This article appeared on MSNBC today, claiming that 75% of Americans will be in the "overweight" category (based on body mass index) by the year 2015 if the current trend continues.
OK, the fact that Americans are getting fatter probably does signal something bad (though of course BMI is a lousy way of tracking how fat people are). The average American's diet is no doubt pretty bad, and most people don't exercise very much, and these things must be contributing to making people fatter on average. The fact that diet and exercise are getting worse probably has something to do with the fact that people are living farther and farther out in the suburbs, commuting longer and spending more time in their cars in general, and working longer hours for the Man. Not only does this force people to sit on their butts all day, but it's draining and takes up time that might be spent hitting the gym or cooking a nice healthy meal at home. I'd like to see more media attention given to these serious problems rather than to surface manifestations of them, like people getting fatter.
But that's a different post. What I wanted to point out about this MSNBC article is the fear-mongering. It reminds me a lot of the way the Bush administration linked 9/11 with Saddam Hussein (41% of Americans still believe that Hussein was responsible, according to this article). If you just kind of keep saying the words "obese" and "overweight" in the same sentence with "heart disease," "diabetes," "cancer," and "death," then of course people are going to think that fat causes all those other bad things, especially if your society predisposes you to think that being fat is bad anyway, for aesthetic reasons. In the case of fat, I don't think every doctor or researcher who makes this link is necessarily trying to mislead people -- a lot of them may actually believe that fat causes those other things. Or maybe it's just that it is easier for them to convince people to work on getting healthier by boiling it down to a bogeyman like fat, rather than trying to promote a more complicated message like, "Having a poor diet and being sedentary, which might cause you to be fat, will also increase your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, so you should try to eat healthy and exercise to improve your health, and it is possible that you will also lose some weight if you do that."
But whether or not we are being maliciously deceived, it's working. People just assume the link without any evidence. Consider this sentence from the article: "...those with BMIs of 30 or above are obese and at serious risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers." Maybe there is a statistical correlation between a BMI over 30 and higher risk for those diseases, but notice how the sentence implies that a 30+ BMI *causes* increased risk, without actually coming out and saying it, or backing it up with data. Compare that with another sentence that does something similar: "Before 11 September 2001, many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained" (George Bush, State of the Union Address, January 2003).
And then, of course, there are the vague scary threats. Aside from the title of the article itself, there are quotes from "experts" trying to freak you out. For example, the lead researcher on the Johns Hopkins study described in the article asserts that "Obesity is a public health crisis." Never mind that the study doesn't say anything about people's health, just their fatness. So the researcher who said that is expressing a personal opinion not based on the research, but it sure does sound scary, doesn't it? Another member of the research team says that "Obesity... will soon become the leading preventable cause of death in the United States." Does the study actually show that fat is killing people, or is this just some spooky speculation? The article actually ends with this quote, so the whole thing is pretty clearly meant to leave you feeling unsettled. Kind of like quotes like this are supposed to make you feel unsettled: "If we do not defeat the terrorists and extremists in Iraq, they won't leave us alone -- they will follow us to the United States of America" (your president again, April 16, 2007). Let's just hope those terrorists don't also happen to be fat, or we're really in trouble!