Eric Oliver's Fat Politics claims the "obesity epidemic" doesn't exist
There's a new book that hit bookstore shelves this month claiming that the "obesity epidemic" that is so widely accepted by people as a fact is nothing more than a clever marketing scheme orchestrated by the government, health and weight loss industry, and the media to keep a multi-billion dollar diet and fitness economy alive and well.
That's the premise behind a new book by University of Chicago political science professor Eric Oliver called Fat Politics: The Real Story behind America's Obesity Epidemic.
Oliver is the epitome of an anti-politically correct skeptic who doesn't accept the definition of words that are too often throw into the public eye without a definitive meaning. Words such as "overweight" and "obese" are so easily manipulated, Oliver contends, that they have lost their meaning altogether. That's why he feels the "obesity epidemic" is just a ruse and there is no real threat to people's health as a result of them being either "overweight" or "obese."
This is some radical stuff, Mr. Oliver. Your ideas are rather bold, too, considering all the proven weight-related and preventable diseases that Americans suffer from each and every year, including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, and even death.
But Oliver just shrugs his shoulders at the supposed relationship between weight and health. In other words, he doesn't buy into it as fact.
Instead, Oliver says being fat and having a disease such as diabetes or metabolic syndrome is simply a coincidental association and there is no evidence that one has anything to do with the other.
"There are only a few medical conditions that have been shown convincingly to be caused by excess body fat, such as osteoarthritis of weight bearing joints and uterine cancer that comes from higher estrogen levels in heavier women, although this can be treated medically without weight loss," Oliver claims. "For most medical conditions, it is diet, exercise, and genetics that are the real causes. Weight is merely an associated symptom."
With all due respect to a fellow political scientist (I have a B.A. in Political Science and an M.A. in Public Policy), you could not be any more off base with your theory, Mr. Oliver. Not only do obesity and health problems have an association, but recent studies have shown that the health risks of carrying around excessive weight, especially in the abdomen, can lead to a breakdown in many essential bodily function. This is proven scientific fact, Mr. Oliver.
Additionally, obesity-related health costs have risen to $36.6 BILLION as of 2002 and the trend is on the rise. One study warns that if nothing is done to curtail obesity, then we will reach 100 percent obesity by the year 2058. You may scoff and ridicule such statements, but the gravity of the obesity problem is no laughing matter.
But Oliver is oblivious to these very clear statistics that stare us in the face. He believes it's all one big conspiracy to scam the American people out of their money when no real threat exists to their health.
“Weight loss is a multi-billion dollar industry in America, and this industry is trying to put a health spin on what is a largely cosmetic product,” Oliver maintains.
As someone who successfully lost over 180 pounds in 2004 (read about my weight loss story in the book "Livin' La Vida Low-Carb"), I can appreciate the sentiment that Oliver is expressing in his genuine cynicism of the health and weight loss industry. I am quite sure many of the companies who are pushing useless products like diet pills, weight loss cookies, getaway structured weight loss vacations, and even a stomach pacemaker are smiling all the way to the bank because of the perpetual perception that tells people the "obesity epidemic" exists.
But what if it's not just a perception, but a reality? While it may be hard to put an actual number on the people who are overweight or obese in the United States, most people will agree that there are still a lot of people who need to lose weight. Even if the number is significantly less than the "two out of three" mantra that is often repeated, there are plenty of people who need to get serious and lose a lot of weight.
To me, it doesn't matter what the exact number of overweight or obese people are because there are millions of people who desperately need to do something about their weight. When I weighed 410 pounds, I had a HUGE problem (literally!) that needed to be taken care of. The government wasn't going to lose weight for me and my friends and family couldn't shed the pounds off of me either. It was MY responsibility to take personal control of my life back by doing what I had to do to melt the fat from my body and get healthy.
Thankfully I found the low-carb lifestyle and it has been a godsend for me. Livin' la vida low-carb literally changed my life completely and I will never be the same again. I get e-mails all the time from people who visit my weight loss blog (LivinLaVidaLowCarb.com) thanking me for being an inspiration to them regarding their need to lose weight. It gives me great satisfaction knowing that others are being helped by my success in their personal journey over a lifetime of weight problems. I've been morbidly obese and overcame it, but it is still having a direct impact on my life through my family.
My stepfather just buried his 30-year old nephew who weighed in excess of 500 pounds and died of a heart attack last weekend. My brother Kevin checked himself into the hospital recently and had several clogged arteries where he had previously suffered a series of heart attacks. The doctor has given him one year to live if he doesn't do something about his obesity. He weighs close to 600 pounds!
These may just be anectdotal examples of obesity's impact on our society, but they are very real and undoubtedly replicated in family after family across this nation. Mindlessly stating that there is no obesity epidemic is intellectually lazy, Mr. Oliver.
Again, while I can appreciate where you are coming from with your thesis for your book and I actually agree with parts of it (namely your contention that anorexic supermodels are propped up as the ideal body type), I believe you are doing an even greater disservice to the American people by telling them they don't need to worry about their weight. That's puts even more people at risk of damaging their health even more and possibly leading them to an early death because they may think everything is fine with their health because you say there is no "obesity epidemic."
That is irresponsible as someone who purports to care about the health and well-being of the general public. I would hope you will continue to examine the evidence that is coming out from reputable researchers that underlines the very real problems that obesity causes. It's only going to continue to get worse and worse until people get serious about dealing with their weight.
You can e-mail your thoughts about Fat Politics to Eric Oliver at firstname.lastname@example.org.
11-20-05 UPDATE: Eric Oliver responded to my comments about his book in an e-mail today:
Thanks for sharing your comments on my book. While reasonable people can disagree over how to interpret the various statistical associations between body weight, mortality, and morbidity, I find your comments on my book grossly unfair and biased (which is not surprising considering you are using such comments as a vehicle for the promotion of your own weight loss products). For example, do you understand the statistical assumptions behind the various estimates that you cite as "fact" on the health and economic costs of obesity? If you did, you would recognize that even the authors of these studies would not characterize them as "facts" but as "estimates."
I get the impression from your comments that you did not really look beyond the first 30 pages of the book (else you would have noticed, for example, that I attribute most of our recent weight gains to our increased consumption of refined carbohydrates, something that would have help you in your own diet promotion efforts). To call a book "mindless" and "intellectually lazy" based only on a cursory reading the introduction is grossly hypocritical.
Well, thanks for writing to me, Mr. Oliver. But you still missed the point of my review of your thesis.
Nothing I stated was "unfair" or "biased," but simply a common sense approach to the subject you discuss in your book. While it is applaudable that you mention the overconsumption of carbohydrates as the reason for the increase in weight problems in recent years, that still doesn't let you off the hook for MINDLESSLY telling people there is no obesity epidemic. There is and anyone who says otherwise is being INTELLECTUALLY LAZY and dishonest.
As a whole, your book is an interesting read. But your theories are not based in reality as millions upon millions of Americans need to get serious about their weight problem. Telling them they don't have one will only add fuel to a raging fire that is engulfing a nation full of desperate overweight people.
Regarding my personal motivation for reviewing your book, I don't have any "weight loss products" to sell to anyone other than a book about my personal experience losing weight. What I write about at my blog is the truth about diet, nutrition and weight loss to help others who are trying to get healthy and reclaim their life. I make no apologies for what I write and how I write it because I cannot sit on the sidelines and be silent on the issue of obesity.
I was able to overcome that monster in my life and now I am trying to help others, too. Unless you have walked a mile in my shoes as an obese person on his way to an early grave, then you will never know what I am talking about. Maybe you could write a follow-up book featuring REAL stories of how obesity really does exist in America and just how WRONG you were in "Fat Politics." I'll be waiting...