The children of today will not die at younger ages than their parents did, if a meta-analysis of 97 studies from North America, Europe, Asia and Australia is to be believed. Except at extremely high levels of obesity – 35 and above on the Body Mass Index – obesity is not linked to shorter lifespans, according to the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. And being overweight, surprisingly, is linked to longer life, more than being of “normal” weight.
Being obese or overweight can be harmful, and the study doesn’t say otherwise. Obesity is linked to cardiovascular disease, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer. But there’s a moral panic around obesity, and the careless assertion that obesity will make lifespans shorter shows how out of control it has become.
Indeed, a recent comment article in these pages began with the assertion about tomorrow’s lifespan being shorter, then argued that the number-one strategy for making Canada’s health system sustainable would be to prevent obesity. The direct health-care costs in 2008 linked to overweight and obesity for treating eight conditions was $2-billion. A perfect world would be cheaper, but fat people won’t bring medicare crashing down.
There are signs of that moral panic about obesity all around. In the United Kingdom and in Arkansas, report cards note a child’s BMI. Some scientists have warned that those who are overweight before the age of five may be obese when they grow older. The guilt and shame being foisted on children and their parents are enormous.
There is a quality to public concern about obesity that at times seems more cultural – based on stereotypes or prejudices about gluttony, body shapes and “taking care of oneself” – than grounded in science.
The one group seemingly not entitled to the tolerance promoted in our diverse society is heavy or fat people. Why? They are seen, culturally, as having brought their problems on themselves. Therefore, if the solutions seem drastic, even harmful – report cards that all but scream out “fatty” – well, you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs.
The moral panic is a licence to bully. Preach first, worry later about who got singled out for derision. The public’s concern seems to stop at the emotional or mental-health effects of the constant and disproportionate singling out of obesity and overweight as a problem.
The facts are so much more complex. Many fat people do diet; the diets usually make them fatter in the long term. Exercise may not cause heavy people to lose weight. Not all overweight or obese people are unhealthy. To be fat and fit is better than to be slim and unfit.
The panic is unwarranted and damaging. Laying to rest the myth that fuelled it may allow for more constructive approaches based on more movement and healthier eating, at any weight.