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.
May 5, 2010 @ 10:02 am
“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.”
This. Exactly this. You said it better than I could.
May 5, 2010 @ 10:56 am
I’m in the same boat as you, Jim! However, I find the BMI numbers to be a little silly, especially for my height (6’6″). My “ideal” weight is like 190 – 200lbs. I haven’t weighed that much since before I took up sports in High school and I was in better shape afterwards, not before hand.
Granted, spending 5 years sitting on my butt playing World of Warcraft and drinking cherry coke didn’t help me stay in shape, either. 😉
May 5, 2010 @ 11:04 am
I would rather see fitness levels, rather than weight or BMI levels, being used to judge ‘obesity’. Can you walk a mile in 15 minutes or less without wheezing like steam engine? Can you go up two flights of stairs without panting? Can you do 10 sit ups? How fast? What’s your resting heart rate?
If someone is 200# and can do all of that, aren’t they healthier than someone who’s 100# who can’t?
May 5, 2010 @ 11:39 am
I believe the most significant point you made, Jim, is this: Stop insisting that everyone must be skinny, and start working to help everyone be healthy.
While I’m sure Mrs. Obama and those who share her views will dissemble and say, “Of course we want everyone to be healthy, too!” I think we need to determine which is more important and achieve that goal first. And if anyone thinks skinny is preferable to healthy, then they are, at best, misguided.
May 5, 2010 @ 12:56 pm
While I agree that our country is generally too obsessed with being (often times unhealthily) skinny, I *have* noticed that there has been a huge increase in obese kids (and adults–especially adults) here in California, at least. Observe the people in any shopping center/spot with good foot traffic, and you are bound to see not just one, but *several* traditionally overweight people (I say “traditionally” because while they may just look solidly overweight to us, by the new BMI standards, they’d probably be classified “obese”). Over the past ten years or so, the number of overweight/”obese” adults steadily increased to this point where it’s not a surprise to see a third of the crowd at least a bit paunchy, but until the last few years, the small kids accompanying them were always small and spry the way you expect. These days, though, you see more and more little, little kids (who should have that scrawny, gawky look of a young fawn on its first legs) with round pot bellies like those starving kids in Africa whose stomachs have become distended from lack of protein. And no, they are definitely not starving–they’re being gorged on McDonald’s and whatever other processed, frozen junk their parents are feeding them because they’re out working or stuck in traffic all day trying to pay our ridiculous mortgages out here. >.<
I think the Midwest probably still looks fairly normal because there’s less of this so-busy-can’t-stop-for-family culture that permeates our fast-paced California (and other big metropolitan areas) lifestyle. Plus, there seems to be a trend toward eating out more/exclusively among young Californians, and when you go out, you know you’re gonna indulge in the unhealthy stuff, whether you go to a fast food place or a 5-star restaurant. Guess turning to food for comfort isn’t so surprising in a culture of rampant credit card use, lots of expendable income and a high-stress environment. =__=;
Jim C. Hines
May 5, 2010 @ 3:05 pm
See, I was fortunate — when I came down with diabetes back in ’98, I had to switch to Diet Cherry Coke 🙂
Jim C. Hines
May 5, 2010 @ 3:06 pm
That sounds like the Presidential Physical Fitness Award campaign they had when I was growing up. I never liked that one as a kid. There were some exercises I could do, but I was never fast enough at the running part.
In general though, I agree — I’d rather see people be more fit and healthy than worry about how much they weigh.
Jim C. Hines
May 5, 2010 @ 3:07 pm
And I’d believe her. I’m sure she does want people to be healthy. But the way they’re going about it, the quotes and scare tactics and so on, that’s where I have issues.
Jim C. Hines
May 5, 2010 @ 3:08 pm
Interesting. It’s very possible there’s a regional factor to all of this. Over on LJ, someone also brought up the possibility that poverty could be a factor. The schools I’ve visited are in pretty well-off communities, whereas kids in a poorer neighborhood could have a harder time eating healthy and so on.
May 5, 2010 @ 4:54 pm
Income has a big impact on what you can afford to eat. It’s often cheaper to buy over-processed, sugar-laden foods than to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. I just paid $1.29 today for a single, non-organic bell pepper; if I was having to watch my food budget, it would have been cheaper to head to the frozen foods aisle and buy a highly-processed, salt-laden entree for not much more. In this city, at least, most of the grocery stores that offer a good selection of healthy foods are also in the higher-income neighborhoods (there’s a reason people refer to Whole Foods as “Whole Paycheck”). And that’s without factoring in the fact that people working 2 or 3 jobs just to stay afloat don’t have time or energy to come home and cook; much easier to hit the drive through or grab something to microwave from the local mini mart.
I’m Not the Only One (Five Links) « Healthy Obsessions
May 5, 2010 @ 9:23 pm
[…] found this via Jim Hines’ blog, where he posts about BMI and weight issues using himself, and his BMI. He also links to the […]
May 5, 2010 @ 9:34 pm
One of the big problems is soda, 200-300 calories in one shot. I remember in high school it was mountain dew all the time. Back in 2006 i went on a big diet (dropped from 253 to 196) by diet and exercise. I quit drinking soda all together. Besides the fact i was at least 2 soda’s a day (yeah lets think about that at least $400 bucks a year on soda). I account that for most of the weight loss. some people would argue for diet pop, but it uses aspartame which causes less calories but also slows your metabolism…..Still have not had a soda (i don’t drink caffine).
I bought healthy food (living alone) and low cut meat, but only spent between 100 and 200 bucks a month on food. Most of the time we buy to much food and over eat anyway so buying healthy seems a lot harder. People do not want to give up the things that are bad for them because they enjoy them to much (damn i love eggs).
So until people learn to be responsible for themselves this problem will still exist. The food companies are only partially to blame, they make it to easy to eat unhealthy but at the end of the day it is your choice. The part that i hate personally is I do not believe the government should restrict what foods we can and cannot eat (if i want a double whopper and all 1200 calories that goes with it, golly gee i will eat it), but on the other hand i watch the movie idiocracy and realize some people will never learn.
Oh well back to shaving the dog, he hates 90 degree weather…
May 6, 2010 @ 2:14 am
In my country, Australia, there are four codes of football played. The two most popular codes are Australian Rules Football and Rugby League (in the AFL and the NRL respectively). According to the BMI the majority of players are either overweight or obese. To be a successful player in these two leagues one has to be extremely fit. IMO this is where a measure like the BMI is flawed. It doesn’t account for muscle mass/percentage versus body fat mass/percentage. It also doesn’t account for a person’s fitness.
The cynic in me feels that this is another example of someone in government looking like their doinf something, or it’s a distraction tatic to deflect media scrutiny from the hubby.
May 6, 2010 @ 2:44 pm
Here in Arkansas, we are HUGE. I see third graders who weigh 200lbs. They waddle from their parents’ cars to the school building. I hit 296 at my heaviest. I’m down some.
There is definitely an economic factor. The kids on the poor side of town are really big. The kids on the wealthier side are slimmer, at worst what we would call “chunky.”
Let’s be blunt, healthy food is expensive, even in the grocery store. I’m on Weight watchers. I spend as much on my breakfast and lunch as I do on dinner for the whole household. Produce is expensive. A single cheap pear is 69c/lb. A box of mac and cheese that feeds 3 people is 35c.
And the midwest is just as busy lifestyle-wise, at least in the middle class. In the lowerclass, there’s a lot of shuffling between two jobs trying to make ends meet and a 99c cheeseburger on the way from job 1 to job 2 is faster and easier than buying a pound of hamburger for $1.79, a bag of buns for a buck, and putting in half-an hour to cook.
Jim C. Hines
May 6, 2010 @ 3:05 pm
That makes sense. And honestly, that’s the kind of discussion and research I’d like to see more of. Less of the scary “we’re all going to die of teh fat!!!” and more research showing things like how finances impact the ability to eat well, and maybe even some ideas on how to *address* that sort of thing.
May 10, 2010 @ 1:01 pm
Following the link from your recent LJ post. Coincidentally, I was Googling some stuff a day or two ago and came across a site that takes your data and gives you your BMI, along with some commentary.
Now I know I’m fat, okay? I’m 5’11” and about 295 pounds, which is fat no matter how you slice it. I’m working on that, and having some success, yay. But I put my info in anyway, just to see what they’d say.
Taking my height and weight and estimated activity level (fairly active — I go to the gym a few times a week, stretch/walk/lift) and my age (46) they told me that I “should” weigh between… I think it was something like 134-178 pounds. O_O
Dude, I haven’t weighed 134 since I was in junior high, and I didn’t get fat until my thirties. If I got down to 134 how, I’d be seriously emaciated, by any of the number scales the animal police vets use; why don’t the people doctors use those?
My goal right now is about 170 or so, and that’s fuzzy. If I hit 180 and like how I feel and look, fine, I’ll stop there. 170 might work. 160 might work, but I’m pretty sure that’d be too skinny. 134 is insane. And I’m not large-framed, either; I’m fine boned, with very small hands/feet for my size, so it’s not like I’d expect to be on the high end of any rational weight-range chart. This new BMI scale they’re using is just crazed. [sigh]
May 10, 2010 @ 1:04 pm
There’s absolutely an economic factor. [nodnod] Another point is that many urban neighborhoods don’t have grocery stores; they have convenience stores and fast-food places. If someone who lives in a poor city neighborhood wants actual groceries, from a place with a significant produce department (assuming they can afford fresh food) they have to take a long bus ride, an expensive cab ride, or have a car, which many poor city dwellers do not.
It used to be that being fat meant you were rich enough to always have enough to eat. Now being slim means you’re rich enough to eat fresh food and belong to a gym.
May 11, 2010 @ 1:10 pm
Randomly… you’re 5’11”?? As a shorty, I envy you greatly~~ *__*
May 11, 2010 @ 1:22 pm
Yep. 🙂 It has its plusses and minuses. On the plus side, if I gain ten pounds, or even twenty, it’s pretty invisible because there’s so much of me to spread it out over. On the minus side, gains are pretty invisible, so by the time I notice, I’ve gained quite a bit and have quite a bit to lose. 😛 Also, the American garment industry doesn’t recognize the existence of women who are tall and fat. If you’re tall, they assume you’re of average or slim build. If you’re fat, they assume you’re of average or short height. I have to get my trousers custom made because there simply isn’t anything off-the-rack that fits me in both directions. :/ But yeah, in general I do like being tall. 😀
I also have scoliosis BTW — thirty-degree S-curve in my spine, right at heart level. If it were straight, I’d probably be like 6’3″, LOL! But sometimes I feel like Mark Vorkosigan, with a body tuned to be taller that it actually is. I’ve always put on weight easily, although I was active enough when I was young that I didn’t hit “fat” until my thirties or so.