Is Much Of What We Think About Weight And Health Wrong?

Paul Campos argues so in this thought provoking interview with Megan McArdle, which I recommend reading in full:

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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

And Campos on the real source of the hysteria about weight gain:

as Mary Douglas the anthropologist has pointed out, we focus on risks not on the basis of “rational” cost-benefit analysis, but because of the symbolic work focusing on those risks does — most particularly signalling disapproval of certain groups and behaviors.In this culture fatness is a metaphor for poverty, lack of self-control, and other stuff that freaks out the new Puritans all across the ideological spectrum, which is why the war on fat is so ferocious — it appeals very strongly to both the right and the left, for related if different reasons.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Evangelos

    Campos’s argument is a sobering one. I’ve been under the persuasion for a while now that a good deal of the rhetoric behind the obesity “crisis”, “epidemic” or what have you is an effective ploy employed by the political class to get to their ends. Indeed I think whenever a group of people are demonized for some sort of action, lifestyle, or status, there’s a very good chance some sort of irrational moral overreaction is behind it. This kind of thing has happened with obesity; how else do we account for the shrill cries that went up when the country found out the lady who was to be appointed surgeon general was fat?

    A nice thing about irrational moral overreactions: they typically can’t last very long, so it’s fun waiting to see what the next on one will be.


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