Via Ezra, I see that Paul Campos’ terrific article (which I’ve tried to link to before) has been taken out from behind the subscriber wall by TNR in time for New Year’s Resolution time. As he argues, if you’re interested in health, make a resolution to exercise regularly and eat a nutritious diet, not to lose weight:
Perhaps America’s most common New Year’s resolution is to lose weight. This week, as we push ourselves away from the increasingly guilty pleasures of the holiday table, we will be bombarded with ads imploring us to slim down with the help of health club memberships, exercise equipment, or the latest miracle diet. Yet, however common it may be, the resolution to lose weight appears to be a particularly ineffective one: The latest figures indicate that 65 percent of the adult population–more than 135 million Americans–is either “overweight” or “obese.” And government officials are increasingly eager to declare America’s burgeoning waistline the nation’s number-one public health problem. The Surgeon General’s recent Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity labels being fat an “epidemic” that kills upward of 300,000 Americans per year.
Such declarations lend our obsession with being thin a respectable medical justification. But are they accurate? A careful survey of medical literature reveals that the conventional wisdom about the health risks of fat is a grotesque distortion of a far more complicated story. Indeed, subject to exceptions for the most extreme cases, it’s not at all clear that being overweight is an independent health risk of any kind, let alone something that kills hundreds of thousands of Americans every year. While having a sedentary lifestyle or a lousy diet–both factors, of course, that can contribute to being overweight–do pose health risks, there’s virtually no evidence that being fat, in and of itself, is at all bad for you. In other words, while lifestyle is a good predictor of health, weight isn’t: A moderately active fat person is likely to be far healthier than someone who is svelte but sedentary. What’s worse, Americans’ (largely unsuccessful) efforts to make themselves thin through dieting and supplements are themselves a major cause of the ill health associated with being overweight–meaning that America’s war on fat is actually helping cause the very disease it is supposed to cure.
As Ezra notes, Campos also makes the obvious point that the conflation of “fat” and “unhealthy” is an ex post facto rationalization of aesthetic prejudices; it’s got nothing to do with actual evidence. (Needless to say, someone comes along in comments to bring up the Type 2 Diabetes argument.) His book is worth reading too, but the article is a useful summary.