Rants & Raves

By Lynne Murray

In 2001, armed with a proposal and book contract from Oxford University Press, political scientist, J. Eric Oliver started out to write a book to address the question:  "How was America going to overcome the political challenges posed by the obesity epidemic?"

What he found was not what he expected.  Examining the fragile tissue of lies that constitute the evidence for so-called health threats of obesity, he was appalled to see the junk science and outright fabrication propping up the claims of the supposed connections between fat and disease.

What I thought was an epidemic began to look like a politically orchestrated campaign to capitalize on America's growing weight. Fat Politics, p. x.

It's interesting to contrast Oliver's finding with those of lawyer Paul Campos, who in The Diet Myth (reviewed here in hardcover as The Obesity Myth) examined the hysteria from the point of view of who benefits from manipulating the data to create a fake epidemic. 

Oliver, an expert in statistics and public policy, began to explore how the Center for Disease control intentionally cultivated hysteria in the health community and the public in general. 

[W]hy then, in 2000, did obesity suddenly become so newsworthy? ... [T]he person who infected lots of people with idea that it was an epidemic was a pediatrician named William Dietz. Fat Politics, p.39. 

In 1997, Dietz left his job as a pediatrician and nutritional researcher at Tufts University and took a job at the Center for Disease Control with the stated goal of instilling a fear of obesity in the American population—in short, creating an epidemic out of a condition that was not, technically a disease.  But then it was never about facts.

Using red to represent higher incidences of obesity, he and another CDC employee developed a series of Power Point maps designed to create the illusion of a virulent epidemic where none existed, by "showing" the spread of obesity in red, engulfing one state after another.

Dietz is quoted as saying:

"...invariably the audience responded with a growing murmur, then a gasp as the increase in the prevalence unfolded... After people have seen the maps, we no longer have to discuss whether a problem with obesity exists.  These maps have shifted the discussion from whether a problem exists to what we should do about the epidemic." Fat Politics, p. 42.

There's no business like show business.  Even when it's based on junk science.

As Oliver remarks, By simply repackaging the data in map form, America's recent weight gains have become widely interpreted as a rampant epidemic, spiraling out of control. Fat Politics, p. 43

The section on "The Diseasing of America" alone is worth the price of the book.  Oliver outlines how the "heath-industrial" complex profits, careers in government agencies and private industry are built and profits flow once you can label fat people as "sick"

When the April 2005 JAMA article by Kathryn Fleal radically reduced the estimated number of deaths due to obesity, the public health section, rather than correcting its position to reflect the actual data, chose to defend its turf, and attack anyone who disagreed with its errors.  CDC led the charge, encouraging state agencies to attack the article, even to the point of claiming that obesity "causes" diabetes, heart disease and cancer, for which there is absolutely no clinical evidence. 

Oliver says, In the name of sustaining its own political agenda, the nation's leading health agency was issuing statements about health that were patently false. Fat Politics, p. 50

In later chapters Oliver explores the American lifestyle and why it is uniquely designed to increase weight, and how characterizing higher weight as a disease is particularly damaging to actual health.

I am fascinated by books of mental exploration, where a problem is investigated and new ideas are encountered and assimilated.  Oliver conveys that very well, early in the book he says:

I had heard about fat rights groups ... Like many people, I had largely dismissed the as a fringe and marginal group; after all, who was this weird bunch of people who argued that obesity was not a health risk, who were actually proud of being fat?  But once I realized they were right about a lot of the junk science on obesity, I started to seriously consider their other arguments, particularly about the pervasiveness of fat prejudice in the United States.  Fat Politics, p. x-xi.

The journey is worth taking with Oliver.  As he says toward the end of the book:

Among the scores of doctors, health researchers, and government officials whom I interviewed for this book, the people who had the most clear-eyed understanding of obesity were not the "experts" but the activists who were challenging he very system that seeks to profit from their weight... For them the obesity epidemic is not simply a remote headline but a pernicious fiction that constantly bombards their lives.

When I ask fat activists Marilyn Wann or Lynn McAfee what they would do about the obesity epidemic, they give a relatively simple and straightforward answer. Rather than continuing this pointless effort to either fight our biology or stifle the free market, the best way to get over our weight problem is to stop worrying so much about our weight. Fat Politics, p. 188-89

This is one of the essential books in my own library on fat in America.


© Lynne Murray