Food for thought

12th January 2009

Food for thought

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.

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This entry was posted on Monday, January 12th, 2009 at 3:57 pm and is filed under Eating Disorders, Fat Bias, New Research. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

There are currently 10 responses to “Food for thought”

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  1. 1 On January 12th, 2009, vesta44 said:

    Well, I always did think I was a unique snowflake. Now I know I am, since I’m one of that 5.9% that’s considered extremely “obese”. Not that I need a crane to get me out of bed or anything like that, but tell someone that, according the BMI, you’re “morbidly obese” and they expect you to keel over dead any minute now. Just shows what a major disconnect there is between reality shows and what the statistics are cooked to show.

  2. 2 On January 12th, 2009, angrygrayrainbows said:

    Wow… so 1 out of every 3 of us over the age of 20 have the death fat?

    I think this goes to show the BMI project is right. Obesity is not that people paint it to be in the mainstream media.

    When is someone in the mainstream going to break the story that BMI is a bunch of hooey and that obese and even morbid obesity doesn’t mean (in most cases) the guy who needs to be hoisted out of his bed with a crane. I hope soon…

  3. 3 On January 12th, 2009, Bree said:

    The daily news reports about obesity featuring super-sized headless fatties certainly doesn’t help to put things in perspective, especially when you consider the number of people like me who are actually 300 lbs and up is not really a significant amount in the country. I know a lot of people uneducated about obesity and who haven’t seen the BMI Project would be startled to realize that obese isn’t just the people trotted out to be pitied and shamed over on Discovery Health.

  4. 4 On January 12th, 2009, Rachel said:

    Bree — You’re absolutely right. In the case of the 5’3″ woman used as an example above, for her to be considered “extremely obese” (which is usually defined by a BMI of more than 50), she would have to weigh more than 282 pounds. And if she did weigh that much or more, she would represent just little over 5 percent of the population. Yet this is the image that most accompanies any story about obesity. I think if an image of the 5’3″ woman at 170 pounds were shown in a story on obesity (which qualifies as obese), people would wonder what all the fuss is about.

  5. 5 On January 12th, 2009, Lillian said:

    My sixteen year old son is five eight and two hundred pounds. To look at him, you wouldn’t see obese, just a little chubby. He doesn’t look like an ad for “death fat”.

  6. 6 On January 13th, 2009, Jackie said:

    You’re right on.

  7. 7 On January 13th, 2009, Lisa said:

    It’s fun with numbers minus the fun part.

  8. 8 On January 13th, 2009, christine said:

    i think saying that only 0.65 of the national population is 500 lbs+ is a little misleading. it’s like saying that only (for example, i’m just making this up) 5% of the national population has osteoporosis…but osteoporosis tends to typically affects older people. so, if you look at the percentage of older people with osteoporosis, you would see that it’s a much more serious. it seems like, to be 500lbs+, you would generally be an adult (this is just my assumption, correct me if i’m wrong). it would be wrong, for instance, to use the national population because there’s no way infants or toddlers could way 500 lbs. i think you should reevaluate your statistic, and you might find something closer to 1%. still not as significant as your anorexia/bulimia numbers, but it should ALSO be noted that those stats are taken out of girls/women in the US, and not total population.

    you were saying in a comment for this post that “if an image of the 5′3″ woman at 170 pounds were shown in a story on obesity (which qualifies as obese), people would wonder what all the fuss is about.” …isn’t this the problem? i know i’m taking an unfavorable position here, but i thought the problem with being overweight/obese had to do with the accumulation of visceral fat and its consequences, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, etc. so it’s not that everyone who is overweight/obese has these issues, but that they’re at a higher risk for them – so if an image of a 170 lb 5’3 woman were shown on TV as representative of obese, then wouldn’t that cause more people to think, “oh man, i look like that, should i get my cholesterol checked out?” or something to that effect? it seems as though because people see pictures of these really really heavy people all the time, they disidentify themselves from the ‘obese’ label, and…isn’t that worse?

  9. 9 On January 13th, 2009, Rachel said:

    Children under the age of 14 make up only about 20 percent of the nation’s population, according to the Census. If we assume that only people ages 15 and above can weigh more than 500 pounds, the statistic of two million people raises the national percentage to just 0.81 percent, which is still fairly insignificant.

    Girls and women make up roughly half of the U.S. population (the national ratio is 97 men to 100 women, so women have a slight population advantage). Since eating disorders are now being seen in children as young as 6-years-old, I’ll subtract just the numbers of children below the age of 5 for each sex. Eating disorders also occur in men, but at much lower rates. Because of the nature of the disorder and its gyno-stigma, these rates are not as known as the rates of eating disorders amongst women. For the purposes of this experiment, I’ll consider only the rates of eating disorders amongst women against the national population.

    Using the percentages listed in the post (3.7 and 4.2 percent respectively), it’s estimated that about 5,285,116 of girls and women will develop anorexia and 5,999,321 will develop bulimia. If we compare these numbers against the national population of both sexes above the age of five, we see that the national rates of anorexia are at 1.75 percent and bulimia 1.99 percent – still more than twice the national average of people who weigh more than 500 pounds. And remember, this number does not include the numbers of men with eating disorders.

    I see your point in your second paragraph about disassociation and all, but I also happen to believe that the health risks of obesity and especially overweight are greatly dramatized. If pictures of “real” obese people were used, such as the 5’3″ 170-lb women, I think more people would begin questioning more why obesity is as demonized as it is, from its exaggerated health risks to it being the scapegoat for global warming and national security. As well, journalism has a responsibility to relay the news ethically and accurately. By showing images of extremely obese people who are in the minority and not the real images of people who are classified as obese, media outlets aren’t being honest or ethical. It’s sensationalism, pure and simple, not unlike tactics you’d see in the tabloids. As well, showing these unrealistic images only serves to further strengthen the stigma surrounding fatness and deepen the discrimination that fat people face everyday.

  10. 10 On January 13th, 2009, Emerald said:

    vesta, I work in a hospital and I hate the use of the term ‘morbid’ in any context. It just means ‘likely to cause illness/disease’, but it confuses patients, and probably scares a fair few of them. Plus, in the case of obesity, it’s not even accurate. There is no guarantee that ‘morbid’ obesity will lead to any kind of illness, not even the ones specifically associated with obesity. I think medical authorities (not to mention the media) just like it because it sounds vaguely ‘deathy’.

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