The first one is about the latest fashionable health crisis, obesity. It turns out that obesity is official determined by something called Body Mass Index (BMI). BMI = (Weight in pounds / Height in Inches2) x 703. I'm 5' 9 1/2" (that 1/2" is important to me) and I weight about 170. So for me the formula is (170/4830.25) x 703 = 24.74. Before I tell you whether I am obese or not, let's think about that formula. First, ignore the 703, that's just a scaling factor that brings the important number up into the range where the numbers mean something versus a fraction expressed in the hundredth decimal place. So basically what this formula is measuring is how dense you are - how much stuff is squeezed into each cubic inch of your body. Now, any thoughtful person would immediately identify two problems. First, using height2 as a measure of volume for an object as variable in shape as the human body is frankly ludicrous - height2 only works for a square pillar. Second, it makes no differentiation as to whether the stuff squeezed into your cubic inches is fat or muscle, bone or tissue, silicon implants or titanium skull plates.
Yet, from this imprecise, flawed measure we are supposed to know if we are normal, overweight or obese. The exact scale is: less than 18.5 = underweight; 18.5 to 24.9 = healthy weight; 25 to 29.9 = overweight; 30 or more = obese. So that places me (24.74) at the very top of the healthy weight category. If I put on five pounds and lose that ½ inch I'm so fond of, I'm overweight. Nonsense. No one who knows me in real life would suggest I was overweight if I put on as much as 10 pounds. It may be true that there is some median man and woman out there for whom this measure applies correctly, but there is so much variability from person to person that you just can't take the results seriously. From the WSJ article, here are the BMIs of some celebrities and sports figures.
Using the standard formula for calculating Body Mass Index, or BMI*, several muscular Hollywood hunks and star athletes could be considered overweight or obese, according to weight and height statistics posted on various celebrity and sports Web sites. Meantime, many of their female counterparts are normal or underweight, according to these statistics.
NAME HT WT BMI
Sylvester Stallone 5'9" 228 34
Arnold Schwarzenegger 6'2" 257 33
Sammy Sosa 6'0" 220 30
Harrison Ford 6'1" 218 29
George Clooney 5'11" 211 29
Bruce Willis 6'0" 211 29
Mike Piazza 6'3" 215 27
Brad Pitt 6'0" 203 27
Michael Jordan 6'6" 216 25
Rebecca Lobo 6'4" 185 22
Venus Williams 6'1" 169 22
Demi Moore 5'5" 130 22
Lisa Leslie 6'5" 170 20
Julia Roberts 5'9" 121 18
Hilary Swank 5'7" 118 18
Nicole Kidman 5'10" 120 17
Madonna 5'4" 101 17
Gwyneth Paltrow 5'10" 111 16
I have to admit it's nice to know I'm doing better than that fat-ass Brad Pitt. (BTW, no way is Brad Pitt 6' tall.) Even Michael Jordan is fatter than me. Riiiiight.
It's safe to say that the BMI is so much blather, except it has become the basis of the now renowned Obesity Crisis. Get this.
The BMI standard made it possible to look back at the change in obesity through the years. And after the 1988-94 results were released, doctors and researchers became alarmed. The figures showed a significant climb in the number of obese participants -- up 53% from the prior survey taken from 1976 to 1980. Experts speculated that lifestyles had changed significantly in the 1980s: People had become more sedentary and their diets had worsened.The key phrase in the first paragraph is "Experts speculated". They couldn't explain it so they took a guess and that became the accepted explanation. But, man, 53% more people sitting around and stuffing their faces. That strikes me as a massive statistical change in behavior to just let go with a shallow speculation. What happened in the '80s that made so many people want to sit and eat? Cheers and Taxi were big at the time, but that couldn't be more than an hour a week. What happened, did everybody hang up their running shoes and take up reading? Although if everybody became sedentary, I suppose that explains the Thighmaster.
Diet changed, but these days you have to search for fat. You can get fat-free chips, fat-free brownies, fat-free butter, fat-free pork fat. I dare you to name a product that doesn't come in a nutra-sweet version (and no, don't say sugar).
It must be something else. Maybe the data is flawed.
Suddenly, what had been a moderate health concern looked like a crisis. Armed with the new data, obesity experts began lobbying heavily for more funding to research and treat the condition as a disease. In 1999 Congress granted annual funding for the survey. The CDC, under pressure to provide more data -- fast -- last year released the only new numbers it had from its continuing mobile-health survey. Those numbers, based on a sample of only 1,446 people conducted over seven months during 1999, are the standard most experts use when talking about the nation's current weight woes. By those numbers, an estimated 61% of American adults are either overweight or obese.Now things begin to get a bit clearer. So based on a half understood, logically flawed supposition, lobbying began. When lobbying begins, reason and the scientific method end. Frankly, even if 27% of the population is considered obese by the BMI standard, that doesn't constitute a crisis. Many of those obese people probably aren't even fat. But that doesn't matter now. There are people counting on funding and they will not be denied. Even if you could cast enough doubt on the statistics, they can generate the wildcard of Anecdotal Evidence. Understand that to politicians, less thoughtful journalists, and the folks who watch 60 minutes, that card trumps scientific method every time.
"You need about three years [of data] for a confident estimate," concedes Bill Dietz, director of the CDC's division of nutrition and physical activity. The CDC also tracks weight and height in an annual telephone survey of 150,000 people. But those numbers aren't as widely cited because the CDC believes people underreport their weight and overreport height when asked, says Dr. Dietz. For example, in its 1999 telephone survey, only 20% of respondents qualified as obese compared to 27% in the widely cited van survey.
Given questions about existing data, how does anyone know if obesity is truly an epidemic? Certainly, the anecdotal evidence is inescapable, from the boom in large-sized clothing to hospitals needing to buy more specialized bariatric equipment to accommodate severely overweight patients. The precise dimension of the problem "doesn't matter," argues Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University's Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. "No matter how you count it, it's a staggering problem."There you have it; the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders say this is a staggering (staggering!) problem. We better send a some more money their way right quick before this goes from staggering to shocking (shocking!). Just once I'd like to read about some research body closing up shop because their assigned crisis wasn't all that bad after all. "After extensive research we have determined that the number of babies eaten by dingos is not all that staggering here in the U.S., so we're just going to pack it in and go have a Sam Adams. Here's your funding back. Ta-ta." Not.
But enough cynicism. (Can you really ever have enough cynicism when dealing with timely issues?) Let's suppose obesity is as rampant as they say. Why is that bad? Well, obesity is unhealthy because it leads to scary things such as diabetes and heart disease and it will decrease your expected lifespan. Makes sense. Except it's wrong.
Oh I'm sure real obesity is a health threat, but not the dumbed-down, politically correct obesity of BMI. BMI obesity means nothing with regard to overall health and longevity.
A second article suggests that fat and fit are not mutually exclusive.
One study in particular examined both the body composition and fitness level of about 22,000 men over a period of eight years. The purpose was to look especially closely at those who died during that time, a number that turned out to be 428. The study reached this conclusion: The unfit lean -- as measured by performance on a treadmill -- were nearly twice as likely to die earlier as the fit, including the obese fit. Indeed, despite the common assumption that obesity is life-threatening, "we found that obesity did not appear to increase mortality risk in fit men," concluded the three authors of the study, including Dr. Blair.Well, well, well. Whatever you do, don't mention this to the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. The only thing staggering about this research is the plausibility and common sense. And note the size of the sample: 22,000 over an eight year period vs. 1446 over 8 months for the obesity study. Of course, there's the obligatory anecdotal evidence.
About two dozen studies support the notion that the standard treatment for excessive weight -- dieting -- is insufficient and perhaps even misguided, at least for any individual who isn't working out. A more effective treatment might be a healthful diet (lots of fresh fruit and vegetables) and exercise -- though not for the purpose of weight loss. While diets typically fail, exercise fails only when participants set unrealistic goals, the most common of which is weight loss.
Sometimes a health crisis can achieve that, as happened to Inga Andriessen. The Toronto lawyer, 100 pounds overweight, tried exercising, but invariably stopped when the pounds failed to vanish fast enough. "I was always focused on dress size," she says.Yeah, yeah - it's anecdotal, not systematic. But think about how much sense that makes. Fat is just fat. It sits in your cells waiting to be burned when you expend energy. Everything bite of food you eat is turned to fat, whatever your weight. Fat in and of itself is not inherently bad. It can be really useful if you're stuck on a desert island with a limited food supply or if your plane crashes in the Andes and help can't get there quickly (of course it can also make you more appealing to the others in your party, if you know what I mean). It's not the fat that's bad, it's the bad cholesterol and the slothful conditioning that brings on disease and kills you. Why go all ballistic about weight statistics? But there's just no fighting a crisis.
Then she got pregnant and developed pregnancy-related diabetes. Under doctor's orders, she started swimming three times a week for her health and that of her unborn child. It left her feeling great -- and she paid no attention to whether she lost any weight.
Though the diabetes disappeared after she gave birth, her doctor told her she was now a serious candidate for developing a chronic form of that disease. So she set a new exercise goal that had nothing to do with weight loss: the completion of a triathlon. Nine months after giving birth, she did it, and now she's a committed triathlete, exercising six days a week. Of the 100 extra pounds she carried before getting pregnant, she still carries about 70 and wears a size 20 dress.
But her doctor's visits are a delight. Her blood pressure, which was borderline high before she became a regular gym goer, now is fine, and her blood-sugar levels show no danger of diabetes. "My doctor is amazed," she says.
Luckily, some folks don't know any better.
Then there is 7-year-old Team Clydesdale, a national organization that seeks to level the racing field for large-size participants in marathons, triathlons and such. Instead of competing against others in their age group -- which is how the typical race is structured -- Clydesdales go up against others in their weight group. The motto of Team Clydesdale: You don't have to be thin to be fit. The truth of that is becoming apparent as growing numbers of large people cross the finish line at marathons, triathlons and other endurance races.Somebody forgot to tell those people that they were in crisis.