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The Obesity “Epidemic”

So Michelle Obama is launching the Let’s Move Campaign to eliminate the problem of childhood obesity within a generation.  “[O]ne in three kids are overweight or obese, and we’re spending $150 billion a year treating obesity-related illnesses. So we know this is a problem, and there’s a lot at stake.”  (Source)

I applaud the idea of encouraging health.  I do karate 2-3 times each week, and do eight-mile stints on the exercise bike when I can.  My daughter does karate and soccer.  My son does a nightly marathon running laps in our living room.

Yet I’m troubled by this initiative.  I’ve visited four elementary schools this year, and spoken to hundreds of young kids.  Most looked healthy to me.  I saw no difference between these classes and my own a quarter of a century ago.  But the Let’s Move site claims that obesity rates have tripled in the past 30 years.

Interesting…  The Body Mass Index (BMI) is a commonly used tool for classifying individuals as underweight, healthy, overweight, or obese.  You know what doesn’t get mentioned very often?  In 1998, the BMI was changed, reducing the threshold for someone to be considered overweight or obese.  From a 1998 CNN report:

Millions of Americans became “fat” Wednesday — even if they didn’t gain a pound — as the federal government adopted a controversial method for determining who is considered overweight.

(ETA: Slate has a more recent article on the history of the BMI.  Thanks to alcymyst for the link.)

You know what?  I think I’m going to redefine the I.Q. scale so that anyone with an I.Q. under 130 is considered an idiot.  Voila!  I’ve just uncovered this country’s epidemic of stupidity.

You want to see what overweight looks like these days?  According to the BMI, given my height and weight, I’m officially overweight.  I didn’t retouch the photos at all, except to remove a few red dots on the belly from the insulin pump.  (Okay, I also Photoshopped out a chest pimple.  So sue me.)

Not the most flattering photo, but ah well.  This is what “overweight” looks like.  I’m part of the epidemic of overweight and obese Americans.  Could I stand to lose a few pounds?  Probably.  I’m 36, and about ten pounds heavier than when I was in my twenties.  I’m also in damn good health, with the exception of the diabetes.  (You can visit Kate Harding’s BMI Illustrated project for more photos like this.)

Our culture has some seriously messed-up ideas of physical beauty.  If we really want to improve our physical health, we need to work on the mental.  Stop demonizing people for being overweight.  Stop the fear tactics.  Stop talking about numbers with no context or references.  Stop insisting that everyone must be skinny, and start working to help everyone be healthy.

From reading through Obama’s campaign, there are a lot of good ideas there.  I just wish they weren’t tainted by the same tired, messed-up rhetoric.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

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( 220 comments — Leave a comment )
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(Deleted comment)
jimhines
May. 5th, 2010 02:00 pm (UTC)
I can see the BMI potentially being useful as a broad measure of trends, but for individuals? Not as much. Especially when you start changing it around...
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - jimhines - May. 5th, 2010 02:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - marycatelli - May. 5th, 2010 03:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
suricattus
May. 5th, 2010 01:43 pm (UTC)
By their standards, I'm overweight as well. I could stand to lose a few pounds, absolutely (a healthy woman past 40 who couldn't is a woman with enough disposable time/income for a personal trainer and a regular gym schedule) but I suspect I'm also muscular enough to throw their stats off.

Considering I exercise, eat disgustingly healthy food by most standards (since I cook from scratch for most meals, I eat damn little pre-packaged or processed foods, and dislike most "fast food"), I think the best thing I could do for myself, body-wise, is just ignore the new standards...
jimhines
May. 5th, 2010 01:58 pm (UTC)
Taking a broad, sweeping standard and trying to apply it to individuals just doesn't work too well ... especially when you start changing the standard around at random.

I eat much better these days than I did 15 years ago, thanks to the diabetes and to my wife. Yet I'm a little heavier. Maybe this means I should go back to those 20-year-old habits of eating entire pizzas and heaping bowls of ice cream :-)
jonhansen
May. 5th, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC)
I wonder if it's a question of age: when they get out of elementary school, recess goes away (which is an excellent place to burn calories, what with the running around at high speeds).
jonhansen
May. 5th, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC)
Also: what, no gun show? Flex!
(no subject) - jimhines - May. 5th, 2010 01:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - marycatelli - May. 5th, 2010 03:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - May. 5th, 2010 03:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
beccastareyes
May. 5th, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC)
You know, just yesterday I visited a nutritionist, because I had been gaining weight on my anti-anxiety medication and wanted some help not doing that. While she did bring out the BMI, she also noted the caveats to it -- it can't tell fat from muscle from bone, so it's more of a 'quick guideline'*. She also actually told me that I should set a shorter term (read: more reasonable) goal rather than 'get back to my high-school/college weight', and even the goal we set would take me the better part of a year to achieve.

* She didn't note that it's not well calibrated at the low/high end of the scale. Or that kids are hard to determine, because they don't grow in lockstep. But neither of those apply to me in particular, since I'm an adult female of about average height.
jimhines
May. 5th, 2010 01:53 pm (UTC)
Sounds like the nutritionist was actually worrying about your health instead of just weight-loss, which is a very good thing.

I doubt I'll ever be at my high school/college weight again. I miss my twenty-year-old metabolism...
(no subject) - beccastareyes - May. 5th, 2010 03:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
jimhines
May. 5th, 2010 01:59 pm (UTC)
Heck, I'm still looking for studies establishing that children are really so unhealthy. I'm having a hard time sorting out facts from scare tactics and shifting standards. It's not something I've seen myself while at the schools, but I understand that my personal observations are anecdotal, and don't necessarily hold true...
(no subject) - suricattus - May. 5th, 2010 02:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - marycatelli - May. 5th, 2010 03:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - suricattus - May. 5th, 2010 03:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - squirrel_monkey - May. 5th, 2010 02:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - May. 5th, 2010 02:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - squirrel_monkey - May. 5th, 2010 02:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jennielf - May. 5th, 2010 08:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - peachtales - May. 5th, 2010 10:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
zornhau
May. 5th, 2010 01:54 pm (UTC)
There's an obesity industry. Small wonder the goal posts shift.

In the same spirit, I myself, in an entirely, disinterested manner, propose the Can Use A Longsword Index. Do you realise how many people fall can't? We should address this immediatly... grants... NGOs... poster campaigns...
jimhines
May. 5th, 2010 01:56 pm (UTC)
I support your Can Use a Longsword Index, and would like to sign your petition.
(no subject) - zornhau - May. 5th, 2010 02:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spaceoperadiva - May. 5th, 2010 08:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
Depends? - zornhau - May. 5th, 2010 09:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Depends? - spaceoperadiva - May. 5th, 2010 09:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
writertracy
May. 5th, 2010 01:54 pm (UTC)
The white house did something similar when I was in school. Arnold "the governator" was put on a special counsel for physical fitness, and they revised the PE tests. We had to all be able to jump so many feet and so high and be able to climb a rope by the end of the year.

Newer studies are showing that weight is not always an overall sign of health anyway. You can be naturally on the thin side genetically, and if you aren't physically active you can be a higher candidate for heart disease than someone who is genetically heavyset but active.

And I'm sure in another 10 years they'll have new studies that prove the older studies, then in another 10 years they'll have even newer studies that debunk those.

I've noticed that ideas about health follow trends, just like everything else seems to.
jimhines
May. 5th, 2010 01:59 pm (UTC)
Heh. Did you see my earlier rant on this stuff? http://jimhines.livejournal.com/449075.html
(no subject) - writertracy - May. 6th, 2010 04:08 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - writertracy - May. 6th, 2010 04:09 am (UTC) - Expand
alchymyst
May. 5th, 2010 02:01 pm (UTC)
There was an article in Slate on the history of BMI last year, if you are interested: http://www.slate.com/id/2223095/
jimhines
May. 5th, 2010 02:11 pm (UTC)
Thanks! Updated the post with the link.
antonstrout
May. 5th, 2010 02:04 pm (UTC)
According to my chart reckoning, I'm an underweight bugbear... dammit, I hate when I pick up the Monster Manual by mistake!
jimhines
May. 5th, 2010 02:12 pm (UTC)
Not a heavyset werejaguar?
(no subject) - antonstrout - May. 5th, 2010 02:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
sartorias
May. 5th, 2010 02:06 pm (UTC)
I would have taken you for a slim guy. Sheesh.
jimhines
May. 5th, 2010 02:13 pm (UTC)
When I was about five pounds lighter, I was having trouble because I didn't have enough body fat for my insulin pump sites.

But yes, now I'm overweight. Gotta love it!
(no subject) - sartorias - May. 5th, 2010 02:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - May. 5th, 2010 02:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
wickedpirate
May. 5th, 2010 02:08 pm (UTC)
I applaud you for this post. While obesity is an issue, I feel the more proper approach would be to work on the mental as you said. I mean as if people are not broken as is when it comes to this matter. Plus, there are those of us that are truly big boned as well and will never meet the standards of which they put in those guidelines. Our bones are literally larger. Anyways...

I do feel that the larger issue is in fact the epidemic of stupidity. You really don't have to reach far to uncover that unfortunately. As an example, all you need to do is go to your local library and ask the teens if they can read the sign on the wall that says 'No Loitering' and they reply to you (no matter how many times you ask them... we've asked up to 5 times) and they say 'It says no littering'. Or you get the smart one to say 'come on guys it says no loitering, it's when you drop stuff on the floor'. O_O I fear the future. Just had to throw that out there.

jimhines
May. 5th, 2010 02:18 pm (UTC)
I wonder how much of this is driven by our thriving weight-loss industry. Most days I can't go anywhere without being bombarded with various billboards, radio ads, TV commercials, and so on telling us fat = horrible and how wonderful it would be if the world lost weight.

As for the no loitering story, that just makes my brain hurt...
(no subject) - cissa - May. 7th, 2010 10:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
eljaydaly
May. 5th, 2010 02:09 pm (UTC)
The BMI is really not a good tool. Apparently a lot of high-level athletes come up as overweight or obese, even though they're all muscle. Not too long ago I had a BMI that said I was overweight, and I was at the time way too skinny, to the point where people were telling me to "Eat a sandwich." (Sadly, the issue has resolved.)

Your pictures look very healthy, by the way. The only thing that would improve them would be a couple of chest pimples!
jimhines
May. 5th, 2010 02:15 pm (UTC)
I mentioned to Sherwood up above, when I was just a few pounds lighter, I was having trouble with my insulin pump because I didn't have enough body fat for it to work. Yet now I'm overweight.

Definitely a problematic tool.

And thank you! I suppose I could always go back to the original and use the clone stamp tool to add more chest pimples...
mastadge
May. 5th, 2010 02:10 pm (UTC)
Plus, obesity is only part of the equation; getting people exercising without balancing the equation with better nutrition seems curious.

You know what? I think I’m going to redefine the I.Q. scale so that anyone with an I.Q. under 130 is considered an idiot.

The I.Q. scale is constantly being redefined so that the average is always 100. I forget the rate of the shift, but 100 now would have been something like 120(?) 50 years ago. According to the IQ scale, people are actually getting more intelligent.
jimhines
May. 5th, 2010 02:16 pm (UTC)
"According to the IQ scale, people are actually getting more intelligent."

This does not match my observations :-)

That's interesting, though. Thanks!
(no subject) - furikku - May. 5th, 2010 03:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
Now that's dumb - bookmobiler - May. 5th, 2010 03:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - silverrose - May. 5th, 2010 02:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kosarin - May. 5th, 2010 05:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - marycatelli - May. 5th, 2010 03:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
starrcat
May. 5th, 2010 02:11 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for posting about this. It doesn't help that any study that goes against this tide is dismissed.

There are healthy fat (which is often ignored) and skinny people and there are unhealthy fat and skinny (which is partly caused by the focus on thin) people. It just isn't that simple.
jimhines
May. 5th, 2010 02:25 pm (UTC)
Yep. There are many instances where it would be healthy for someone to lose (or gain) weight, but health is an individual thing. My ideal weight is not necessarily the same as anyone else's.
lady_ravenlocke
May. 5th, 2010 02:24 pm (UTC)
It occurs to me that a lot of the problem seems to be with the way people are framing this problem. Everybody wants to get "thin" and not "healthy" so much. (Not the initiative necessarily, but this is what I've observed in people I deal with on a daily basis.)

According to the BMI, I'm "Obese" and I'll be the first to admit, I can afford to drop some of the extra weight. However, I don't want to do it to drop pounds and be thin, I'd rather do it because I want to be healthy. It makes it easier than doing it to fit into a certain size dress (which was touched on over here, on HaikuJaguar's LJ: http://haikujaguar.livejournal.com/789643.html )

I guess the point I'm getting at is that it seems like people need to be doing these things for the right reasons, not the ones other people tell them they should be doing it for.
jimhines
May. 5th, 2010 02:26 pm (UTC)
Exactly! Be healthy. Part of being healthy is understanding that healthy does not *necessarily* equal skinny.
(no subject) - lady_ravenlocke - May. 5th, 2010 08:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
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