November 17

The girth of a nation

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A recent issue of the Skeptical Inquirer contains an article by Patrick Johnson entitled “Obesity: Epidemic or Myth?” that is worth reading to see the scope of the debate. The Skeptical Inquirer by its nature is skeptical of anything or anyone that takes a stance that is outside the mainstream. I’ve never seen an article in the magazine that hails cutting edge research; typically it tries to debunk it. In the case of the obesity debate, the author of the article comes down courageously in the middle by ending with a quote from Steven Blair from the Cooper Clinic, a low-fat, high-carb haven if there ever was one.

The lesson to be learned from this controversy is that rational moderation is in order. Disproving one extreme idea does not prove the opposite extreme. As Steven Blair told me, “It is time to focus our attention on the key behaviors of eating a healthful diet (plenty of fruits and veggies, a lot of whole grains, and not too much fat and alcohol) and being physically active every day.”

In other words, stay the course that has gotten us where we are.
And where are we obesity-wise?
Despite all the various interest groups slinging “facts” and statistics around to substantiate their particular biases, I think that anyone who isn’t blind and has good sense has got to come to the conclusion that people in the United States are fatter than they used to be. If you want to see this demonstrated, go rent a movie made in the 1970s or before and watch it. All the people in the crowd scenes, all the extras, all look like stick people compared to those you see in movies made today.
Better yet, look at old TV ads if you can find them. Advertisers, since they make their livings doing so, are much keener observers of the current psyche than researchers who usually have a bias and are arguing a specific issue. Old ads show skinny people (they really weren’t skinny at the time–they just look so now); current ads in many cases use overweight actors to more closely resemble today’s customers.
I don’t believe that any reasonable person can believe that we as a nation are not fatter than we were 30 years ago. The big question isn’t the “if,” it’s the “why?”


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