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Health hysteria vs. reality
by Paul Campos
Scripps Howard News Service


March 08, 2005

Two new reports illustrate how cultural hysteria can remain immune to the moderating influence of reality.

The first compiles government statistics for the year 2003, which reveal that life expectancy in America continues to improve steadily, and that rates of the nation's biggest killers - heart disease and cancer - continue to decline.

In other words, Americans are living longer and healthier lives than ever before, with no end in sight to the long-term trends that have made every generation healthier than its predecessors.

The second is an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It reveals that almost every player in the NFL is "overweight," and that most are "obese." (The authors of the study could have saved themselves the trouble of compiling this information, as I published identical data last spring in my book, "The Obesity Myth").

This article inspired a clueless editorial in The New York Times, titled "Fatties on the Football Field," which claimed the study's data suggested a significant proportion of league players were "unfit," given that it was unlikely all those 300-plus-pound linemen had gotten so big by gaining nothing but "healthy" muscle mass, as opposed to fat.

The ignorance of such comments typifies the beliefs that fuel America's fat panic. Exercise physiologists determine aerobic and metabolic fitness by measuring how long a person is capable of sustaining moderate to intense physical activity. By this scientific standard, every player in the NFL is highly fit.

Fitness in the physiological sense has little to do with body mass or body-fat percentage. Although NFL athletes are obviously extraordinary individuals, many of them demonstrate that it's possible for very large - and indeed quite fat - persons to be highly fit.

Another flaw in the Times' editorial is its assumption that high body mass correlates with health risk only to the extent that it correlates with high body-fat percentage. This is the precise opposite of what the medical literature indicates.

There is no evidence that persons with high percentages of muscle mass are healthier than persons of similar weight with high percentages of body fat. While body mass is a weak predictor of health, body-fat percentage has no independent predictive value. The belief that it does is a product of the superstition that body fat is some sort of poisonous substance _ a superstition that the Times' editorial board seems to have swallowed whole.

The data in the JAMA article highlights the arbitrariness of our definitions of "overweight" and "obesity." If practically every player in the NFL, from star quarterbacks to the speediest receivers, is "overweight," how much sense does that definition make?

Because a certain knee-jerk response to this point is so common, I repeat for emphasis: The claim that the government's definition of "overweight" doesn't necessarily apply to athletes, because athletes have low percentages of body fat, is nonsensical. Many elite athletes don't have low percentages of body fat, and, in any case, body-fat percentage has no independent correlation with health.

The concept of "healthy weight" isn't meaningless. The problem is that we have an absurdly narrow and unscientific definition of that term. A healthy weight is the weight a person maintains while living a healthy life.

It's perfectly possible, and indeed quite common, for people with healthy lifestyles to weigh dozens of pounds more than what the government says they ought to weigh. Labeling such people "overweight" makes exactly as much sense as labeling Shaquille O'Neal "overtall."

That such wrongheaded definitions are used to support the claim that we're suffering a health crisis, when in fact we're healthier than ever, highlights the irrationality of the current panic over fat.


Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service

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