Another reason to take scientific consensus with a grain of salt

Be fat and die has been the mantra for decades now.  The scientists had figured out the direct correlation between that excess avoirdupois and death.  Except it turns out it’s not that simple:

Being overweight boosts the risk of dying from diabetes and kidney disease but not cancer or heart disease, and carrying some extra pounds appears actually to protect against a host of other causes of death, federal researchers reported Tuesday.

The counterintuitive findings, based on a detailed analysis of decades of government data about more than 39,000 Americans, suggest that being overweight does carry risks, but the dangers may be less dire than experts thought.

“The take-home message is that the relationship between fat and mortality is more complicated than we tend to think,” said Katherine Flegal, a senior research scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, who led the study. “It’s not a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all situation where excess weight just increases your mortality risk for any and all causes of death.”

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, was greeted with sharply mixed reactions. Some praised it for providing persuasive evidence that the dangers of fat have been overblown.

“What this tells us is the hazards have been very much exaggerated,” said Steven Blair, a professor of exercise science, epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of South Carolina. “It’s just not as big a problem as people have said.”

There are, of course, the die hards who insist that the debate was long ago over:

But others dismissed the findings as fundamentally flawed, saying an overwhelming body of evidence has documented the risks of being either overweight or obese.

“It’s just rubbish,” said Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. “It’s just ludicrous to say there is no increased risk of mortality from being overweight. … From a health standpoint, it’s definitely undesirable to be overweight.”

Reading on in the article (which I recommend you do), you get to what may be the crux of the matter: the difference between being merely a few pounds over what you’d like or what societal norms are or what doctor’s charts dictate versus being morbidly obese.

In my own self, I see the difference that weight has had on me.  In my pre-child days, I was naturally skinny and, since I enjoyed weight lifting, I was a model of fatless, tensile strength.  I looked gorgeous (truly), but had a handful of fairly minor health problems common to skinny women — problems I couldn’t overcome because nothing I did made weight stick (not even my all ice cream diet).  Post-children, I weigh 15 pounds more than I used to, which is a lot on a small frame.  My skinny health problems are all gone, but I’ve added a different set of problems:  musculo-skeletal pain, since my joints, tendons and ligaments simply aren’t prepared to handle that extra 15 pounds.  In other words, both situations for me had benefits and burdens — and I really miss the gorgeous part.

I mention all this here, not just because it will make healthy, but hefty, people feel better, but because it is a reminder that science is a quest, not an end.  We were so certain we knew it all a few years ago, but we didn’t.  Scientists have belief systems just like any other people, and they tend to interpret their results through the prism of those belief systems.  With few exceptions, most things are open to intelligent debate, with the intelligent part meaning assembling facts in a non-biased way, analyzing those facts, and presenting them for rigorous debate.  My ongoing concern about the climate change hysteria is that the scientific community has been co-opted by the biased community, and has abandoned the basic dictates of science.


6 Responses

  1. […] [Discuss this article with Bookworm over at Bookworm Room…] Share Article overweight, diabetes, kidney disease    Sphere: Related Content Trackback URL […]

  2. We were so certain we knew it all a few years ago, but we didn’t.

    What do you mean, “we”, Kemosabe? 😉

    You have to differentiate between a great many players here. Let me present a fictitious example of how these things happen:

    1. Sam Scientist publishes a paper in “Statistical Studies in Nutrition”, entitled “Analysis of Mortality Rates for Swedish Patients during 1970 – 1990”, in which he writes: “A correlation coefficient of 0.12 with a confidence of 98% was found between the incidence of valvular cardiomyopathy and body mass index.”

    2. Robbie Reporter publishes a story about the paper. Does he give it the headline “Weak Correlation found between Body Mass Index and Heart Disease”? Of course not! He instead writes “Scientific Study Proves: Fat People Drop Dead From Heart Attacks!!!” Does he include all the fine points, exceptions, and qualifications that were part of the original paper? Of course not! That would be boring! By the way, Fred likes to use exclamation points! Lots of them!!!

    3. Dorothy Doctor tells her patient, “You really must lose weight. All the evidence indicates that being overweight will reduce your life expectancy.”

    4. Sally Scientist publishes a paper in the Czech Journal of Medicine” in which she presents data showing a weak negative correlation between body mass index and uterine cancer.

    5. Ronnie Reporter writes a news story about Sally’s paper entitled “Beat Cancer by Getting Fat!”

    6. Bookworm reads Ronnie’s article and concludes that you have to take scientific consensus with a grain of salt.

  3. My ongoing concern about the climate change hysteria is that the scientific community has been co-opted by the biased community, and has abandoned the basic dictates of science.

    Scientists always have pet theories. And they always believe that they are right. That human tendency promotes the creation of false evidence amongst scientists. That is why we have scientific hoaxes.

    People forget that Galileo was totally incorrect in his beliefs, given the fact that his mathematics didn’t back up his claims. Nor did Galileo have any other evidence. Galileo didn’t claim the Copernican Heresy, either. But that’s ancient history.

    not even my all ice cream diet

    If you were lifting weights, Book, then you should have been on a mostly protein diet. Milk would have been far better. The high adaptation metabolism of people that Neo has talked about, including you and me, can only gain weight via weightlifting and high protein intake. Course, you have to be maxing your weight lifting numbers. Endurance training doesn’t work.

    But others dismissed the findings as fundamentally flawed, saying an overwhelming body of evidence has documented the risks of being either overweight or obese.

    It is not really clear whether such health problems occur because you have more weight or because of your behavior which caused you to have such weight. If you don’t exercise, and thus gain weight, then obviously it is a question of whether you get sick because of a lack of exercise or an abundance of fat. Could be both. Could be the first. Could be the latter. Who knows. It is very very hard to conduct experiments based upon these factors since there are so many of them, with so many combinations.

  4. Years ago I came across an interesting theory for determining the risk of heart disease in a book by pathologist Dr Michael Baden. He stated that coronary arteries vary greatly in size between individuals. Those with small arteries will have blockages over time despite a healthy lifestyle, while those with large arteries can have the same or much larger amount of blockage with little negative effect. He stated that heredity was the most likely determinant of blood vessel diameter, and individuals could theoretically determine their risk of heart disease based, at least partly, on this measurement. I’ve never heard anything more about this theory, but it seemed plausible.

    I believe the “one size fits all” theories on measuring health risks, like BMI, are meaningless. The military used a similar method for years. At the time I was working out daily, training in martial arts, and in the best condition of my life. But I could never beat my “pack a day” co-workers who never went to the gym.

  5. A little bit of fat and being a little overweight has benefits, I’m sure.

    But in this country, we are NOT talking about a little bit of fat and being a little overweight. Carrying around an excessive amount of fat cannot be a good thing. (I suspect we will find that yo-yo rapid weight loss and gain such as losing thirty pounds over six months and regaining it all in three months, repeated cyclically, is far, far, FAR worse than merely being overweight, even by a 100 pounds, however.)

  6. […] You can read the rest of the story here.  It’s obvious that New Zealand’s medical bureaucracy has not yet caught up with recent scientific findings showing that excess weight does not automatically correlate with ill health. […]

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