Are We Eating Ourselves to Death?

Published March 1, 2003

Is there or is there not an epidemic of obesity? Should you worry about that growing cummerbund around your waist? Of course not. We all perished 10 years ago in the global famine, so confidently predicted by the environmental apocalyptics of the 1970s. Or had you forgotten?

But maybe we should worry … because there’s another apocalypse coming. This time, if you believe the Guardians of Girth and Dictators of Diet, America is about to become the first nation in history to eat itself to death.

Clearly, Americans weigh more than they used to. So does much of the rest of the human race. (Spend some time looking at armor or clothing in a museum, or travel to Japan if you doubt this.) But there is an epidemic of muddled diagnosis and wrong-headed thinking on this heavy subject.

Two Facts, for Starters

First, “overweight” is an arbitrary and to some extent culturally defined construct, a set of height/weight/body type/body fat percentage relationships you read off a chart. Any individual’s comfortable and healthful, let alone “ideal,” weight might vary significantly. Metabolism matters. So does occupation, lifestyle, and myriad other factors.

Second, overweight (as opposed to genuine obesity) is in most instances the result of the human body’s natural ability to store extra calories as fat–a survival-enhancing mechanism from those eons when you never knew when the next woolly mammoth barbecue might be. “Calorie” is actually a measure of heat or energy. The image of the body “burning up” calories is pretty close to the physiologic truth.

For every extra 3,300 calories accumulated and stored as fat in the body, you gain one pound of fat weight, plus extra fluids. Further, whatever the nutrient value of specific foods may be, all calories are created equal. As Michael Fumento, author of The Fat of the Land, writes: “Maintaining a healthful body weight is no more complex or magical than simply balancing calories burned vs. calories consumed, regardless of the source.”

They’re Wrong

If overweight is an epidemic, the national health statistics should show it. But statistically–and despite all the other fashionable fears–we’re actually getting healthier and living longer, better lives. So, what’s going on?

At one level, it’s snobbery: the elitist conviction that Americans can’t be trusted to take care of themselves, and that the “Holier/Healthier than Thou” crowd must therefore lobby and legislate and sue and try to force people to live according to their standards. Social engineering and coercion flaunt “scientific” evidence that doesn’t stand up, often for the simple reason that it doesn’t exist to begin with.

As Steve Milloy of writes, “the simplistic notion that dietary fat is bad was a political and business judgment, not a scientific one.”

It seems to have started back in 1977, when a Senate committee led by George McGovern issued a report advising Americans to consume less fat to avoid “killer diseases,” then supposedly sweeping the country.

The politically dutiful National Institutes of Health joined the anti-fat bandwagon, a move that spawned the low-fat food industry–a boon to consumer choice, but not necessarily one with a beneficial health impact.

As Fumento notes: “Since 1977-78, fat as a percentage of our diets has dropped by over 17 percent, even as obesity has increased by over 25 percent. The fewer calories we’ve taken in from fat, the fatter we’ve become.”

But the low-fat bandwagon was a boon to activists seeking funding and power, especially the Food and Drug Administration, the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine, the National Institutes of Health, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

If you were lucky enough to get some exercise equipment or a health-club membership last Christmas or Hanukah, do use it. In moderation, of course. Overdoing efforts to get the calories off can be more dangerous than putting them on.

Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D. is a multiple award-winning writer who comments on medical-legal issues. Robert J. Cihak, M.D. is a former president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. Both doctors are Harvard-trained diagnostic radiologists.

For more information …

Michael Fumento’s The Fat of the Land: The Obesity Epidemic and How Overweight Americans Can Help Themselves, was published in 1997 by the Viking Press. Although it is out of print, new and used editions are available through Point your Web browser to