Questionning the obesity "epidemic"

        Image by ccsdteacher on Flickr

        Image by ccsdteacher on Flickr

I read a great piece of research recently. Entitled "The epidemiology of overweight and obesity: public health crisis or moral panic?"*, it looks at the figures on the obesity "epidemic" and concludes:

"the available scientific data neither support alarmist claims about obesity nor justify diverting scarce resources away from far more pressing public health issues."

Rather than an alarming growth in obesity, the researchers analyse the evidence and find a "relatively modest" increase in the weight of the population, but this small increase has been enough to shift more people into the overweight or obese category, even though they are only 3 - 5kg heavier than people of a generation ago. 

"In the US, to take a much-cited example, the so-called 'obesity epidemic' is almost wholly the product of tens of millions of people with BMIs formerly in the 23 - 35 range gaining a modest amount of weight and thus now being classified as 'overweight', and, similarly, tens of millions of people with BMIs formerly in the high 20s now having BMIs just >30. This movement of population cohorts from just below to just above the formal definitions of overweight and obesity is what public health officials are referring to when they point out that rates of obesity have exploded over the course of the last generation."

So what? People are still gaining weight, even if it's not as much as we thought, so shouldn't we be doing something about it? Well again, the researchers go against the prevailing view and say, maybe not. For starters, they claim the evidence for obesity being associated with health problems and increased risk of early death is weak at best, but they also question whether significant long-term weight loss is a practical or achievable goal for many people:

"Thus public health interventions designed to lessen rates of obesity and overweight are striving to achieve a presently unachievable goal of unknown medical efficacy."

Anyway the research is available for free. For anyone occupied by public health questions, it makes an interesting read.

* Campos P, Saguy A, Ernsberger Pe, Oliver E & Gaesser G, "The epidemiology of overweight and obesity: public health crisis or moral panic?", International Journal of Epidemiology, 2006;35:55–60.