Paul: It's a terrible idea on all sorts of levels. There are three big problems with attempting to control health care
costs by reducing so-called "obesity." First, it's a fake problem.
Second, the solutions for the problem are non-existent, even assuming
the problem existed. Third, focusing on making Americans thinner
diverts resources from real public health issues.
Megan: Let's start with the first. If there's one thing that everyone in America knows, it's that being fat is really unhealthy. Why do you call it a fake problem?
The correlations between higher weight and greater health risk are weak
except at statistical extremes. The extent to which those correlations
are causal is poorly established. There is literally not a shred of
evidence that turning fat people into thin people improves their
health. And the reason there's no evidence is that there's no way to do
So saying "let's improve health by turning fat people into thin
people" is every bit as irrational as saying "let's improve health by
turning men into women or old people into young people". Actually it's a
lot crazier, because there actually are significant health differences
between men and women and the old and the young -- much more so than
between the fat and the thin.
Megan: So why is the public health community so set on this issue as the major driver of our health care costs?
Because we're in the midst of a moral panic over fat, which has
transformed the heavier than average into folk devils, to whom all
sorts of social ills are ascribed.
Megan: Aside from rising health care costs?
Well according to the obesity mafia our kids are all going to die
sooner than their parents, which sounds like a moral problem as well as
one of health care costs. It's all complete nonsense.
Megan: Do you think being overweight is a proxy for things that DO make a difference, like fitness?
It's a weak proxy, but yes it has some marginal significance. It's good
to encourage people of all sizes to be active and avoiding eating
disordered behavior (like dieting), but this isn't because lifestyle
changes will make fat people thin people. They won't. I'd like to talk a little about the statistics if I may. : Please! We're all about statistics here.
OK, the CDC honchos and the authors of this study you referenced are in
hysterics because the obesity rate, so-called, has roughly doubled in
the last 30 years. But let's consider what that actually means.
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. So if the average weight of the population goes up by
ten pounds, tens of millions of people who were just under the line
will now be just over it.
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.
to the absurdity of all this, people with BMIs in the mid to high 20s
actually have the best overall health and longest life expectancy --
,more so than those in the so-called "normal" BMI range.
Megan: So we can't save billions of dollars by making people thinner?
Consider the methodology of this study. It tried to calculate changes
in health costs if everybody with a BMI over 30 had a BMI under 25. But
leaving aside the preposterous assumption that all increased health
risks associated with a level of body mass are caused by that
level of body mass, the idea that somehow we could make fat people into
thin people is bizarre.
A study like this isn't talking about turning
180 pound women into 165 pound women, which at least in theory might
actually be possible. It's talking about turning 200 pound women into
130 pound women, on statistical average. The success rate for such
attempts is about .1% Even stomach amputation does not turn fat people into thin people.
even if it were true that we knew it would be beneficial to turn fat
people into thin people (which we don't) it's not something we have any
idea how to do. The statements in the study indicating that there are
known methods for doing this are simply lies of the most egregious sort.
Now lets talk about excess health care costs. if you look at the study,
nearly half of the excess health care costs associated with being fat
are from higher rates of drug prescription. But why are fat people
being prescribed more drugs than thin ones? Largely, because they have
the "disease" of being fat, which is then treated directly and
indirectly by prescription drugs!
For instance, statins. Statins are a multi-billion dollar business,
but there's very little statistical evidence that they benefit the vast
majority of people to whom they're prescribed. Basically the only
people who have lower CVD [cardiovascular disease] mortality after taking statins are
middle-aged men with a history of CVD.
But the heavier than average are
prescribed statins at higher rates simply because they're heavier than
average, even though there's no evidence this is beneficial for them. And of course this doesn't touch on the costs of all the treatments for "obesity" itself, which are uniformly ineffective.
saying that increased risks from being heavy come from--what? Having
gained weight in the first place? Bad genetics? Or dieting?
As for where the increased risks associated with being heavy come from
(such as they are), many of them come from weight cycling, which is
clearly bad for people, and which is the outcome of 98% of diets.
Others come from the stress and social discrimination generated by
having what's considered an inapproprirate body in this culture. Others
come from diet drugs, eating disordered behavior, poverty -- all things
strongly associated with higher than avberage weight.
Megan: What about gastric bypass? The quoted figures for gastric bypass seem pretty impressive when doctors talk about them on television.
Gastric bypass is surgically induced bulimia. People starve for the
first few months so of course their blood sugar levels go down. At five
and ten year followup the average weight loss from these procedures is
about 10% to 15% of body mass (it's actually less than that since lots
of people drop out of the studies) which means most of these people end
up still "morbidly obese." And they can never eat normally again.Why
do you think you never see the actual stats for weight loss from
stomach stapling? If they were good they'd be on billboards 50 feet high.
Those shows on TLC that basically invite the audience to gawk at fat
people usually say they'll lose fifty percent of their excess body
If you put people on starvation diets, which is what these methods do,
of course you'll get huge amounts of weight loss. Then most or all of
it will be gained back, which among other things is a recipe for
congestive heart failure. I'd love to do a "reality" show on the
contestants on shows like The Biggest Loser three years down the road.
But that would probably be a little too much reality.
bypass is the most radical method available for weight loss, and it
basically doesn't work. Everything else is even less successful, though
usually not quite as dangerous.
Over the last five years or so, I've noticed that public health efforts
about obesity are not just amping up the volume, but exploring
increasingly coercive methods to induce weight loss: taxes on junk
food, lawsuits against fast food companies (which are basically a tax
on junk food), and so forth. Does that match your analysis?
It's the classic pattern of moral panics. As public concern about the
damage being done to the fabric of society by the folk devils
increases, increasingly intense demands are made on public officials to
"do something" about the crisis, usually by eliminating the folk
That of course is the strategy for this crisis. If fat people
are the problem, then the solution is to get rid of them, by making
them thin people. The most amazing aspect of this whole thing, for me,
has always been the imperviouusness of policy makers, and even more so
people who consider themselves serious academics and scientists, to the
overwhelming evidence that there's no way to do this.
I mean, there's no
better established empirical proposition in medical science that we
don't know how to make people thinner. But apparently this proposition
is too disturbing to consider, even though it's about as well
established as that cigarettes cause lung cancer. So
all these proposals about improving public health by making people
thinner are completely crazy. They are as non-sensical as anything
being proposed by public officials in our culture right now, which is
It's conceivable that through some massive policy interventions
you might be able to reduce the population's average BMI from 27 to 25
or something like that. But what would be the point? There aren't any
health differences to speak of for people between BMIs of about 20 and
35, so undertaking the public health equivalent of the Apollo program
to reduce the populace's average BMI by a unit or two (and again I
will emphasize that we don't actually know if we could do even that) is an
incredible waste of public health resources
The idea I'm hearing now is that we need to change the environment, but
of course, if losing a great deal of weight actually makes you
unhealthier, that might not save us any money. The
other idea I'm hearing a lot more these days is that we have to Save
the Kids: intervene when they're young so they don't get fat in the
Paul: So the strategies that have failed so spectacularly with
adults -- tell them to exercise more, and eat less, and shame them
about their weight -- will work with children. Because if there's one
thing fat kids need, it's to be made to feel bad about feeling fat.
current stigmitization of fat kids is essentially child abuse as
government policy, and the people behind it are, as far as I'm
concerned, either incredibly stupid or very evil or in some cases both.
an idea: Stop harrassing people about their weight. Because it appears
that focusing on the idea that being fat actually makes people fatter.
At least there's an extremely strong correlation there. I bet if we
stopped demonizing fatness people would actually be a bit thinner.
They'd certainly be happier and healthier
Megan: What should we do instead if we want to reduce health care costs? Here are some proposed ideas I've heard:
- Taxes on soda
- New urbanism (make people walk more)
- Bring back physical education in schools
- Make gym memberships tax deductible
- Menu labelling.