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Evidence that the “war on obesity” is not worth fighting

For years we’ve been told that America is engaged in a “war on obesity” that requires government action at the federal, state and local level.  Government-backed research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have categorized more than a third (36 percent) as obese, and about seven in 10 as overweight and obese. Obesity is often referred to as an “epidemic”.

But a “meta-analysis” of studies published  in the Journal of the American Medical Association raises serious questions about our conception of obesity. The review, by Katherine Flegal and associates at the CDC and National Institutes of Health, found that those whose “body mass index” (BMI) indicated they were overweight had less risk of dying than those classified as “normal” weight. The New York Times noted that “The report, although not the first to suggest this relationship between BMI and mortality, is by far the largest and most carefully done, analyzing nearly 100 studies, experts say.”

As Paul Campos, writing in an op-ed in the Times, put it: “If the government were to redefine normal weight as one that doesn’t increase the risk of death, then about 130 million of the 165 million American adults currently categorized as overweight and obese would be re-categorized as normal weight instead.” That certainly changes the picture: from a problem that most people should be worried about, to one that is limited to a small percentage  of the population (about six percent are classified as extremely obese).

Publicized at the start of the year, the study may weaken the resolve of many who have set out with traditional New Year’s resolutions to lose weight.   More broadly, it threatens to undermine a massive government-backed campaign to change our diet and behavior – as well as ban certain foods (like Michael Bloomberg’s ban on large sodas in New York City). Therefore, it cannot be right, according to some. Many media outlets publicized the reaction from Walter Willet of the Harvard School of Public Health, who said “This study is really a pile of rubbish and no one should waste their time reading it.” Well, there’s a measured academic response. The Newark Star-Ledger provided a typical warning that accompanied media coverage: "Be careful — this is not a license to trade the gym for a few hours lazing in front of the television with a bag of cheese doodles."

It would not surprise me if another study came out that contradicted this latest one. That seems to be the nature of research in this area: the results of analyses of the relationship between weight and health are not fully conclusive, because there are many other factors involved. The more important point is that, even if obesity were more widespread, that fact would not justify government intervention. Weight is an individual concern, not the government’s. And individuals, I suggest, have better things to do than worry about than a few extra pounds - like enjoying life.

So, go ahead, have that doughnut!

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