Friedman took on some of the hysteria regarding the "obesity epidemic." There's some stuff I didn't realize or hadn't considered.
I actually contacted the epidemiologist named Katherine Flegal, who publishes all the reports that are highlighted in the press every time we hear, in five year intervals, the weight problem has increased dramatically. And I asked her exactly that question. "Well, what about obesity in other countries? Could it be, for example, that the curve in England or Europe has just shifted a little bit to the left?"
Now I asked her the question and she said it might be but no one knows. The data have not been gathered in these other countries in a way that would allow you to compare. So the supposition that this problem is so much worse in the U.S. is not based on actual data.
Regarding the "massive rise in numbers" and "doubling of number of obese" people etc., the foundation of our "obesity epidemic" and related hysteria, he said:
That’s an argument I get all the time because people say, "Well, there’s a huge change in a short period of time in the amount of obesity and that therefore it can’t be genetic." First of all, actually, that’s wrong. Genes in a population can change very rapidly as environment changes. In fact that’s the whole purpose of having variation in a population. As the environment changes in acute circumstances certain variants are selected and then predominate.
But setting that aside actually, I think people have a misconception about the role of environment in this because of misuse of statistics.
Let me explain what I mean. Obesity is distributed in the population. Some people are thin; some people are heavy; most people are in the middle; and you have a curve, a bell-shaped curve.
Now there’s a known phenomenon in epidemiology that when you have a normally distributed trait, meaning a bell-shaped curve, and a fixed threshold that defines a disease, if that average value shifts even a small amount, you get a disproportionate number of people who exceed the threshold.
So let me give you an analogy for IQ here and then I can tell you the actual data for weight. Imagine that 40 years ago the average IQ was 100 and there was a bell-shaped curve. Imagine now that our educational system improves and the bell-shaped curve shifts a little and the average IQ is now 105. With that you could imagine that the number of people who have an IQ greater than 140, so-called geniuses, might have doubled.
Now is it more useful to think about how our education is doing by saying, "average IQ increased 5 points" or "number of geniuses is doubled?" I think probably both are of interest but the former seems to me more informative.
Ok. So how does that analogize to weight? Over the time period that you’ve heard that the obesity rates have quote "doubled" or gone up by 70 percent, the average weight gain is: 7 to 10 pounds.
What?! All this hysteria over "obesity has DOUBLED!" and actually, it only means that the 'average' weight has increased by 7-10 lbs?! But remember that "bell shaped curve". When you move that entire bell-shape on the graph, the number of people it encompasses is huge, so yeah, mathematically, the number of people affected is sort of exponential.
Do you suppose there's a reason why we never hear, "Over the last X years, the average weight has increased 7-10lbs"? Instead of, "The number of obese people has DOUBLED!" Realistically, even a ONE pound shift in that gigantic population bell-curve would have moved a helluva lot of people over that line.
Now I’m not here to argue that that’s not important; it is important from a public health point of view. But if we then say that’s what environment contributes to differences in weight over that time frame, think about the fact that 7 to 10 pounds is almost nothing compared to the hundreds of pounds of difference in weight that you might see in any two people walking around the street today, both of whom essentially have unlimited access to calories.
Some of his comments from a couple years ago sounded similar to what I'm hearing about the current book 'Rethinking Thin'.
...the idea that you can change your weight voluntarily is one that the diet industry has a huge financial interest in. And so anybody can tune into infomercials telling you what you need to do to lose weight is fork over some money to their diet plan, eat it or not eat it and you’ll lose weight. And I don’t think that message and that marketing muscle can be easily counteracted by what scientists have to say about it.
Part of the problem is that that notion fits in with people’s intuition. And this gets very complicated. It’s a control issue; people want to feel like they’re in control of what they eat and what they weigh. But at a certain point you need to ask yourself, "How much am I really in control of it?" Now the problem for feeding is that the time frame with which this drive expresses itself is out weeks to months to actually years. And so by the time the drive exercises its power people don’t recognize it as a drive, and they simply imagine that it’s a loss of will power, not thinking of it as rather an expression of a basic biological drive.
...the available evidence would suggest that the vast majority of people who find themselves at a particular weight -- be it thin, medium, or heavy -- that’s pretty much their weight.
It’s that somehow people think this is something they ought to be able to control. And they accept all these other things you can’t control that are just who you are. But people are very loathe to believe that what they weigh is who they are.
On one of the early ideas about the Fatzi Regime's rush to label children based on their weight, he had a few comments as well:
(Ira Flatow: There was a news item that said New York’s Dept. of Education is considering putting kids weight on their report cards. Talk about stigmatizing kids.)
Dr. Jeffrey Friedman: Well, you know I would ask everybody, listen to what I have to say and then think about the things you’ll read in the press about obese people and then substitute any other human characteristic in there in place of obesity. You’d never get away with it; you’d get arrested or something. I mean, the things that get said!
I’ll give you a few examples. I was listening to Imus in the political campaign and they were talking about Bill Richardson as a possible vice-presidential candidate and a Newsweek reporter says Bill Richardson is being dismissed as a vice-presidential candidate because he’s too obese. What else could you have said and gotten away with? William Sensenbrenner, a congressman, is quoted in the New York Times as saying to the obese, "Look in the mirror because you’re the one to blame." I could go on and on. You have an opera singer fired because they’re too obese. And she correctly pointed out that this is the last bastion of stigmatization in the country.
And so when you read these things, think about it. Should they be putting a kid’s weight on the report card? I don’t know. Probably not.
And what about age? Plenty of us know people who ate anything and everything up to a certain point in their life, where they suddenly began gaining weight, which exponentially multiplied. Most people in lowcarb would consider it a gradual development of insulin resistance, based on the standard American diet (and I am referring to the USDA diet, not necessarily to chronic junk food). But might some of it relate to age? Or might those factors overlap? And if some of the "increase in obesity" is correlated with age, how might that affect the statistics? And if it affected the statistics, would that feed into the "obesity epidemic" hysteria?
Now, it’s a fact that people and animals get heavier as they age. We don’t understand why that is. It appears that leptin levels go up and some people lose leptin sensitivity as they age. We have no idea why. I’ll just digress to one other point that gets to your issue about the 7 to 10 lb. average weight gain. When you look at these data, they’re not corrected for age, And so, if the population is aging, that could contribute also to the perception that weight is changing.
He is not only blessedly aware of the flaws of the "BMI" as an evaluation, but of the issue related to weight and fitness. If you can take a person who is obese yet who plays three sports and is otherwise completely healthy--and I've known several people (and several teenagers) like this--then clearly obesity and health are not mutually opposing things.
The most important thing is what your general health is. If you’re overweight and not diabetic and not hypertensive and not hypercholesterolemic, then there’s a lot less to think about than if you’re diabetic and hypertensive and hypercholesterolemic. My own opinion, and this is just an opinion, is if you’re overweight and otherwise healthy, I would say try to be fit, try to eat a heart healthy diet and minimize your risk factors and try to enjoy yourself.
If you’re diabetic and have these other problems, then make your best effort to lose weight to the extent that it improves your health, do your best as you would for anything else.
Ira Flatow: So you said, you can be fit and overweight at the same time.
Dr. Jeffrey Friedman: Right.
I'd never actually thought about the 'obesity epidemic' being a sort of overhyped-hysteria. I mean, I think it's good that this increase is recognized, but let's get real, none of the authorities are recognizing the primary factors (sugar/carb overdose from an early age, and some researchers think as much as 50% of the population is probably sensitive to wheat/gluten and other primary foods that the official food pyramid insists be the dominant eating) that are massively contributing to weight gain and insulin resistance and eventual diabetes.
So since they are not even looking at the most fundamental cause for change, yet the hype is endless about this problem, what are we looking at here?
Years ago I did a study on media, for my own interest, and discovered that the news in general, on TV and in magazines, is not as much informative as predictive. Literally, when you look at it in retrospect, you actually see such a pattern that you start feeling like everything you were "officially told about" was part of some larger plan to "set up" a situation or presentation for something else that was planned ahead of time. Eventually, when I was watching the nightly news and writing down what was being said, I started asking myself, not, 'Is it true?' but rather, 'Why do 'they' (whomever 'they' is) want me to believe this?' which turned out to be a far more useful question.
So after seeing Dr. Friedman's comments, and this from a 2005 lecture no less!, about how the potential age increase in the population (which we know we have thanks to the baby boomer population) can increase the stats, and how the 7-10 lbs average increase on a bell curve would of course make a big change in the numbers, I started thinking, "Since they don't really want to look at the most legit science for solving it, and since the official recommendations are still corrupted by corporatism, then why is that they want us all to share the hysteria about this change in numbers?"
I think there are probably
-- (a) profitable drugs which will get approved sooner than they should because of this hysteria, and that's being relied on;
-- (b) legislations which will get passed that would never ever fly otherwise, but will get pushed through thanks to this hysteria, and that's being relied on;
-- and surely some things I haven't thought of yet.
It's not really paranoia or conspiracy thinking, it's just "precedent" from having observed news and related trends in the past and seen how it plays out in other subjects. I can't help but wonder if the 'hysteria' is being 'encouraged' behind the scenes because of the "power" it provides.
Remember the recent British report, which had US doctors involved as well, that first suggested radical "intervention" into the lives of children and families including taking kids from parents and even forcing gastric bypass surgery, they actually said OUTRIGHT that they didn't have the evidence to back their recommendations being what was right, but that the urgency of the situation demanded action. In other words: thanks to the hysteria, we no longer even have to prove something is a good idea before we radically invade the rights of the populace.
Maybe a little less hysteria and a few more people like Dr. Friedman would be useful. Not only for education and research, but for the actual political rights of individuals, children and families.