A World Health Organization panel recently concluded that a 5-foot-6 man or woman of Asian descent weighing 137 pounds should be considered “overweight.” That would place the trim Hiroyuki Sanada, one of Tom Cruise’s co-stars in “The Last Samurai,” just a few pounds shy of this category.
Welcome to the politics of fat, where bathroom scales can be tax- deductible, lawyers are lining up to sue anything rumored to contain calories and the media have fed us a steady diet of hysteria and hyperbole. In this twilight zone of fat panic, something called the Body Mass Index (BMI) uses only our height and weight to divide us into categories: obese, overweight and government approved.
A BMI of 30 or more makes you “obese”; at 5-foot-7 and 201 pounds, Tom Cruise’s magic number is 31. If the WHO gets its way, Asians will join the “last samurai” in the obese category if their BMI hits 26 (5-foot-7 and 163 pounds, for example). A BMI of just 22 — perfectly “healthy” for most of us, even by WHO’s ever-tightening standards — will make an Asian “overweight.”
The global love-handle police insist on this ridiculous BMI standard, which classifies 61 percent of Americans as overweight or obese. You have probably heard that number. Along with the claim that obesity costs the United States $117 billion a year and kills 300,000 Americans annually, it is one of the three most commonly cited figures associated with our so-called obesity epidemic. But it’s more like an epidemic of bad statistics. All three of these numbers are seriously flawed.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledge that these results are counterintuitive: “Overweight may or may not be due to increases in body fat. It may also be due to an increase in lean muscle.” This explains why the new governor of California (6-foot-2, 257 pounds, BMI of 33) is officially obese, too. For the rest of us, however, the story is a bit more complicated. One night in 1998, more than 39 million Americans went to sleep at a government-approved weight and woke up “overweight,” thanks to an arbitrary shift in the BMI cutoff for “overweight” status.
The standard that we abandoned in 1998 had the virtue of distinguishing between men and women — something we don’t even attempt to do anymore. Now the WHO wants to start determining “acceptable” BMI levels according to race – – making Jackie Chan (5-foot-8, 160 pounds, BMI 24) our latest “overweight” movie star.
The claim that excess weight kills 300,000 Americans each year is bizarre in its assumption that overweight people are officially immune to all other causes of death. As insane as it sounds, if Cruise were to kick the bucket for any reason, he would count toward the mythical 300,000 total.
The New England Journal of Medicine knows this is bogus. In an editorial, the journal’s editors wrote that the 300,000 figure “is by no means well- established,” and that it is “derived from weak or incomplete data.” Still, this flawed number finds its way into nearly every public discussion about obesity — as does the spurious claim that obesity costs Americans more than $100 billion every year. That figure is derived from a single 1998 study published by the journal Obesity Research. This study had serious limitations. The authors acknowledged that their methods allowed for the “double-counting of costs” that “would inflate the cost estimate.” They also admitted that “height and weight are not included in many of the primary data sources” that they relied upon.
Worse yet, these bean-counters used the wrong definition of obesity. Traditionally, a BMI of 30 or more makes you obese, but the authors decided to arbitrarily set their threshold at 29. A small error? Not at all. They wound up wrongly including the health costs of more than 10 million Americans.
Unfortunately, activist groups are all too happy to build their nutritional utopias on the shaky ground of these faulty obesity statistics. The guiltiest in the bunch are the self-described “food police” at the Center for Science in the Public Interest — the traditional advocates of “sin” taxes on foods they don’t want you to eat. A health-advocacy group called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine also uses these bogus stats to force a vegetarian diet down our collective throats. Then there’s the American Obesity Association, which aggressively promotes these numbers in its quest to have obesity classified as a “disease” — for the financial gain of the manufacturers of the weight-loss drug and products who pay its bills.
Basic logic dictates that obesity is no more a disease than couch potato- itis, that replacing milk and chicken with tofu won’t magically melt the pounds and that Tom Cruise isn’t fat. But obesity scares and cooked numbers have tipped the scales against common sense.