Filed Under: Big Fat Lies

Questions Mount On Obesity-Mortality Link

Last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) admitted its claim that obesity causes 400,000 deaths a year was overestimated due to a “computational error.” The agency’s mea culpa comes more than two months after we first raised the problem with officials at the CDC.

Covering the CDC’s admission, the Washington Post, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, and others quoted the Center for Consumer Freedom saying that “we have an epidemic of obesity myths in this country,” and “a full investigation into the obesity death tally will reveal multiple flaws that seriously overstate the obesity problem.”

This morning the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board took the CDC to task for its handling of the erroneous study. Warning that the government’s war on fat may have been unduly influenced by the pharmaceutical industry, the Chronicle wrote:

The pharmaceutical industry also stands to profit from medications needed to treat obesity-related problems. The administration’s anti-obesity campaign, however worthy, may have been influenced by these considerations. The CDC must dispel any hint that it bowed to pressures from inside or outside government in assessing threats to the nation’s health. It must also move speedily to correct whatever public misperceptions it may have contributed to.

The Chronicle added that the CDC largely disregarded both internal and external criticism of the study: “It turns out that the CDC ignored or brushed off numerous critiques of the article by leading scientists inside and outside the CDC. Many of them were made before the article appeared.

Among the many problems with the 400,000 figure, the CDC’s study ignored the multiple investigations conducted by prestigious researchers and published in peer-reviewed journals which failed to show a substantial link between obesity and death. “I wouldn’t say obesity isn’t a problem, but it’s nowhere near the numbers they have been throwing around,” explained University of Virginia professor Glenn Gaesser in last week’s USA Today.

Perhaps the most noteworthy of the skeptics was Dr. Ancel Keys, who recently passed away at the age of 100. Keys is noted for his invention of K-rations, used by GIs during World War II, and his groundbreaking research on cardiovascular disease, which earned him a spot on the cover of TIME magazine. Keys also conducted extensive research into the connection between obesity and mortality. Summing up his findings in 1980, he wrote:

Critical reviews fail to find good evidence that relative body weight is an important coronary risk factor … Obesity is still only of minor concern in regard to longevity except at the extreme end of the distribution of fatness…We and other investigators find that in the absence of hypertension, overweight is not a risk factor at all … The idea has been greatly oversold that the risk of dying prematurely or of having a heart attack is directly related to the relative body weight.

In addition to Keys, many other scientists have conducted research that directly contradicts the current hysteria over the health risks from obesity. Here are a few examples from peer-reviewed journals:

Increased body mass index was marginally associated with reduced risk of mortality … In many studies overall obesity — often expressed as an elevated body mass index — has not been significantly related to myocardial infarction.

Neither body weight nor BMI was related to total or cardiovascular mortality in men or women.

Studies on the relation between body weight and mortality have shown inconsistent results … We did not find an increased mortality at the upper end of the BMI distribution.

Everything else being equal, the contribution of elevated levels of BMI to the risk of dying in the next 10 years is limited … The limited role of elevated BMI in general mortality when other risk factors, mainly [blood pressure], do not increase together with BMI is confirmed also by the simple analyses reported.

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