It’s been a long time between posts, as like many of us I have been flat out like a lizard drinking since COVID19 hit. The chaos of the past year has totally brought home the fact that experiencing an actual pandemic is COMPLETELY different to the manufactured bullsh*t of the so-called ‘o*esity epidemic’. And I’m sufficiently fired up about it to write a ranty post!
We’re all so used to hearing the phrase “O*esity Epidemic” that we’ve become numb to it. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines epidemic as “an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area.”
With this in mind, I’m super skeptical that “O*esity” even passes muster for classification as an “epidemic”. There’s no denying that since the 1980’s in many Western countries, our average weight has been increasing. But a population change over a 50 year time span is only ‘sudden’ if we’re archaeologists. In contrast, when COVID19 hit, the world changed from pretty much zero to over 100 million cases in LESS THAN 12 MONTHS. Now that’s what I call ‘sudden’!
In most countries, including Australia, a BMI above 30 (“o*esity”) is not considered to be a disease (much to the dismay of the pharmaceutical industry). While higher body weight can be correlated with higher risk of developing various health conditions – similar to how male pattern baldness may be correlated with a higher risk of heart attack – this does not mean that fatness itself is a disease, any more than being bald is.
So how on earth did a benign weight statistic become uncritically accepted as an ‘epidemic?’ Weirdly, it all began with an incredibly infectious Powerpoint presentation. Back in the late 1990’s, pediatrician Dr William Dietz, an obesity-obsessed academic, became the Director of Nutrition and Physical Activity at the CDC. Dr Dietz was on a mission to put body weight on the government policy map. He really wanted ‘o*esity’ to get more attention (and research $$), and for people in power to see it as a disease/urgent health crisis. But there was a problem: population statistics are incredibly boring, and no-one cared. So Dietz and his colleague Mokdad got their marketing hats on, and presented data on America’s changing BMI statistics on an actual map, with accompanying colour coding, to make it look, on a Powerpoint Presentation, like o*esity was ‘spreading’ like a contagion throughout the country.
In another stroke of marketing genius, the CDC made the PowerPoint slides downloadable, and because they were so irresistibly sexy to statistic-sozzled boffins, soon every academic and health researcher worth their salt were sharing them in their presentations. Ironically, the rhetoric of the o*esity epidemic spread like….an epidemic.
The sexy stats soon caught the attention of powerful movers and shakers. The surgeon general announced that o*esity was “a new national epidemic” (Mokdad et al. 2003; Oliver 2006; Satcher 2001), and soon, the o*esity epidemic-rhetoric (OER) was in full swing.
Since the early 2000’s, OER has become increasingly calamitous. And it’s mainly the scientists, researchers, and academics gleefully fanning the flames of the “death-fat” narrative. As author Michael Gard noted,
“while we might generally expect scientists to speak about their areas of expertise in a more sober, qualified and cautious manner than the media, in the world of the obesity epidemic no such distinction applies” (p.14).
Hand-wringing hyperbole reigns supreme in academic journals – such as this 2008 scientific article where o*esity is named as “the greatest threat to human lifestyle and health in the developed world”. Increasingly unhinged commentary has even seen o*esity variously referred to as a “tsunami” and “Armageddon”- in the titles of ostensibly ‘scientific’ journal articles.
In our capitalist world, scientists need to justify the importance of their particular field of study, in order to compete for research grant money. And as I’ve discussed in the All Fired Up podcast, o*esity-profiting pharmaceutical companies (notably Novo Nordisk) have a vested interest in stirring up hysteria about body size, in order to ensure a huge market for their weight loss products. There are many players in the game of “Big O*esity”, but they’re all united in their vision of creating an ongoing sense of urgency around fatness. Novo Nordisk, who sell the weight loss drug Saxenda, make no effort to hide this – they even present their marketing goals at conferences!
*This 2016 presentation from Novo Nordisk was presented at an Obesity Australia ‘summit’ held at the Charles Perkins Centre at Sydney University.
Ironically, OER has claimed that the impact of fatness would be even worse than a global flu pandemic. In a 2003 Boston Globe opinion piece, obesity researchers David Ludwig & Kelly Brownell wrote that “the obesity epidemic threatens the foundations of our society as would a massive SARS outbreak”. At an Australian o*esity conference in 2006, diabetes expert Paul Zimmet told delegates “It’s as big a threat as global warming and bird flu” (quoted in Gard, 2014).
Is it though? Here we are – in the midst of an actual pandemic. As we sit, horrified, watching the number of global COVID19 deaths rise exponentially, and health systems become overrun, the ludicrousness of all of this disaster commentary about ‘the o*esity epidemic’ is at last exposed.
Here’s a graph showing the global spread of COVID19 over 12 months :
We can clearly see the incredible scale of the pandemic – exponential growth, unprecedented cost to human lives. In an incredibly short period of time, the death toll is staggering – as I write this blog on February 14, 2021, the global death toll stands at over 2.3 million people. It’s unfathomably awful, calamitous, heartbreaking.
In comparison, here’s another graph from the Australian Institute of Health & Welfare, which illustrates the apparent ‘horror’ of our “o*esity epidemic” over 20 years:
In comparison to the COVID19 pandemic, this alleged epidemic is flat as a pancake. There’s no exponential growth. No bodies piling up. No mass graves. In fact, we’ve seen the opposite trend: in 1995, Australian average life expectancy was 78 years, now, we’re projected to have an average life span of 83 years. Even though we’re fatter. And of course no-one is screeching about the “longevity epidemic”.
Someone needs to tell Ludwig & Brownell that even though more fat people exist nowadays, we haven’t seen a hint of any ‘threat to the foundations of our society’. No fat-related economic disasters. No BMI-induced dystopian society. It’s all been decidedly undramatic. It’s as if we’re actually able to deal with this population change. We’re all just getting on with our lives, with a burgeoning sense of acceptance and dare I say it – appreciation – of our glorious human diversity (thanks Lizzo).
So – next time you come across a researcher/academic/public health official/low-carb dudebro making outrageously calamitous OER claims, tell them to put a sock in it. OER is all sizzle, and no steak. The COVID19 pandemic has highlighted the great o*esity shamdemic. A real epidemic doesn’t need to “create legitimacy and urgency” via powerpoint presentations at industry-funded conferences. If one good thing can come out of such a dark time in human history, let it be the end of the OER sham-demic.