One of the more controversial claims I made in Fat Head is that the obesity epidemic has been overblown — mostly by people with a vested interest, such as the CDC and the weight-loss industry. (Unfortunately, between the government-industry revolving door and the consulting contracts offered to officials still in government, those are often the same people.)
A recent Gallup poll supports my claim. I’m not suggesting (and didn’t suggest in Fat Head, despite what some reviewers think) that we don’t see more huge people walking around in public than we did 30 years ago. Anyone with eyes knows a minority of the population has gotten very fat.
But that’s a minority. The statistics say the average American is only about 8 to 12 pounds heavier than a generation ago. Let’s split the difference and call it 10 pounds — and remember, we’re also about 10 years older on average than we were in 1970. As Dr. Eric Oliver pointed out in the film, when the Body Mass Index classifications of overweight and obese were adopted, they put millions of people right on the edge of being overweight. It only took a few extra pounds to push those people into the “overweight” category … and then we gained those pounds.
The main thrust of the article about the Gallup poll is that while most Americans are overweight (using the BMI scale, anyway), fewer than half are currently trying to lose weight. Well, duh … millions of people have tried the “eat less and move more” method promoted by doctors and nutritionists and failed. It’s no wonder they’ve given up.
But what I found most interesting was the data on who’s “overweight” and by how much. Here are the numbers:
More than 50 pounds overweight: 6%
21-50 pounds overweight: 17%
11-20 pounds overweight: 15%
1-10 pounds overweight: 24%
At ideal weight: 18%
1-10 pounds underweight: 7%
11-20 pounds underweight: 3%
More than 20 pounds underweight: 1%
We’re looking at BMI figures here, not a measurement of who’s actually fat and who isn’t. As I’ve said many times, the BMI scale is ridiculous. It labels almost anyone with decent muscles as overweight or obese. Tim Tebow, the star quarterback of the Florida Gators, is a lean, mean, running machine. He’s also 6’3″ and weighs 245, which puts his BMI at 30.6 — in other words, obese. To be considered normal weight, he’d have to lose 45 pounds. Short of amputating a leg, that’s not going to happen.
But of course, not many people are as muscular as Tim Tebow, so let’s take an example closer to home — me. When I graduated from high school, I was 5’8″ and weighed 155 pounds, giving me a BMI of 23.6 … normal weight. But I only had a 36-inch chest, not much in the way of muscles, a big belly and “boy boobs.” When we played shirts vs. skins in gym-class competitions, I prayed to end up on the shirts team.
Today I’m 5’11” and weigh 195 pounds, giving me a BMI of 27.2 … overweight. I also have a 44-inch chest, with much thicker arms and legs. My belly is smaller and the boy boobs are gone. But to be considered just barely at “normal” weight, I’d have to lose 20 pounds. To reach my high-school BMI of 23.6, I’d have to lose 26 pounds. That’s how screwy the BMI measurement is.
Not surprisingly, then, the Gallup poll found a “gap” between the number of people who are technically overweight and the number who consider themselves overweight. No kidding. If you tried to tell Tim Tebow he needs to lose 45 pounds, he’d probably hit you. If you tried to tell me I should lose another 26 pounds, I’d probably ask Tim Tebow to hit you.
Let’s have a little fun with the Gallup numbers. We’ve heard over and over that obesity is reaching epidemic proportions and 60% of all Americans are overweight. Yup … if we accept that the BMI scale actually means something and we include people who are 10 pounds or less overweight, I guess that’s true.
But since the average weight gain since 1970 is about 10 pounds, let’s take everyone who’s considered overweight, put them on a low-carb diet, and knock off those pounds — after all, 10 pounds isn’t much. Better yet, let’s decide the BMI categories are arbitrary (which they are) and simply spot people another 10 pounds before they’re considered overweight.
All of a sudden, POOF! … our epidemic isn’t quite so scary. Instead of 62% of all American adults being overweight, we’re down to 38% — and we could even say that only 23% of all adults are more than 10 pounds overweight.
According to the poll, the average American adult is 14 pounds over his or her ideal weight. But keep in mind, that’s an average. Six percent of American adults are 50 pounds or more overweight. They’re not being offset in the numbers by people who are 50 pounds underweight.
Take one guy who’s 50 pounds above the “normal” BMI and average him together with one man who’s 15 pounds overweight, three who are 10 pounds overweight, one who’s five pounds overweight, and one at the ideal weight, and you get an average of 14 pounds overweight. But only two of the seven are above that average, and five of the seven are within 10 pounds of their supposedly ideal weight.
There are probably a lot of numbers like these involved in that “gap” that had the Gallup people so surprised. People who are within 10 pounds of their supposedly ideal weight (a quarter of the population) can be forgiven for answering that their weight is “about right.”
That’s what you’re actually seeing when hysterical members of the media show you those state-by-state charts, with the overweight and obesity numbers growing like a runaway cancer: the statistical outcome of 10 extra pounds on average since 1970 … which for many people were the result of gym memberships and weight machines. Not many people lifted weights in 1970. Now even my naturally-thin wife does.
A different Gallup poll underscores another point I made in the film: there is a genuine epidemic out there, and it’s called diabetes. More than 11% percent of Americans adults have diabetes now, and more than 90% of those have type 2 diabetes, which is mostly preventable. The rate has more than doubled in the last decade alone. Among senior citizens, the numbers are even more harrowing: nearly one-quarter have diabetes. Just think of all the physical damage that’s causing. And even those numbers don’t count the pre-diabetics.
Since high blood sugar can lead to both weight gain and diabetes, we’re actually seeing two sides of the same coin. But the real problem is the diabetes, not the extra 10 pounds, or even the extra 20 or 30 pounds many people have gained. In my family, there are two type 2 diabetics who are lean and look great in their clothes. No one told warned them about the dangers of high blood sugar, and since they were lean, they assumed their diets were just fine — after all, they ate lots of those energy-giving carbohydrates and not too much of that icky fat.
The constant drumbeat about the obesity epidemic and the emphasis on losing weight is sending the wrong message. We need to tell people to get their blood sugar checked and keep it under control with the proper diet. If we do that, the 10 pounds will take care of itself. And if it doesn’t, well … so what? A bit of belly won’t kill you if it’s not the result of high blood sugar.
p.s. – We’re leaving for grandma’s house on Wednesday. It’s not likely I’ll post on Thursday, but I’ll check comments when I can. Enjoy your Thanksgiving.