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One Heavy Mistake

Obesity miscalculations have fortified negative stereotypes

By Rebecca J. R. steinberg

Disappearing brackets, one too many zeroes, or a misplaced decimal point: Few are immune to making the occasional careless math mistake. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently admitted to their own arithmetic gaffe. Rather than 400,000 Americans meeting their death at the hands of obesity, the figure is actually far lower, with many experts placing it at approximately a quarter of the previously-estimated number.

Oops.

But this is not the final question on a problem set or an unfair split of last night’s dinner check; this figure has served as basis for the urgency and panic surrounding the obesity plague that has descended on the American population as of late. What’s worse, due to the estimate’s magnitude, obesity has frequently been branded as a near equal source of preventable deaths as tobacco use. Not only is CDC’s miscalculation irresponsible, but by equating smoking with obesity it has fueled the negative and degrading attitude surrounding this ballooning national health concern.

Obesity, somewhat arbitrarily defined by a body mass index above 30, is a grave health hazard that continues to ravage the American population, despite widespread encouragement of healthier eating habits and moderate exercise. An increased risk for coronary heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, breathing problems, incontinence and birth defects are only the beginning of the extensive list of related health disturbances provided by the Department of Health and Human Services. While prevention and management strategies to combat obesity must remain a national health priority regardless of the exact number of obesity-caused deaths per year, a change in numbers translates into a change in policy, for the nature and funding of obesity-fighting measures is directly contingent on the size of the affected population. It is for this reason that CDC’s inaccuracy has attracted considerable attention; there are only so many financial and cognitive resources to be divided amongst the plethora of health issues afflicting the public. Thus, a reconfigured treatment plan is in order. This is not to trivialize the suffering and deaths attributed to obesity, but a step needed to best meet the overall health needs of each and every citizen.

“400,000 deaths per year” has been the anthem of those calling for more governmental funding in fighting obesity. Their intentions are sound; a full-fledged attack on unhealthy cafeteria food, inactive children and parents alike and under-funded recreational facilities and educational programs is exactly what is in order. However, their means have been less steady than their (hopeful) ends. By using CDC’s flawed estimate as justification in comparing obesity to smoking, the negative mind-set surrounding obesity has been further instilled in the mass culture. Chubbiness is still implicitly perceived as an external sign of an internal flaw (a lack of self-control) and indicative of further character weaknesses; obese people are perceived as less intelligent, outgoing and competent. Even if smoking is occasionally viewed as an indication of dependence and lack of self-discipline, the similarities end there. Obesity is a far more complicated condition that results from the interplay of genetics, socio-cultural cues and environmental factors. While someone may consciously take up smoking, few if any consciously decide to attain that coveted cool state of morbid obesity. One does not inhale a Twinkie, thus resigning oneself to the health hazards that accompany obesity, the way one picks up and inhales a Marlboro.

While it is necessary to inform the public on the health hazards that increase in proportion with that number on the scale, it is just as valuable to emphasize the health benefits of maintaining a healthy weight. This shift from disapproval to encouragement would help blunt the stigma of obesity and reshape the distorted lens through which the general public often views fat and food in general. CDC will soon release the true rate of mortality, but no matter its order of magnitude, we must remember that a healthy lifestyle begins with a healthy attitude. It isn’t just about measuring up to the Food Guide Pyramid, or bypassing the elevator for the stairs. It’s all about being proud of one’s progress rather than ashamed of one’s current waist size.

Rebecca J. R. Steinberg ’07, a Crimson editorial editor, is a psychology concentrator in Quincy House.

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