Recently, I’ve been contemplating America’s growing obesity problem and its likely effect on the cost of health care (among other things.) As such, I was interested in this interview with author and academic Paul Campos who argues that obesity is overstated as a problem. He would probably go as far as to say it’s not a problem. The crux of his argument:
Obesity is defined completely arbitrarily as a body mass index of 30 or higher (175 pounds for an average height woman). Now body mass follows more or less a normal distribution, whiich means if the the mean body weight is in the mid to high 20s, which it has been for many decades now, then tens of millions of people will have BMIs just below and just above the magic 30 line.
This might be meaningful if there was any evidence that people who have BMIs in the low 30s have different average health than people with BMIs in the high 20s, but they don’t. At all. So the “obesity epidemic” is 100% a product of tens of millions of people having their BMIs creep over an arbitrary line. It’s exactly as sensible as declaring that people who are 5′11 are healthy but people who are 6′1″ are sick.
Despite my loathing of fatties, I’m fairly receptive to what he’s saying. I think we have heard for years that the BMIs are out of whack and that fairly stout individuals who can nonetheless run a marathon qualify as obese.
I tend to break “overweight” people up into three groups. There’s fat people, who basically fit into the Alfred Hitchcock mold — clearly big, but not really overflowing. Then there’s obese people — Kenan Thompson from Saturday Night Live might be good example. Then there’s morbidly obese people; these are the gigantic men and women I often see at Denny’s whose butt cheeks look like they weigh about 100 pounds. I’m not surprised to hear that being fat has little effect on health, and I can buy that the same might be true with some levels of obesity. But gigantic, morbidly obese people clearly seem headed for early graves. Of course, an early grave does not necessarily mean they’ll be placing a heavy burden on the healthcare system. If you die at 60, you save the system all the healthcare expenses you would’ve run up over the next 25 years had you lived to be 85.
Having said all that, I think further expiration of this topic is needed. Fat people don’t get fat in a vacuum, they get fat by eating crappy food and not exercising. If we’re saying being fat is not a problem, are we by proxy saying that crappy food and lack of exercise are not problems? (We can get into a nightmare of correlation versus causation here: one could argue that fat people who don’t exercise are not unhealthy because they’re fat, but because they don’t exercise, but that kind of argumentation is a dog chasing its tail. The moral is obvious: exercise to be healthy and you also won’t be (too) fat.)
Nonetheless, I like the contrarian nature of Campos’s logic and might even get around to reading his book.