The Truth about the Obesity Debate

A growing number of public health activists are downplaying individual responsibility while blaming food and food companies for rising obesity rates. To make their spurious points, they spread a number of half-truths and myths about obesity.

  • Activists argue that “junk” foods, such as cupcakes, potato chips, and fast food, are uniquely responsible for the obesity epidemic, even though they sometimes deliver fewer calories than the “real foods” activists promote.
  • Kelly Brownell first proposed the idea of a “Twinkie tax” on foods that he deems unhealthy or “bad.” He has directed much of his advocacy towards convincing governments to tax sugar-sweetened drinks.
  • Television’s Dr. Oz argued that there are chemicals called “obesogens” that are uniquely responsible for obesity. Dr. Oz also classified farm-raised salmon as an “obesogen” and recommended that his readers eat the usually more expensive wild variety.

What does the research say? A hefty number of studies has shown that the trend of rising obesity rates can be attributed not to increased intake of food in general (or any particular food) or to the influence of restaurants, but rather to less physical activity compounded by a variety of other factors that are constantly being explored.

  • Researchers writing in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism in 2004 found: “It is often assumed that the increase in pediatric obesity has occurred because of an increase in caloric intake. However, the data do not substantiate this.”
  • Researchers writing in the Lancet in a 2005 study discovered: “These results suggest that habitual activity plays an important role in weight gain, with no parallel evidence that energy intake had a similar role … The composite findings from NGHS so far indicate that the drastic decline in habitual activity during adolescence might be a major factor in the doubling of the rate of obesity development in the USA in the past two decades, since no concomitant increase in energy intake was apparent.”
  • In 2003, then-FDA Commissioner Dr. Mark McClellan told audience members in a speech at the National Food Policy Conference: “So it’s perhaps surprising that, in a debate that has often focused on foods alone, actual levels of caloric intake among the young haven’t appreciably changed over the last twenty years.”
  • A 1999 Report of the Surgeon General on Physical Activity and Health found: “Only about one-half of U.S. young people (ages 12-21 years) regularly participate in vigorous physical activity. One-fourth report no vigorous physical activity.”
  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation said in 2002, “More than a third of young people in grades 9-12 do not regularly engage in vigorous physical activity. Daily participation in high school physical education classes dropped from 42 percent in 1991 to 29 percent in 1999.”
  • Researchers writing in the publication Diabetes Care in 2004 discovered: “There was a steep inverse gradient between fitness and mortality in this cohort of men with documented diabetes, and this association was independent of BMI … Obese men with fitness levels greater than the lowest quartile were at no increased risk for mortality when compared with men in the reference group.”
  • As society has become much more mechanized, we spend less and less energy on everyday tasks and chores. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic calculated that replacing manual chores — like washing dishes, mowing the lawn, and cleaning the car — with their automated versions can increase monthly energy expenditure by 8,800 calories, which could add up to 30 pounds a year.
  • A 2010 Cato Institute Study challenged the belief that increased restaurant dining is the cause of American obesity and indicated that policies focused on reducing caloric intake at restaurants are unlikely to reduce obesity substantially. The study found that increasing taxes on restaurant food may alter where people eat, but is unlikely to curb an individual’s desire to overeat.

What’s the bottom line for me? Instead of focusing solely on food, focus on physical activity. The obesity equation has two parts: energy intake and energy output. Put another way, weight gain (or loss) is simply a matter of an imbalance of “calories in” and “calories out.”

  • Citizens must encourage schools to increase the frequency and duration of physical education classes and recess, during which kids can expend energy.
  • Being overweight isn’t in and of itself unhealthy. A growing body of research documents that people who are “fit and fat” have a lower mortality rate over a given time period than those who are thin and unfit.
  • Daily tasks have become more and more mechanized over time, reducing the number of calories we spend doing chores. It may be that we’re getting fatter because we’re simply moving less and less in these small ways.