I’m sure that everyone who has watched TV or read a newspaper over the past couple of days has heard about the new survey showing that Americans are fatter than ever. The Trust for America’s Health (TFAH), one of those ‘think’ tanks loaded with ex-politicians and former government employees of one stripe or another set up to suck money from donor organizations to create meaningless reports while paying its members large salaries issued its 2007 report a couple of days ago. And all the media obliged by rushing the TFAH conclusions into print and onto the airwaves.
The report comes in two forms: the actual big 120 page report filled with the kind of gibberish expected in a document with the touch of the federal employee on it that no one reads; and the press release that everyone reads. Both can be found on the TFAH website.
In sum, the report states that the rate of obesity rose in 31 states last year, no states experienced a decrease, and 22 states went up for the second year in a row.
How did the TFAH find all this out? They used publicly available data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which was obtained by the self reporting of about 350,000 who were called on the phone. Among other things, these subjects were asked for their height and weight, which was then used to calculate their BMIs. Wait a minute here. We all know that the BMI is a notoriously inaccurate measure of obesity, but what about the self reporting of weight and height? That can’t be reliable, can it?
Several studies looking at this very thing have shown that women tend to under report their weight and men tend to over report their height. In both cases, what you will find with self-reported heights and weights is an underestimate of the BMI, and, theoretically, the amount of obesity.
According to the TFAH report, Mississippi led the way with a 30.6% rate of obesity while the other states stratified between Mississippi and Colorado, the state with the lowest rate of 17.6%. I didn’t do any kind of accurate analysis on the data as presented, but with the high at a little above 30% and the low at about 18% you would have to reckon that the overall rates of obesity would fall somewhere in that range, probably around 24%. Looking at the three states with the largest populations and their obesity statistics (California 22.7%; New York 22.4%; Texas 26.3%) would seem to confirm the 24% number.
But according to the CDC in its 2003/2004 estimate, which didn’t rely on self reporting over the phone, 32.2% of the population is obese.
How did the CDC get its height and weight numbers to calculate the obesity rate? The good old-fashioned way: it measured them.
A household interview and a physical examination were conducted for each survey participant. During the physical examination, conducted in mobile examination centers, height and weight were measured as part of a more comprehensive set of body measurements. These measures were taken by trained health technicians, using standardized measuring procedures and equipment.
The actual obesity rate as measured in 2003/2004 is about a third higher than that calculated several years later by asking people for their heights and weights over the phone. So as a nation were not just fat, we’re fatter.
With a report so wildly inaccurate in its statistics, one would have to wonder about the validity of anything else it said. And it said plenty. Sort of.
The one overriding them of the entire report is that the obesity epidemic is with us in large measure because of mass inactivity. The message is that people just don’t exercise enough. And its the government’s fault. Why? Because of inattention to the growing masses of fat people. And what is the solution? You guess it. Government intervention.
What gets me about these kinds of reports is that they are filled with inaccuracies, yet mainstream press people who should know better swallow their idiotic bait hook, line and sinker.
The venerable and hallowed Wall Street Journal reports (subscription required) that
A lack of exercise is a huge factor in obesity rates.
This is reported as fact: ” A lack of exercise is…” Not ‘A lack of exercise may be…’ or ‘some experts believe that a lack of exercise’… or any other kind of iffy business. By God “a lack of exercise IS a huge factor…”
Unfortunately, their certainty isn’t backed up by the scientific data. Exercise has little, if any, affect on whether one gains or loses weight.
As if to prove this, the WSJ goes on to say, and this without batting an eye at the overt inconsistency
Minnesotans led the way when it came to exercise. An estimated 15.4% of the state’s residents did not engage an any physical exercise, the best rate in the nation. Still, the state ranked 28th overall when it came to the percentage of obese adults.
Say what? Let’s think this one through.
People living in Minnesota exercise more than those in any other state. In fact, only 15.4% of Minnesotans did not exercise, which would imply that 84.6% did exercise. And since “a lack of exercise is a huge factor in obesity rates,” then Minnesota should have the lowest rates of obesity, right? Well, uh, no, actually not. The state was about right in the middle of the rankings in terms of obesity. Hmmm.
And this actually made it through the editorial process. Gives one pause.
If the TFAH is wrong about exercise and the Wall Street Journal is wrong about exercise, who has got it right. Well, William Banting for one.
Remember what he wrote:
I consulted an eminent surgeon…who recommended increased bodily exertion before my ordinary daily labours began, and thought rowing and excellent plan. I had the command of a good, heavy, safe boat, lived near the river, and adopted it for a couple of hours early in the morning. It is true I gained muscular vigor, but with it a prodigious appetite, which I was compelled to indulge, and consequently increased my weight, until my kind old friend advised me to forsake the exercise.
He exercised on the advice of a physician and developed “a prodigious appetite,” which undid whatever good the exercise did him in terms of weight loss. He realized it and even his physician realized it.
Why is it that a retired undertaker from 19th century London can figure these things out and the people who write the lack-of-exercise-is-a-huge-factor drivel can’t? Perhaps the retired undertaker is eating brain food and these other folks aren’t.
When an average person runs or walks a mile (it doesn’t matter which – calories are burned by moving mass across a distance) that individual burns about 100 calories more than he/she would burn sitting on the couch staring out the window.
Now open any book of nutritional values and look up the amount of food it takes to give you 100 calories. It’s almost nothing. A half an ounce of nuts, an extra bite of pizza, a little extra half and half in your Starbucks throughout the day, a little over an ounce of trail mix, half of a granola bar, a few crackers, a half a bagel, a couple of extra forkfuls of most any casserole dish, and on and on. So, you go out and run a mile in the morning and you make up for it during the course of the day by increasing your intake by virtually unmeasurable amounts. That’s why exercise doesn’t work for weight loss.
But getting back to our report…
What does the TFAH recommend to decrease the rampaging rates of obesity that it so sorely underestimated? Let’s take a look at the 12o page report and find out.
There are five strategies listed.
A. Improving federal leadership: National strategy;
B. Fighting obesity in the workplace;
C. Helping all Americans become more physically active;
D. Helping Americans choose healthier foods; and
C. Accelerate and escalate the research into ways to promote lifestyle changes.
There you have it: The Big Five. Those are pronouncements that any bureaucrat could be proud of.
Here is my take on those five.
First, perhaps we should start by encouraging our federal leadership to abandon price supports on sugar so that more food processors will move away from high-fructose corn syrup, which has been shown to be a major driving force in the obesity epidemic. This would be real leadership because it would cost politicians a lot of Big Sugar money. I suspect you won’t see this happen, but you will hear a lot of talk about how Washington will solve this problem. Remember that talk a few years ago about how the obesity problem would be solved by 2010? And it’s increased every year since.
I’m all for fighting obesity in the workplace. I think every business ought to have an onsite meat store. Geez. Fighting obesity in the workplace…what a nothing suggestion.
We could help all Americans become more physically active. And we would accomplish what? They would be healthier, of that I’m pretty sure. But there wouldn’t be any less obesity.
I’m all for helping Americans choose healthier foods. MD and I have written a number of books on the subject. But somehow I don’t think the TFAH’s idea of healthier foods coincides with mine.
I’m all for more research, but I’m not sure that the best target for funds would be on finding ways to help Americans adopt the lifestyle changes that TFAH thinks they should adopt.
In my opinion there is not a lot of value in this report other than as a blueprint for someone wishing to start a lucrative business. Get letters of intent from a bunch of has-been government blowhards that they’ll sign on if you can pay them a big salary (and make sure they’re from both parties so that it will be bipartisan). Use data that the taxpayers have already paid for once. Mulch it around a little so that it’s slightly disguised. Come up with a handful of inane recommendations. And have the whole thing funded by a large foundation. Release your findings to the press so they’ll run with them as if it’s really big news. Then repeat yearly.
Only in America is there this kind of opportunity.