Jewish World Review Dec. 30, 2002 / 25 Teves, 5763

Drs. Michael A. Glueck & Robert J. Cihak

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Consumer Reports


Obesidemic (obesity epidemic) or not?


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | As the winter holiday season continues to bless us with a surfeit of wonderful foods and drinks, it's time for us heavy duty Medicine Men to weigh in on a massive subject - is there or is there not an epidemic of obesity? Should you worry about the growing "Christmas Cummerbund" around your waist?

Of course not. We all perished ten years ago, in the global famine so confidently predicted by the environmental apocalyptics of the 1970s.

But maybe we should worry, because there's another apocalypse coming. This time, if you believe the Guardians of Girth and the Dictators of Diet, America is about to become the first nation in history to eat itself to death.

Clearly, Americans weigh more than they used to. So does much of the rest of the human race. (Spend some time looking at armor or clothing in a museum, or travel to Japan if you doubt this). But there is an epidemic of muddled diagnosis and thinking on this heavy subject. Two facts, for starters.

First, "overweight" is an arbitrary and to some extent culturally defined construct, a set of height/weight/body type/body fat percentage relationships you read off a chart. Any individual's comfortable and healthful, let alone "ideal" weight, might vary significantly. Metabolism matters. So does occupation, life-style, and myriad other factors.

Second, overweight (as opposed to genuine obesity) is in most instances the result of the human body's natural ability to store extra calories as fat - a survival-enhancing mechanism from those eons when you never knew when the next woolly mammoth barbecue might be. "Calorie" is actually a measure of heat or energy. The image of the body "burning up" calories is pretty close to the physiologic truth. For every extra 3,300 calories accumulated and stored as fat in the body, you gain one pound of fat weight, plus extra fluids.

Further, whatever the nutrient value of specific foods, all calories are created equal. As Michael Fumento, author of The Fat of the Land, writes: "Maintaining a healthful body weight is no more complex or magical than simply balancing calories burned vs. calories consumed, regardless of the source."

However, like most things connected with human existence nowadays, the adiposity issue has PC overtones, giving rise to some weighty relativism on the part of the public health crowd and their omnivorous colleagues, the trial lawyers.

They're wrong. If overweight is an epidemic, the national health statistics should show it. But statistically - and despite all the other fashionable fears - we're actually getting healthier and living longer, better lives.

So, what's going on?

At one level, snobbery. The elitist conviction that Americans can't be trusted to take care of themselves, and that the "Holier/Healthier Than Thou" crowd must therefore lobby and legislate and sue and try to force people to live according to their standards. And once again, we find social engineering and coercion flaunting "scientific" evidence that doesn't stand up, often for the simple reason that it doesn't exist to begin with. As Steve Milloy of junkscience.com writes "the simplistic notion that dietary fat is bad was a political and business judgment, not a scientific one."

It seems to have started back in 1977, when a Senate committee led by George McGovern issued a report advising Americans to consume less fat to avoid 'killer diseases,' then supposedly sweeping the country. The politically dutiful National Institutes of Health soon joined the anti-fat bandwagon, a move that spawned the low-fat food industry -- a boon to consumer choice but not necessarily one with a beneficial health impact.

As Fumento notes: "Since 1977-78, fat as a percentage of our diets has dropped by over 17 percent, even as obesity has increased by over 25 percent. The fewer calories we've taken in from fat, the fatter we've become."

But it was a boon to activists seeking funding and power, especially the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Center for Science in the Public Interest.

It was also a boon to environmentalists trying to destroy the beef industry.

We also suspect some non-commercialism in holiday meals, with many wives following the biblical wisdom of Sirach 26:13: "A wife's charm delights her husband, and her skill puts fat on his bones." (Revised Standard Version.) So, you want biblical justification for putting fat on your bones this holiday season, there you are.

But enough of this at holiday time. The Medicine Men conclude by wishing you all the delights and inspirations of the season.

So party hearty, if you like. And if you were lucky enough to get some exercise equipment or a health club membership for Christmas or Hanukah . . . do use it. In moderation, of course. Overdoing in getting the calories off can be more dangerous than putting them on.

Such is life. Happy Holidays. Be well.

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Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., is a multiple award winning writer who comments on medical- legal issues. Robert J. Cihak, M.D., is past president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. Both JWR contributors are Harvard trained diagnostic radiologists. Comment by clicking here.

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