Closer to home, this week the results of a study conducted jointly by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study, called "Excess Deaths Associated With Underweight, Overweight, and Obesity," strikes a blow to the notion that an "obesity epidemic" is shortening the lives of tens of millions of Americans.
The study found that a very small (8%) percentage of Americans are clinically obese to the point of threatening their health and lives. Even more interestingly, it shows that being underweight is as much a danger to health as obesity, and that a few extra pounds in otherwise healthy adults seems to increase longevity. From the New York Times story:
People who are overweight but not obese have a lower risk of death than those of normal weight, federal researchers are reporting today.And from the Times' editorial on the study:
The researchers - statisticians and epidemiologists from the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - also found that increased risk of death from obesity was seen for the most part in the extremely obese, a group constituting only 8 percent of Americans.
And being very thin, even though the thinness was longstanding and unlikely to stem from disease, caused a slight increase in the risk of death, the researchers said.
The new study, considered by many independent scientists to be the most rigorous yet on the effects of weight, controlled for factors like smoking, age, race and alcohol consumption in a sophisticated analysis derived from a well-known method that has been used to predict cancer risk.
The most striking finding was that people defined as overweight but not obese had a lower risk of death than people of normal weight. Indeed, their excess pounds may have prevented some 86,000 deaths annually. That estimate has exploded like a bombshell amid the health officials struggling to control the undeniable upsurge of obesity here and abroad. It leaves the C.D.C., in particular, with a lot of explaining to do.When I started writing about eating disorders, first for Seventeen magazine, then for a book and an educational video for teenagers, my eyes were opened to the multi-billion-dollar scam that is the Diet Industry. It's all around us. It's big business. It keeps us unhappy. It even keeps us fat. (Which is good for profits.)
Last year researchers from that health agency concluded that obesity and overweight were killing some 400,000 people a year in this country (later revised downward to 365,000). These figures were cited extensively in promoting a campaign to control obesity. Now the new study has put the toll at a small fraction of that. . . . The whole notion of what constitutes normal weight and overweight may have to be rethought.
One doesn't need to have battled life-threatening anorexia or bulimia to be trapped on the diet treadmill. I've never had what could be medically diagnosed as an eating disorder. But when I interviewed girls who had recovered from very serious EDs, I recognized their behaviors as an exaggeration of things most women (and increasing numbers of men) in our society do all the time.
Eating disorders are very complex; there's much more involved than merely wanting to be thin. But I started to view the whole body image and diet obsession on a continuum. And I woke up to my own little corner of that prison, a life-changing revelation.
Like most women I know, I've struggled with my weight all my life. When I was in my late 30s, I began to realize that most of the time I was doing so, I was already at a perfectly healthy, normal weight. But I don't look like a Barbie doll. Therefore...
These days it's common for the weight- and size-obsessed to substitute euphemisms like "an unhealthy weight" for "fat", and claim their fixation on [insert current obsession here: fat, carbs, whatever] is about health, not weight. For the most part, it's a crock.
Of course we should be concerned with what we eat. We're living creatures! Food is fuel, and as is the case with everything: garbage in, garbage out. Of course we should get physical exercise. Of course we should eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and avoid overloading our bodies with saturated fat, processed sugar and artificial ingredients. That's just good, healthy, common sense.
But that extra five or ten pounds around your middle or on your hips? How much of your life do you want to dedicate to losing it? And what will you achieve if you do? Will you be happier? Will you find love, success, contentment? You may look better in the mirror, and you'll garner some compliments around the office. After that, how much of your life will you dedicate to staying that way? And how will you feel when you inevitably gain the weight back?
I can't begin to describe how wonderful - how liberating - it was to step off the Diet Treadmill. Now when I run into women talking about diets, I resemble nothing as much as a recovered alcoholic or chain smoker: I recognize it as an old addiction, necessary to avoid.
There was once a very popular feminist essay about women's obsession with losing ten pounds. The author closed with the observation that the quickest way to lose the weight would be to just cut off our heads. She figured we might as well, for all we were using our brains on this one.
Much has been written about this, and I know this little post doesn't bring anything new to the discussion. But I think this recent study is important. If there's a chronic dieter out there reading this blog, perhaps she'll consider it.
Information about eating disorders here, here, here (Canadian resources) and here, as well as numerous other places online. An important feminist perspective here.