The Myth of Childhood Obesity and Other Fat Facts

Debbie says:

Laurie is out of town at a jewelry show, so I’m blogging alone for a while. Fortunately, I have experts in my corner to help me out. Paul Campos, fat activist extraordinaire and author of the superb The Obesity Myth, blogging at Lawyers, Gun$, and Money, has been looking into the “childhood obesity epidemic.” I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by just how trumped-up this so-called epidemic is, but apparently I’m still capable of being naive.

Campos uses another scare article about childhood obesity, this article focusing on the issue of prescribing statins (anti-cholesterol drugs) to eight-year-olds as a jumping-off point.

Newsflash! The epidemic is a social construct with no basis in fact, let alone health data. As he says, “As per usual the piece includes no explanation of the current definitions of overweight and obesity in children, let alone any hint of where those definitions come from, or why they might be controversial.”

Some history: Until about a decade ago, there was no medical definition of overweight or obesity in children. The Body Mass Index definitions for adults (BMI 25 = overweight, BMI 30 = obese) were considered inappropriate for kids, in part because BMI correlates positively with height in children (taller children have marginally higher BMI than shorter kids). Another reason was that there was very little data on correlations between weight and health risk in children.

As UCLA sociologist Abigail Saguy has suggested, the current concern over body weight displays many of the features of a moral panic — and moral panics often end up focusing on children.

So definitions were created. A complex bureacratic process at the Centers for Disease Control, which was beginning to get into obesity panic in a big way, ended up spitting out the following labels: kids in the 95th percentile of body mass for their age would be declared “overweight,” while those in the 85th and up would be labeled “at risk for overweight.”

Now a question that might occur to you is, if these are the definitions, why do I keep reading stories in the New York Times about how 30% of America’s children are “overweight?” How is that statistically possible? The answer is that, for those who are profiting from the panic over an “epidemic of childhood obesity,” the great disadvantage of these definitions is that they don’t allow for epidemics, which are by definition increases over some statistical baseline.

This problem was solved by using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey . This is the best data pool available on the health of the American population: NHANES has followed a statistically representative sample of Americans for several decades now. By examining the early versions of NHANES, it was possible to compare the weight of children today to those from the 1960s and 1970s. This data shows that in the late 1990s around 30% of children had a body mass that would have been in the 85th percentile or higher in the early NHANES surveys. Bingo: Epidemic!

There’s more, including some familiar but underpublicized concerns about statins for adults, let alone children. I’m resisting the temptation to simply reprint the whole article. Read the comments, too; some are very intelligent and others show just how hard it is to rebut convictions with facts.

In other news, One Fat Momma writes about how fat people can’t emigrate to New Zealand. She doesn’t give much in the way of details, but here’s one corroborating story.

Finally, the irrepressible Marilyn Wann, author of Fat!So? has found a characteristically Wann-ian response to fat people being declared illegal in Japan.

Hi. My name is Marilyn Wann. I invite you to help me send 1,000 fat cranes to Japan, to promote Health At Every Size and celebrate weight diversity.

Today I officially announce the 1,000 Fat Cranes project.

All of the instructions for folding a fat origami crane should be available in the photos and videos area of this site.

I would like to thank and honor Sandy Schaffer, who invented the fat origami fold, with 3 key alterations to the traditional flying crane. Sandy is a fat activist and fitness trainer in New York City. Thank you, Sandy!

I intend to fold a fat crane or two for Marilyn, and I hope you do as well.

Thanks to Lizzy L. for the Paul Campos pointer, and to Tracee Sioux of Empowering Girls: So Sioux Me for the New Zealand link.