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Is the so-called “weight problems epidemic” only a advertising and marketing technique?


Studying Time: 7 minutes

Set off Warning (TW): This posts mentions the “O” phrases quite a few instances.


The subject material of this publish falls underneath the heading of peculiar/not shocking, I feel. For me, listening to the data I’m about to share with you clarified some issues I already knew as a result of it lined up the small print neatly. Specifically, Large Pharma’s culpability within the so-called “weight problems epidemic.”

Final week, I spent a really satisfying morning attending a digital weight-inclusive public well being symposium placed on by the College of California, Berkeley, Faculty of Public Well being. To my nice delight, the primary speaker was Katherine Flegal, an epidemiologist and senior scientist on the Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention (CDC).

If you happen to subscribe to my publication, chances are you’ll keep in mind that I wrote a bit about Flegal just a few months again, particularly referencing very stable 2005 and 2013 analysis papers she co-authored within the Journal of the American Medical Affiliation, which discovered that being “chubby” was related to decrease mortality charges than being “regular weight.”

I additionally wrote about how these papers actually twisted the knickers of white male-dominated public well being establishments, and the way they went after her with a vengeance. You possibly can be taught extra about that particularly within the 2021 paper (“The weight problems wars and the training of a researcher: A private account”) Flegal wrote about her expertise, and in a wonderful episode (“Is being fats unhealthy for you?”) of the “Upkeep Section” podcast. (She additionally has a brand new article in Annual Assessment of Vitamin about her profession as a lady in analysis, which additionally addresses the knicker twisting).

who created obesity epidemic 2
The rising weight reduction drug market

Again to Flegal’s current discuss, which began with the blunt assertion that the medicalization of physique measurement (the so-called “weight problems epidemic,”) was largely a product of efforts to advertise weight reduction medication. Anti-fatness and weight stigma could also be an incidental results of these advertising and marketing makes an attempt. In different phrases, collateral injury.

Flegal identified that quite a lot of language about weight in the present day is sensationalist, with “weight problems” is portrayed as essentially the most prevalent well being downside. Nonetheless, previous to the late 20th century “chubby” and “weight problems” weren’t thought-about a population-wide well being threat. Analysis within the Nineteen Seventies and Nineteen Eighties discovered that BMI was not associated to heart problems as soon as they thought-about different elements.

Then, within the Nineteen Nineties got here a transition to using prescription weight reduction medication for long-term remedy of “weight problems.” First got here Fen-Phen in 1992. In 1995, the Meals and Drug Administration accepted dexfenfluramine (Redux), and simply 3 months later, docs have been writing 85,000 prescriptions per week. Flegal mentioned one securities analyst projected that gross sales of Redux would hit $1 billion in 5 years. That projection by no means got here to go, as a result of the Redux and Fen-Phen have been each withdrawn from the market in 1997 because of unfavorable cardiovascular unintended effects. Sibutramine (Meridia), was accepted in 1997 as a supposedly safer different to Fen-Phen and Redux, then withdrawn in 2010. Orlistat (Xenical) was accepted by FDA in 1999 and continues to be round even though the unintended effects embrace gasoline with oily anal discharge, and pressing or hard-to-control bowel actions. Enjoyable!

who created obesity epidemic 3
The medicalization of physique measurement

A spokesman for the pharmaceutical firm Roche mentioned “a part of our problem transferring ahead with Xenical is to ‘medicalize’ weight administration to physicians.” Why was it a “problem”? As a result of weight reduction was largely seen as a beauty situation, not as a well being situation:

  • The IRS wouldn’t permit weight reduction remedy to be thought-about as a medical deduction for tax functions.
  • Weight reduction medication have been comparatively ineffective and had a checkered historical past.
  • Medical health insurance didn’t cowl weight reduction remedies…and iff insurance coverage doesn’t cowl it, docs aren’t going to be reimbursed for it.

Round that very same time – in 1995 – the World Well being Group (WHO) revealed a report on physique measures. The report was greater than 400 pages lengthy. It took two years to place collectively, concerned dozens of scientists, and lined all ages and plenty of subjects. The report used BMI to outline three grades of “chubby” (be aware: not “weight problems”) and described the strategy used to determine cut-off factors as largely arbitrary. They did outline “weight problems” as a level of fats storage related to clearly elevated well being dangers – however famous that there was a scarcity of scientific consensus on what this meant, precisely.

Enter the Worldwide Weight problems Activity Pressure (IOTF), which was arrange as a charity within the UK in 1996 by professor Phillip James. By 2000, IOTF had 29 “weight problems professional” members from 19 totally different international locations. Whereas this group was a stand-alone entity and never a part of WHO, individuals generally thought that the group was, in truth a part of WHO. This after all gave it an unearned air of authority and status.

who created obesity epidemic 4
Lobbyists pushing “public well being”

IOTF’s mission was to tell the worlds’ governments concerning the urgency of the “weight problems” downside and to influence them that the time to behave was now. Sure, they have been a lobbying group and, await it…they obtained their cash from drug corporations. In a 2013 interview with the UK newspaper The Guardian, James mentioned drug corporations gave him checks for about 200,000 British kilos at a time. (That’s roughly the equal of 412,000 U.S. {dollars} in the present day.) James claims the drug corporations didn’t ask him a to push any particular agenda, nevertheless it’s naïve to assume that every one that cash didn’t affect his conduct.

Definitely, the drug corporations would profit from raised consciousness of the “weight problems downside,” as a result of they wanted to promote their weight reduction product.

In a 2008 article revealed within the Worldwide Journal of Weight problems, James wrote that the IOTF was established with the categorical objective of getting a particular session with WHO that may be “solely dedicated to weight problems.” WHO was truly reluctant to have a session on weight problems. It wasn’t a part of its biennial plan, and WHO’s govt board hadn’t agreed to it. However the assembly occurred, and a draft report written by IOTF grew to become the official working doc, with solely minor revisions. This report had new BMI classes. BMI of 25-30 was now “pre-obese”

WHO took the bizarre step of disseminating an interim model of the report in 1998. Then IOTF paid to have free copies despatched to well being ministers of all 192 UN international locations and to any others who requested it. (Flegal mentioned she acquired two copies despite the fact that she didn’t request them.) So, why launch the report early if it was going to return out formally in just a few years anyway?

who created obesity epidemic 5
Poof…you’re now “chubby”

Flegal mentioned on the identical time the WHO stuff was occurring, the NIH Nationwide Coronary heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) committee was getting ready new scientific tips for “chubby and weight problems.” 4 IOTF members (together with the chair) have been on that committee. Maybe this why the WHO report got here out early…to affect the NHBLI report.

Essentially the most important results of these scientific tips was that the BMI cutoff for “chubby” was lowered from 27 (28 for males) to 25. So in a single day, tens of millions of individuals grew to become “chubby,” no less than in line with the NIH. “Weight problems” was now outlined as BMI 30 or larger.

The NHLBI tips acquired criticism, together with concern that the brand new tips left the door open for widespread use of weight loss program medication – and doubtlessly for weight stigma. Amongst different considerations have been that the rules didn’t take note of vital ethnic variations in weight that had been noticed (and debated) for years. Even former Surgeon Common C. Everett Koop mentioned broadening the definition of chubby “will confuse the general public and the medical group. It needlessly stigmatizes tens of millions of Individuals and lacks a stable scientific rational.”

A 1999 New York Instances article identified that the brand new “chubby” and “weight problems” lower factors supplied the pharmaceutical business with “a booming new marketplace for fat burners for the overweight, virtually served to the businesses on a silver platter by the federal government.” However who precisely ended up taking these medication?

Knowledge gathered from the Nationwide Well being and Vitamin Examination Survey between 2013-2016 discovered that it’s not simply individuals who have BMIs within the “chubby” or “overweight” class who’re making an attempt to drop a few pounds. Greater than 35 % of girls with BMIs within the “underweight” or “regular weight” classes tried to drop a few pounds within the earlier yr, as proven on this graph:

who created obesity epidemic 6
Formally labeling “weight problems” as a illness

Returning to our authentic timeline, IOTF was working onerous to get the Facilities for Medicare & Medicaid Companies (CMS) to cease prohibiting protection for weight problems remedy. The Medicare Protection Guide mentioned fairly clearly that “Weight problems itself can’t be thought-about an sickness… Program fee is probably not made for remedy of weight problems alone since this remedy shouldn’t be cheap and obligatory for the analysis or remedy of sickness or harm.” That is important, as a result of medical insurance corporations usually observe the lead of Medicare’s suggestions.

In 2001, somebody who was a member of each IOTF and the CDC engineered a CDC assembly about together with “weight problems” remedy in healthcare profit plans. In different phrases, about reimbursing healthcare suppliers for weight problems remedy. CDC adopted up by requesting that CMS take away the prohibitive language from the Medicare guide, which CMS did in 2004.

Then, in 2013 the American Medical Affiliation acknowledged “weight problems” as a persistent illness. This flouted the suggestions of its Committee on Science and Public Well being that “weight problems” ought to not be formally labeled as a illness, for a number of causes.

  • “Weight problems” doesn’t match the definition of a medical illness. It has no signs, it’s not at all times dangerous, and for some individuals in some circumstances, it might truly be protecting.
  • Many specialists assume “weight problems” — the physique effectively storing energy as fats — is a standard adaptation to a set of circumstances (intervals of famine) that’s held true for a lot of human historical past. Our bodies that have a tendency towards “weight problems” aren’t diseased – they’re merely extra environment friendly than naturally lean our bodies.
  • Medicalizing “weight problems” may harm sufferers by amplifying stigma round weight and pushing individuals into pointless and ineffective “remedies.”

There’s a wonderful article in The Atlantic (“How weight problems grew to become a illness”) that discusses this and extra.


Carrie Dennett is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance author, intuitive consuming counselor, creator, and speaker. Her superpowers embrace busting vitamin myths and empowering girls to really feel higher of their our bodies and make meals decisions that assist pleasure, vitamin and well being.

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