Rants & Raves
THE OBESITY MYTH: WHY AMERICA'S OBSESSION WITH WEIGHT IS HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH, BY PAUL CAMPOS
By Lynne Murray
I've been hearing about The Obesity Myth for months and it completely lives up to expectations. It eloquently and coherently summarizes a lot of the evidence from other important references, but it goes far beyond that in offering new and valuable insights into the roots of our attitudes toward body size.
The Obesity Myth is so effective that I had trouble finding parts to quote for this review, because I wanted to quote the whole book. Even before I was through reading the first chapter I knew that it would join Marilyn Wann's Fat!So? as one of those books I buy several copies of to give to people who are struggling to overcome out national brainwashing on the subject of weight and health.
Paul Campos is a lawyer and his legal skills serve the reader well. He reviews evidence and presents it with crystal clarity. His own journey in researching is also quite relevant to the subject itself.
Campos reports that when he first looked at weight issues, he just assumed, as most people do, that there is overwhelming medical evidence that being overweight is harmful to your health. The medical establishment says so, the scientific research is presented by the popular press as having prove this. Campos was stunned to discover that the science has demonstrated the opposite:
A. There is no provable relationship between so-called obesity and poor health,
B. This is easily discoverable for anyone who will read the actual research, and
C. That the truth doesn't seem to matter to anyone in this debate.
Campos was horrified that journalists, science writers, even the researchers themselves ignore or misrepresent the results of scientific studies.
"The weight loss industry exploits cultural anxieties about fat to sell its customers products that don't work, over and over again, by convincing those customers that it is they who are defective. The failure of these products is ascribed to the moral weakness of those who purchase them, thus allowing the cycle to go on indefinitely." [The Obesity Myth, p. 234, italics in original]
In an illuminating foreword, Paul Ernsberger, a researcher with great integrity, describes how the catastrophically damaging diet drug fen-phen was rammed through to FDA approval in the teeth of the evidence of its harmfulness, "...[I]n the current climate of hysteria over obesity, both our public health establishment and the public it counsels seem increasingly willing to accept grave risks and steep costs in exchange for small and usually temporary losses in body mass. Where will it end?" [The Obesity Myth, foreword, p. xiii]
When trying to discover who might have committed a crime, investigators and lawyers first and foremost ask themselves "Who benefits from the crime?"
"To a shocking extent, much of the highest profile obesity research being done in America today turns out to be little more than propaganda masquerading as the results of disinterested scientific investigation: propaganda that has been bought and paid for by our nation's $50 billion per year weight loss industry." [The Obesity Myth, Introduction, p. xxiii]
Campos cites Laura Fraser's extremely useful book, Losing It: False Hopes and Fat Profits in the Diet Industry (another one of those books I've bought several copies of to give to people). Fraser interviewed many well-known researchers and had trouble finding one that wasn't on the diet industry payroll.
Campos concludes: "Not only do obesity researchers depend on the diet industry to fund the bulk of their expenses: Many of these same researchers have direct financial relationships with the companies whose products they are evaluating." [The Obesity Myth, p. 43]
I believe that one reason so many people have trouble penetrating the fog of lies about the mythical dangers of obesity is that their eyes glaze over when presented with scientific research studies. This makes it easier for researchers seeking lucrative grants from the diet industry to do the voodoo they do so well with their own data.
If this were a jury trial, this would be the part where the lawyer presenting the case would have to work very hard to make the scientific evidence clear to the jury. Campos presents several examples of studies with questionable ethics, clearly aimed at securing future funding.
One popular tactic is ignoring the data that has just been presented and inserting a closing conclusion recommending the opposite—a treatment that the researcher has just demonstrated to be useless, ineffective, and in some case actively harmful. Another example is outright manipulating of the test subjects to exclude anyone who might show results contrary to the outcome the researcher feels will secure the best continued grant funding.
It's one thing to convince a jury of average citizens. But where are those famous investigative journalists? Presumably science writers can read and understand scientific data. Why aren't science writers for respected news journals ferreting out this dirty little secret? Campos explores why the entire culture is so gripped by the hysteria over weight, that a kind of blindness descends on even the otherwise trained, rational observer.
When he looks for why this particular prejudice has been so wholeheartedly embraced by our culture, Campos comes up with some fascinating conclusions.
The point by point comparison of the warning signs of anorexia and our culture's attitude toward body size is amazing. He also explains how unnatural thinness has become a status symbol for the upwardly mobile in work and courtship.
Some have faulted Campos for his chapter on fat and the impeachment of Bill Clinton, but I find it revealingly relevant. Humor is a weapon with a very sharp edge, and Campos points out that there was a clear, political agenda in the attempts to portray Clinton as fat, careless and out of control.
To downplay the degree to which fat people can be marginalized by humor is identical with downplaying racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic jokes. Jokes don't harm anyone, right? People making such jokes can have their prejudice reinforced by others who have bought the myth that all fat people are by definition incompetent and out of control, because of the staggeringly incorrect assumption that anyone who makes a concerted effort can permanently lose weight. If that were the case, no competent person would be fat.
I conclude with just one last quote. "The things many Americans worship today—'health,' 'fitness,' a perpetually youthful body—have become so closely associated with staying or becoming thin that, for all practical purposes, what such people worship is a god of perpetual slenderness." [The Obesity Myth, p. 233]
In interviews when the book came out—I don't remember seeing it in the book itself—Campos has coined a useful phrase, "Body Liberation," which he prefers over "Size Acceptance." That sounds fine to me—I'll have both, please.
More information is available at obesitymyth.com.
© Lynne Murray