The Tennessean Scaremongers about the Obesity Epidemic



Listen, folks, do you need to exercise more and eat better? Probably. Even if you do exercise more and eat better, are you still going to die, probably in some painful, terrible fashion? I'm sorry to break it to you, but yes.

I had pneumonia six times before I was 24 and my dad's cardiologist told us kids that it's not a matter of if but when we have heart problems. If I don't drown in my own snot, I have a timebomb in my chest. Something equally gross awaits most of you. And death awaits us all. No escaping it. So — carpe diem and crap, people.

All that being said — eat well, exercise, and accept that you will still die — let's turn to this article in The Tennessean about how we're all fat and getting fatter and all the fat people are ruining it for everyone.

“The obesity problem is likely to get much worse without a major public health intervention,” says Eric Finkelstein, a health economist with Duke University Global Health Institute and lead researcher on the new study. He presented his analysis at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Weight of the Nation” meeting, where experts are discussing strategies for the prevention and control of obesity. The study is being published online in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

"Much worse without a major public health intervention?!" Holy shit! Let's everyone panic.

Oh, wait. Turns out Finkelstein also says something else.

Finkelstein says the estimates assume that things have gotten about as bad as they can get, in terms of an environment that promotes obesity. The country “is already saturated” with fast-food restaurants, cheap junk food and electronic technologies that render people sedentary at home and work, he says. “We don’t expect the environment to get much worse than it is now, or at least we hope it doesn’t.”

Well, if things have gotten as bad as they can get, shouldn't we see evidence that the obesity rate is leveling off? The Tennessean isn't clear. But check out a story on the same subject from The Huffington Post. Note the same "fat people are going to ruin it for everyone" spin on the fact that a condition that is supposed to be so terrible it affects 36 percent of the population only accounts for 9 percent of the nation's healthcare costs, so we can't accuse the Huffington Post of being soft.

And yet they say:

Over the past decade, obesity rates stayed about the same in women, while men experienced a small rise, said CDC's Cynthia Ogden. That increase occurred mostly in higher-income men, for reasons researchers couldn't explain.

About 17 percent of the nation's children and teens were obese in 2009 and 2010, the latest available data. That's about the same as at the beginning of the decade, although a closer look by Ogden shows continued small increases in boys, especially African-American boys.

Hmm, men are getting fatter, and yet whose headless body gets trotted out to illustrate the horrors of the obesity epidemic? I'll give you a hint — it's not men.

Reuters also has a story on this same study and it also features a picture of a headless female fatty, but my, my, my if it doesn't sound different than the "fatties are ruining it for everyone" stories.

"People have heard the advice to eat less and move more for years, and during that time a large number of Americans have become obese," IOM committee member Shiriki Kumanyika of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine told Reuters. "That advice will never be out of date. But when you see the increase in obesity you ask, what changed? And the answer is, the environment. The average person cannot maintain a healthy weight in this obesity-promoting environment."

So here's the thing I want you to think about. If the actual story is that all these folks are at a conference discussing the obesity epidemic and the Institute of Medicine released a study that shows that, while people are fatter than they were thirty years ago, that obesity rates seem to have plateaued at around 36-40 percent of the population — and that, even with everyone and their uncle knowing they need to eat better and exercise more, people are still fat, so much so that the IOM thinks the problem is systemic and not about individual failure (and that they're already getting angry pushback from the food industry) — why are the stories all about OMG, we're all getting fat and going to die? Look at this really fat chick who proves it!!!!!!? And why can't we ever see the faces of the women who "prove" how terrible obesity is?

I actually think the second question is easier to answer. We don't show faces because, when you can't see a fat woman's face, you can imagine she is as gross and disgusting as your mind can come up with. She is The Obeast. When you can see her face, she's just some chick who is fat. And while most of us are repulsed by monsters, we're not repulsed by women who could be our neighbors, our loved ones.

I also think that's why, whenever you see stories about the obesity epidemic, the photos you see are almost always of the backsides of people who are morbidly obese — a small portion of the people who are actually obese. The obesity epidemic isn't made up of people who went from 150 lbs. in 2000 to 350 lbs in 2010.

If you knew we were talking about people who look like this or this rather than this, the stories just wouldn't be as scary. (Check out the whole BMI Project for a less sensationalist view of what people's bodies actually look like.)

But the first one is harder to get at. If the doctors are literally refuting the idea that people are fat because of a lack of willpower but instead because the food we have available to us sucks, and calling for reforms of the food industry, why are most of the stories focused only on how fat we are and how fat we might get and how much that might cost us in healthcare?

Why doesn't The Tennessean's story even touch on the fact that the doctors are calling for food-industry reforms? Why, instead, does it focus solely on how much America's fatness is going to cost you, as if your fellow Americans are betraying you with their increasingly large asses? (Though I feel I should point out, Tennessee, that it won't cost us, because Tennesseans can't afford to go to the doctor.)

I don't have a good answer for that. But you should know that the IOM and other obesity experts think that people are fat not because of a lack of willpower, but because the deck is stacked against them. Pointing and staring and "what-a-shame"-ing at headless obese women is probably more fun and less likely to involve lawsuits that pointing and staring and "what-a-shame"-ing at the folks who put corn syrup in everything. But it's probably less effective at lowering our obesity rates.

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