Millions of pleasantly plump Americans were stepping a little lighter. A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had just concluded that folks who are overweight but not obese are at no greater risk of dying prematurely than people of normal weight. You could almost hear the national sigh of relief in the newspaper articles, radio talk shows and monologues of late-night comedians that followed. "I can't tell you how happy this makes me," David Brooks wrote in the New York Times, which devoted a front-page story, an editorial and two Op-Ed pieces to the findings. "A lifetime of irresponsible behavior has been unjustly rewarded."
When it comes to the obesity debate, however, it never takes long for rhetoric to outpace the science. And sure enough, a group called the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) seized on the CDC study last week to launch an ad campaign dismissing America's obesity "epidemic," "problem," "threat" and "issue" as mere "hype."
That in turn prompted howls of outrage from academics who have been trying for years to get the food and restaurant industries to serve healthier meals. "The Center for Consumer Freedom is to industry what hit men are to the Mafia," said Yale psychologist Kelly Brownell, an obesity expert and frequent target of the CCF. He points out that the group is funded in large part by restaurants and food companies and run by Richard Berman, a public relations expert who made his reputation defending the tobacco industry.
Lost in all the ideological to-and-fro was any sense of what exactly the CDC study found and what it actually means. Basically, its authors concluded from three recent health surveys of the U.S. population that being obese--as well as being underweight--is associated with a greater number of deaths than being of normal weight. Researchers will argue about just how much the results are skewed by thin people who are losing weight because they are dying, but the basic findings are undisputed.
What the CDC scientists did not conclude--despite the many sound bites to the contrary--is that a little excess weight will help you live longer or that plump folks are any healthier. It's true that in the study there were slightly fewer deaths associated with people who were overweight than with the people of normal weight, but the numbers varied so little, says lead author Katherine Flegal, that the difference is not what scientists would call significant.
More important, as Flegal readily admits, her paper does not attempt to account for the burden of living with the diseases associated with carrying around some extra pounds. To take just one example, a study published last week followed 10,000 patients in the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Medical Group for more than 25 years and found that those who were either overweight or obese in midlife were significantly more likely to develop dementia later on. Other studies have established that the risks of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes all rise with increasing weight. "There's nothing about our paper that says obesity isn't a health issue," Flegal says.