For a long time, the connection between obesity and numerous diseases has been repeated over and over to us by the results of supposedly scholarly experiments done by reputable scientists, and drumbeated by the mainstream media, so that the entire world began to simplistically associate obesity with morbidity or to speak of obesity as if it was synonymous with cardiac arrest, hypertension, type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and a whole slew of other equally degenerative diseases. This was the case until academics and researchers such as Ernsberger (1993), Campos (2004), and Flegal (2000) critically examined available studies pointing to the causal relationship between being overweight and found a fairly inaccurate picture on the impact of obesity from previous studies due to bad research methods and latent biases of the researchers. The debate between those who believed that obesity was the new epidemic, and those with counter-opinions was born, and upon careful evaluation of the latter’s arguments as succinctly presented by Gibbs (2005), one is indeed convinced that obesity may not be the real health problem it is touted to be.
Recently, W. Wayt Gibbs (2005), an academic whose loyalty is to the ‘counter-opinion’ camp, presented what is perhaps the most comprehensive—if a bit impassioned—summary of the arguments that debunk the notion of obesity being this millennium’s epidemic, or even in being a disease at all, in Obesity: An Overblown Epidemic? published in the journal Scientific American. His work centered on the major argument that the relationship between obesity and illness or mortality is mainly exaggerations by researchers and medical experts who benefit from the lucrative weight-loss industry and ‘create’ the disease called obesity. Drawing from the works of authors Campos (2004), Gard & Wright (2005), Oliver (2005), and a host of scientists and researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention led by Flegal (2000), Gibbs (2005) asserts that contrary to widely held opinions, there have been no conclusive studies that prove a direct, causal connection between obesity and type-2 diabetes or between obesity and early or premature death, that in fact most of studies done to prove this association had significant flaws in design and methodology, and that excessive dieting is more harmful than staying obese.
In destroying his opponents’ arguments, Gibbs (2005) begins by taking the controversial standpoint that obesity may even be reducing death rates among the world’s overweight populations than actually being the cause of increasing death tolls. He points out to the result of “a new and unusually thorough analysis of three large, nationally representative surveys” initially pointed out by Oliver (2005) that reveal “statistically insignificant increase in mortality among mildly obese people, as compared with those in the “healthy weight” category,” and to Flegal’s (2000) findings of underweight individuals being more at risk to premature deaths than those considered obese to justify his claim. Although such a claim appears overextended as there really has been no conclusive research done yet to prove the second part of his argument—that obesity may be the reason there is a lower incidence of premature death among the overweight segments of the population—his presentation does appear convincing once he points out how studies to prove the contrary were derived from outdated data that was further corrupted by calculations that “were based on a handful of convenient, but false, presuppositions.”
He strengthens his first claim by debunking the assertion that obesity leads to cardiovascular and heart problems, and possibly, a host of other diseases. Citing a study done by Gregg (2005) which showed reduced cases of high blood pressure in the U.S. and another done by Evans (2001) revealing an inverse relationship between BMI and high blood pressure and high cholesterol, Gibbs (2005) points out the flaws of attributing all mortality solely to the large presence of body fat that glosses over the influence of genetic variations in human body sizes and shapes or the more harmful effects of certain lifestyles. He further illustrates how “being overweight or obese seemed to confer significant protection against lung cancer,” which undoubtedly kills more people than being obese itself does, based on studies conducted in 900,000 Americans in 2003.
Gibbs (2005) also manages to refute the claim that obesity causes type-2 diabetes by pointing out how a sharp rise in diabetes did not necessarily reflect an obesity upswing. This is perhaps his most convincing position since there really have been no studies to prove that an increase in body fat would lead to elevated sugar levels, or that, indeed, weight loss will promote a better utilization and metabolism of glucose by the body. He rightly points out how sedentary lifestyles may be more culpable of promoting diabetes than being overweight is. In fact, numerous studies have shown that people who were engaged in exercise and other strenuous physical activities significantly reduced their chances of developing diabetes and cardiovascular diseases despite their weight or over-all body fat ratio. (Johnson, 2005)
The most controversial argument, however, is on the credibility of those producing the research itself, which he—echoing previous allegations by Campos (2004) and Oliver (2005)—claims is engaged in the production of studies that translate to immense profits for the weight-loss industry in exchange for both institutional and individual grants for obesity research which is corroborated by Johnson (2005) who revealed that there were indeed personal testimonials from CDC researchers who admitted receiving financial support from pharmaceutical and other weight-loss corporations (which Gibbs, however, fails to mention). Here, Gibbs (2005) is clearly trying to invoke his audience’ outrage over the lack of ethical consideration of those involved in previous research in obesity. This is done not only to establish his argument that weight loss should not be seen as a serious solution to the ‘obesity problem’ since poses health risks but also to strengthen his primary contention that obesity should not even be considered a disease, it is a disease created, as Campos (2004) earlier announced, “simply by labeling it as such.” Undoubtedly, obesity itself can be considered a social construct, one that is influenced by existing notions of beauty or healthy and the premiums society places on conforming to such standards. This would explain why the public has become so averse of body fat and so insecure of its own body so as to develop a variety of sickness centered around the habit of eating itself.
Unfortunately, while Gibbs (2005) may have been able to solidly refute the pervasive notion of obesity being an illness in itself and of weight loss as an irrational choice as a solution, his position on health promotion—or encouraging healthy, active lifestyles—instead of a fixation on body measurements was quite lackluster. Nevertheless, he was able to defend his main contention in a very informed and data-based manner that give his opponents (presumably those profiting from the USD 46 Billion weight-loss market) a run for their money.
These pronouncements, no doubt, will not only present a glimmer of hope for the U.S. where more than half of the population—or sixty percent (60%)—are considered overweight or falling into the obese category by Body Mass Index (BMI) standards, (Steefel, 2002) but also other highly developed economies such as Australia, where obesity has also been reported to have reached “epidemic proportions” “with 67.5% of men, 52.1% of women and 19%–23% of children and adolescents being overweight or obese.” (Proietto & Baur, 2004). Likewise, it would also help reduce the worsening attitude towards fat and food consumption fueled by fear of gaining weight that is the culprit of the increase in eating disorders and bad eating habits among teenagers, women, and men thought to be obese—or fearing to be obese. (Campos 2004)
Before rushing to conclusions, however, it might be more beneficial for the public to be more prudent and discerning of the arguments presented on obesity’s favor in order to evaluate the claims presented. Although current analysis favors that which clearly puts the ‘obesity epidemic’ as largely overblown and mostly made up of hype, innovations in scientific inquiry and scientific methods of investigation may provide a clearer perspective on the effects and relationships of obesity that we could only hope, will finally bring this debate to a resolution.