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Obesity Myths: Bias and Bologna

Posted Apr 14 2009 11:38pm

It has long been assumed that overweight people are inherently unhealthy people. Such has been the assumption, and perhaps, bias, of much of the population for years.

Two recent articles are relevant in this regard: one highlights popular myths about obesity and the other alludes to bias toward overweight individuals.

This is not a one-size-fits-all conclusion (no disrespect intended, of course), however, we do need to be careful when we make assumptions about being overweight. Health hazards may exist for some, but health benefits have been documented as well...

First, to the myths: The U.K. Telegraph recently highlighted four, of which I will make mention today.

According to the Telegraph, these four myths include : " that we and our children are fat; that being fat is a certain recipe for early death; that our fatness stems from the manufacturing and marketing practices of the food industry; and that we will lengthen our lives if only we eat less and lose weight. The trouble is, there is no scientific evidence to support these myths."

At least in the U.K., according to the "just-published Health Survey for England, 2004 does not show a significant increase in the weight of children in recent years. The Department of Health report found that from 1995 to 2003 there was only a one-pound increase in children's average weight."

"Nor is there any evidence in claims that overweight and obese children are destined to become overweight and obese adults. Researchers have found little connection between overweight children and adult obesity. In the study, four out of five obese people became obese as adults, not as children."

"There is not even any compelling scientific evidence to support the Government's claim that childhood obesity results in long-term health problems and lowers one's life expectancy. In fact, the opposite may be true: we could be in danger of creating a generation of children obsessed with their weight with the consequent risk of eating disorders that really do threaten their health. Statistics on the numbers of children with eating disorders are hard to come by, but in the US it is estimated that 10 per cent of high school pupils suffer from them. Recent studies show adults' attempts to control children's eating habits result in children eating more rather than less. Parental finger wagging increases the likelihood that children develop body-image problems as well as eating disorders."

"The parallel claim of an adult obesity epidemic is equally unsubstantiated. There has been significant weight gain among the very heaviest segment of the adult population. However, this has not been true of most of the individuals who are labeled overweight and obese, whose weights have only slightly increased. In America, it is true that there was a rapid increase in the number of overweight people in the early years of this decade: but only because the classification of what was "overweight" was reduced from those with a body mass index of 27 to those of 25. Overnight, previously normal weight people discovered they were overweight."

"Neither being fat nor moderately obese is associated with increased mortality risks. Last year, a US Centers for Disease Control study found the lowest death rates among overweight people...These findings are replicated in many studies over the past 30 years that have found maximum longevity is associated with being above, rather than below, average weight."

On to the next myth...Again, according to the Telegraph, " extensive econometric studies debunk the connection between food advertising and overall food consumption. Food advertising may influence the consumption of particular food brands. It does not, however, increase either total food consumption or the consumption of specific categories of food."

"Equally unsupported is the obesity crusaders' campaign for population-wide weight loss. While they try to convince us that we are desperately fat and that our fatness will kill us, the truth about the risks of thinness and the large numbers of thinness-related deaths is quietly ignored. Large numbers of women suffer from anorexia, with one in five hospital cases ending in death. A survey of 5,000 British women in 2000 found that four in 10 had suffered from an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia. These numbers do not take into account the many men and women, neither anorexic nor bulimic, who place themselves at risk through their fixation with dieting."

And finally..."Weight-loss campaigners also ignore evidence of an association between weight loss and increased mortality. Two American studies — the Iowa Women's Health Study and the American Cancer Society study — found that weight loss was associated with higher rates of mortality. Research following up the ACS study found that healthy obese women were, in fact, better off not losing weight. They were at less risk from cancer and cardiovascular disease than healthy women who dieted."

Now a word about bias, not only has being overweight been the speculation of plentiful dire health consequences, but it has served as a commonplace area of bias among the general population (see "Are you a Weight-ist" for more on weight bias...)

A recent  Boston Globe article highlighted that our implicit, unconscious biases, demonstrate a favoritism toward thin people versus those who are heavier.

Experimental psychologist Mahzarin Banaji discovered in her research that "m ost of the time, people show an unconscious preference toward their social group." For example, by participating in her own experiments, Banaji has found that she favors women over men, and Harvard over MIT.

Banaji states that "There is an aspect of our minds that operates largely in unconscious mode," she said. "We can say one thing and behave in a way that's completely opposite."

Case in point, in a recent study, she asked participants to choose a quiz team mate from two candidates: an overweight person and a thin person. The overweight person, they were told, had a higher IQ. Yet, the majority chose the thin person. "Our biases are not rational," she said. "They lead us to do things that are not even in our own best interest."

I don't need to tell you that there is a negative bias against those who weigh more in our society, just look around you, listen to those around you, and share your own experiences, perhaps.

Banaji says that people like understanding their biases. I am not sure if that is entirely true, but if you are interested, you can take the test that she used as the basis for her research. The test can be found here at:

Do you hold any weight biases? Are you willing to examine your own attitudes about those who may weight more, or less, than you expect? Has bias led you to treat a heavier person differenently than one who is thin? Have certain myths about obesity influenced your behavior?

If such is the case, I can refer to one more thought from Banaji: "You can change a behavior even if your attitude doesn't change...and maybe the change in behavior will provoke a change in attitude."

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