The news outlets are all over a new report that suggests that obesity has now eclipsed overweight in America. The 2005-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, released last month, indicates that an estimated 32.7 percent of U.S. adults 20 years and older are overweight, 34.3 percent are obese and 5.9 percent are extremely obese.
By the numbers, it certainly sounds as if the U.S. is populated by a nation of gastric bypass candidates all fighting their way through the Golden Arches. But as Kate Harding’s BMI project reminds us, the numbers can be deceiving. Obesity is a rather vague term, conjuring up stereotypical imagery of overly-corpulent fat people the likes of which form the subjects of shows like TLC’s recently-aired series, “Half-Ton Teenager,” Half-Ton Mom,” and “Half-Ton Dad.” When most people hear the word “obese,” what comes to mind often isn’t the woman who stands at 5’3″ tall and weighs 170-pounds, but rather the 700-pound man who needs to be hoisted from his home with a crane.
I watched the documentaries on the “Half-Ton Mom” and “Half-Ton Dad” while making the dollhouse for my niece. Both shows gave the statistic that two million Americans weigh more than 500 pounds (no citation given). Two million sounds like a lot of people, but when you measure it against the national population, it’s fairly insignificant. To put it into perspective, consider this: The U.S. Census Bureau puts the U.S. population at 305,602,155. Those two million people who weigh more than 500 pounds represent just 0.65 percent of the national population. By contrast, the NIMH estimates that up to 3.7 percent of U.S. girls and women will develop anorexia and up to 4.2 percent of them will develop bulimia in their lifetime. And unlike the threshold of body mass index standards that determine categories of overweight and obese (which were lowered in 1998 so that 35 million Americans were turned overweight overnight), the diagnostic standards defining eating disorder diagnoses have remained relatively unchanged.
Americans have been particularly obsessing about food and weight for the better part of three decades and it’s gotten us, well, only fatter. The sad thing is, as obesity rates increase and with them attendant and often counterproductive anti-obesity programs, so too will the rates of eating disorders continue to rise.