If you’ve picked up a newspaper this week or turned on the television in the last 48 hours, chances are you think the entire American population is ready for one giant juicing room. Everywhere you look, >sensationalistic reports are claiming that Americans are fatter than ever before.
But before you swallow the latest public-health hype, consider the possibility that there’s nothing new under the sun. In a “flashback” article just last week, The Atlantic Monthly noted that “by mid-century [that’s 50 years ago], the health risks of obesity were well-publicized.” Add to this the observation that President Kennedy exhorted Americans to lose weight back in 1961, and it’s clear that our current “war on fat” is already old hat.
Regular readers of our headlines already know that the Body Mass Index (BMI), used by government researchers to distinguish between naughty and nice physiques, is notoriously unreliable. Muscle weighs more than fat, and the BMI doesn’t account for this. By current standards, half of the NBA is overweight, and many Hollywood heartthrobs are downright obese. And the feds used sleight-of-hand to redefine obesity a few years ago, officially making 30 million Americans “overweight” without gaining an ounce. [To see how you stack up, check out the Consumer Freedom body mass index calculator.]
If there is anything unique about the current flap over our national wastline (compared to news cycles of yesteryear), it’s the way social activists use the “obesity epidemic” as a springboard to bash everything corporate. The Ralph Nader-inspired Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is using this week’s headlines to call (again) for strict controls on school lunches, and for fat-content labels on everything short of individual French fries. CSPI’s Margo Wootan actually announced that “relying on personal responsibility” is “too low a dose of treatment.”
Even more shocking, the left-wing anti-corporate activist group Adbusters, which sponsors off-the-deep-end events like “Buy Nothing Day” and widely distributed an altered American flag for the 4th of July, has declared that “Big Food” is next on its hit list. “Big Food is the next Big Tobacco,” declares the latest issue of Adbusters magazine. “It took us 50 years to bring down Big Tobacco. We’ll beat Big Food in 10.”
Predictably, much of the scientific study that inspired this week’s obese-a-palooza got lost amid >doom-and-gloom headlines about “toxic food environments.” One notable exception, The San Francisco Chronicle, noted that researchers whose work was published this week in JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association) “point out that no study has been done suggesting that any one [factor] can actually be blamed” for a perceived rise in obesity rates.
In reality, the JAMA study’s authors offer even more disclaimers. They acknowledge that “even as long ago as 1960, almost 50 percent of men and more than 40 percent of women were overweight, and 11 percent of men and 16 percent of women were obese.” And in the same breath used to announce that we might all be heavier compared to twenty years ago, they concede that high cholesterol and high blood pressure have declined during the same period. It gets better: “Mortality from coronary heart disease and stroke have also declined over these years.”
This, of course, jibes perfectly with last month’s little-reported news: “Americans may be getting fatter,” says the Times of London, “but they are living longer than ever before.” Indeed, the Health United States 2002 survey found that “in almost all areas, Americans are healthier” than 50 years ago.