Obesity myths and one inconvenient truth

Sport

By Dr Samantha Thomas and Associate Professor Colin McLeod.

In the early 1980’s Sid and Jenny Craig migrated to Australia with a dream of opening a successful weight management company. By 1983, the first Jenny Craig clinics had opened in Melbourne, in the working class suburbs of Frankston, Preston, Knox, Moonee Ponds, Ringwood, and Cranbourne.

Jenny Craig has gone on to be one of the most famous, and certainly the most profitable weight loss company in the world.

Given this Australian claim to fame, coupled with intensive celebrity endorsement of the benefits of weight loss (Magda has already lost 25 kilos, and Chrissie Swan has achieved her goal of getting pregnant after achieving a healthier weight on Jenny’s program), it is perhaps unsurprising that Australians are more than a little fixated about weight.

Fatness is, according to many of our health professionals, academics, and mass media, not only aesthetically undesirable, but also a sure ticket to an early grave.

Every day in Australia we are bombarded with a plethora of facts and figures about the causes for, impacts of, and solutions for weight gain. Media reporting about obesity has increased 100 per cent since the late 90s, and now eclipses the reporting of any other health issue.

Who would deny the impact of an epidemic of lazy fatties on our health care costs, global warming, life expectancy, insurance costs and even the ability of our military to function? After all, Australia is just about the fattest nation in the world – even challenging the United States for the world heavyweight crown. Most of our elite athletes are ‘obese’ according to the Body Mass Index. And the exploding rates of childhood obesity have even the skinniest of children quaking in their Bata Scouts.

Being fat is simply unpatriotic – they should be ashamed of themselves and we should be ashamed of them too. And according to most of our media campaigns and advertising claims about fatness, it could all be resolved if we ate a little less, and exercised a little more and took some “personal responsibility.”

Right?

An increasing number of health professionals, academics and community groups are challenging the inconvenient truths that we have created about the obesity ‘epidemic’.

Some argue that a culture of ‘moral panic’ about fatness has been created. NGO’s, academics, health care providers and the weight loss industry have exaggerated claims to justify the need for more funding, or to spruik products and services. Many now admit that this may have hindered rather than helped our efforts to effectively respond to obesity in the sectors of the community that it affects the most.

Research clearly shows that people who are obese feel that simplistic and exaggerated public claims about obesity have led to a culture of blame and shame. Some describe that the public pressure to lose weight has led them to engage in radical and risky weight loss attempts, and pushes them further away from essential services that could help them improve their health and wellbeing. In an effort to become thin, many describe that their physical and mental health is getting worse.

There is no doubt that obesity poses serious health risks for some people in our community. But perhaps if we were more sensible and less hysterical about obesity, we may actually find it easier to engage and support the people who need it most.

Exposing the Myths

Myth One: Australia is the Fattest Nation in the World.

False. The International Obesity Taskforce ranks Australia as the 44th fattest nation in the world, with 19.3 per cent of men and 22.2 per cent of women classified as obese (BMI over 30). Importantly, obesity in Australia is influenced by socio-economic status. Quite simply, the poorer you are, the more likely you are to be obese.

Myth Two: Being obese will markedly increase your health risks.

The relationship between weight status and negative health outcomes has been overstated. The relationship between weight and mortality is fairly low until people reach quite high BMIs. Most epidemiological studies suggest that overweight people do not have shorter lives than people in the healthy weight range and we know that the negative effects of weight on health can be mitigated by physical activity.

Myth Three: Rates of childhood obesity are exploding

False. In the historical long run (30 years plus) there have been increases in both adult and childhood obesity in Australia. However, experts now generally agree that the levels of childhood obesity have plateaued in the last decade.

Myth Four: Obesity is caused by a simple equation of eating too much and exercising too little

Whilst at the most basic level this is true, weight loss is far more complex than eating less and exercising more. This is because of the complex range of genetic, environmental, socio-cultural and psychological factors that lead people to be obese.

Similarly, messages that tell obese people that they simply need to “take personal responsibility” or just make up their mind to lose weight are simplistic in the extreme.

Myth Five: Most of our AFL footballers are ‘obese’ according to BMI

Whilst there is no doubt that the BMI is flawed when applied to individuals, the vast majority of our AFL athletes actually fall in the normal and overweight categories according to the BMI. A recent analysis of an AFL club showed that 75 per cent of its players would be classified within the normal weight range for their height, 25 per cent of its players would be classified as overweight and none were obese.

Of course when 19th-century Belgian astronomer and mathematician, Adolphe Quetelet invented the body mass index (BMI), he probably didn’t envisage that it would be applied to professional athletes who design their body to be “fit for purpose.”

Inconvenient Truth One: Discrimination on the basis of weight is on the rise

According to an extensive study undertaken by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, discrimination on the basis of weight is the fastest growing form of discrimination in the US in the last 10 years, and is now more prevalent than racial discrimination.

Perhaps by focusing on the facts rather than the myths, we might be able to help people manage obesity rather than marginalize them through what is rapidly becoming a propaganda war against obese people.

Dr Samantha Thomas and Associate Professor Colin McLeod are from the Department of Marketing, Monash University