Dear Fatties, have you heard? Experts say that ‘Being overweight – not just obese – kills millions a year’ and that ‘more than two billion adults and children suffer from weight-related health problems.’ Well, that’s what the Guardian wrote anyway, and why would they lie?
Being a global epidemic
In my earlier blog post ‘Can I be fat and confident?‘ I wrote about how harmful reporting on obesity as an ‘illness’ and an ‘epidemic’ can be for your psychological wellbeing when you are struggling with your weight:
Sometimes it feels as if the whole world is telling you that you’re getting it all wrong. Everything. You shop for clothes, the world tells you you’re too big. You watch a sitcom, the world tells you you’re a punchline. You read a newspaper, the world tells you you’re a global epidemic.
These days, I’m usually able to shrug it off, thinking ‘what do they know about my health.’ Sometimes I still get frustrated, because It. Isn’t. Helping.
This time, I decided to go on a little fact-checking mission of my own. And what I found was that the Guardian article is grossly overstating the issue.
So what is the issue?
The claim that ‘more than two billion adults and children suffer from weight-related health problems’ is not supported by the study it cites. The study was set up to systematically evaluate the trends in overweight and obesity between 1980 and 2015 among adults and children worldwide by analysing datasets from 195 different countries. The researchers also ‘assessed the burden of disease by deaths and disability-adjusted life-years, a composite metric computed as the sum of years lived with disability and years of life lost due to high BMI.’
In short, what they found was that ‘disability due to overweight or obesity accounts for 4.9% of disability adjusted life years from any cause worldwide.’ Or in other words: of all people living with an illness or disability, five percent is estimated to be a direct result of being overweight or obese.
Note that this isn’t the same as ‘five percent of all people are living with a an illness or disability as a direct result of being overweight or obese.’ So how does this extrapolate to the Guardian’s claim that ‘more than two billion adults and children suffering from weight-related health problems’?
Simply put: it doesn’t.
Nor does this claim seem to be based on any other verifiable source or even common sense: on a world population of 7.5 billion it would mean nearly one in three people suffers some kind of illness due to being overweight.
Being fat does not equal being sick
So where did they get this number? Well, they added the numbers, estimated in this study, of people worldwide with a BMI of 25-29 (defined as being ‘overweight’) and people worldwide with a BMI of 30 or higher (defined as ‘obese’), and voila!
But surely, having a BMI of 25 or higher, in and of itself, is not a health problem, right?
No, it isn’t!
Two points to emphasise here: One, being fat does not equal being sick. And secondly, BMI is not the holy grail in defining what constitutes a ‘healthy’ weight, as the Guardian, ironically, also published an article about on their website last week.
I’ll have those numbers with some perspective, please
The article also fails to put the titular ‘millions of deaths’ in perspective. According to the study, the estimated four million deaths related to ‘high BMI’ comes down to 7.1% of all deaths. The WHO puts the number of deaths due to being overweight or obese at 2.8 million. On a total of 56.4 million deaths in 2015, that would account for less than 5% of all deaths.
Still, 5% of all deaths being due to excess weight is nothing to sniff at. Particularly if these deaths could indeed be prevented. Even I would agree with that. But anyone who is serious about addressing the ‘disturbing global health crisis’ of ‘high BMI’ needs to stop the practice of scaremongering and stigmatising.
In social psychology and communication science it is widely known that scaring and shaming smokers into quitting doesn’t work. It is no different for fat people. Fat people read the newspaper too, and what they are reading is ‘you are killing yourself’ and ‘you are costing society millions in health care costs.’
Whose body is it anyway?
Ironically, the only significant health care costs I ever made were for psychotherapy. It wasn’t until addressing my inferiority complex that stemmed for a large part from being body-shamed since adolescence that I was able to lose weight.
Researchers, medical professionals, dieticians and other ‘health experts’ need to stop infantilising fat people as if they don’t know what’s good for them. Stop medicalising ‘high BMI’ as a disease straight up, without considering other factors. Start listening to what people who do indeed struggle with their weight, as indicated by themselves, really need.
Journalists can help by adding some much-needed perspective when they are reporting on ‘groundbreaking’ studies or quoting these supposed experts.
Until they do, you can help yourself by shrugging off these reports and trust that you know your health better than a statistician or journalist you’ve never met.