high crime statistics.

A backlash is coming, and it’ll be a sumo-nami when so many people who are being (mis-)classified as fat realize that they are no longer a powerless, bully-able minority. “When ‘they’ become ‘us,’ everything changes,” writes Barbara Bruno Altman, Ph.D., and editor of Dimensions, an online journal devoted to fat acceptance. “And when ‘we’ exercise our discretion about who gets our money, people and businesses listen to us.”

So watch out, America. The people you have humiliated and isolated and subjected to the absolute cruelty of the human race are primed to strike back. And when fat people gather together as an activist community, there’ll be no getting around them.

Fatties of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose!

Stanley Mieses is a New York City-based freelance writer.

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