Weight Loss Fallacies and Fraudulent Science
Weight Loss May Still Be Needed
An obese topless man on a motorcycle. Original caption: “The plague of anorexia must be overcome” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If you’ve been struggling with weight loss, you may have been reassured by the recent news of a study suggesting that being overweight isn’t really such a big deal after all.
Several weeks into the new year, maybe you’ve already slipped in that New Year’s weight loss resolution and this news comes as a welcome relief.
Maybe now you can have that extra dessert without feeling guilty – maybe even toss on an extra scoop of ice cream. Yeah, that’s the ticket!
Now you already know where I’m going with this, don’t you? Yup, if it sounds too good to be true…
Garbage In, Garbage Out
Regardless of whether you need to lose weight or not, better nutrition and diet are a health priority for most Americans and those in other developed countries where processed and packaged “foods” dominate the food supply (see “Nutrition and Diet Are Your Best Medicine“).
But a majority of Americans are overweight or obese, so this latest study has attracted much attention by supposedly deflating the message that these folks need to lose weight to avoid a premature death.
Has that message – one we’ve been hearing for so many years now – been much ado about nothing? Do we not have to push away from the table after all?
Without spending a lot of time on a study that Harvard public health expert Dr. Walter Willet called utter “garbage”, it’s important to understand why you shouldn’t take undue comfort from such flawed science – especially if your need for weight loss has been an ongoing concern.
Here’s the bottom line: the widely-reported study compared overweight and obese participants to so-called “normal” participants with body mass indexes (BMIs) of 25 and under. But just as there are differences in the risk for disease between those with a BMI over 30 and those over 40, so too are there differences in those with BMIs under 25. The latter includes those with very low BMIs under 20 who are often underweight due to a disease or condition that leaves them at high risk of mortality.
Flawed Control Group
A better comparison than lumping everyone together with BMIs under 25 would have been to break that “normal” weight group into truly normal (maybe 20-25 BMIs) and “underweight” (BMIs under 20).
This would have removed those underweight individuals with increased mortality risk and made the comparison with truly “normal” weight individuals more meaningful.
In other words, the baseline control group that overweight and obese people were compared to was flawed by including severely underweight people. This inflated the death rate in the so-called “normal” baseline comparison group, making the death rate among overweight people look relatively better than it should. This encourages many in need of healthy weight loss to continue to procrastinate based on flawed science and the medical reporting that heralds it.
It probably is true that those with a BMI of 25-27 or even up to 30 probably don’t need to worry much about weight loss, but it really depends more on the distribution of their weight and their body fat content. Body builders with BMIs way over 30 also needn’t worry about weight loss because their weight is mostly muscle that’s protective.
Meanwhile, those with BMIs under 25 have plenty to worry about if they’re sporting a pot belly (see “Skinny-Fat” discussion in Part 2 of this series of posts).
Waist-to-hip ratio is a much better indicator of disease risk and one’s need for weight loss, but it’s not commonly measured in doctor’s offices because it takes more time to do so. It’s not unlike blood pressure, which should be taken in both arms and only after the patient has rested for 5-10 minutes. It should then be repeated before any blood pressure pressure medications are prescribed. This also seldom occurs in actual medical practice.
We settle for these shoddy shortcuts in medical practice – amply detailed in Our Healthcare Sucks – and wonder why our results are so poor.
There’s certainly legitimate concern about the vested interests of the huge weight loss and pharmaceutical industries in perpetuating our cultural obsession with body weight, as noted in this Psychology Today article.
What’s actually occurring in our population, however, is a divergence to the extremes of underweight and morbid obesity, as reported in this Medical News Today story. The former is more a consequence of wasting diseases that have already set in, while the latter raises the risk of premature death by 29%, according to even the lax standards of this latest research (it’d be higher if the baseline were adjusted as suggested above).
BMI is at best another crude measure like solo blood pressure readings. They can both prove meaningless without follow-up measurements to confirm or refute whether there’s cause for concern – and whether weight loss is a viable prevention priority for both.
But neither is this bogus analysis that compares overweight individuals with normal and underweight individuals any real comfort for the overweight. Many of those who are overweight have excess visceral belly fat, or pot bellies.
It used to be thought that excess body fat was just passively stored in the body. More recent research has proven, however, that visceral belly fat functions like an active organ – emitting dangerous disease-promoting cytokine proteins that promote inflammation and damage nearby vital organs, including the heart.
If that’s you, forget all these pseudo-scientific studies that offer false comfort and start losing what I call the “plot belly”. Just don’t fall for the “lose belly fat fast” promotions we’re constantly barraged with (see “Weight Loss: Too Much, Too Fast Increases Disease Risk“).
It’s not that hard. Thankfully, it’s usually the first to go when you lose even a little excess weight.
Why not get started this weekend, so when you return for Part 2 of this series of posts on Monday (you will return, won’t you?), you’ll feel really good about yourself?
Walk a little further, climb a few extra stairs, eat a little less – it ain’t rocket science…
Be sure to return for Part 2 – “Belly Fat – The Enemy Within”
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