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Is Being Fat Really a Problem?


Some people describe obesity in the U.S. as an epidemic. But academics involved in fat studies say we're suffering an epidemic of unwarranted fear of being overweight.

— Some people describe obesity in the U.S. as an epidemic. But academics involved in fat studies say we're suffering an epidemic of unwarranted fear of being overweight.

Esther Rothblum is a women's studies professor at San Diego State University and she is not thin. It might be rude to call her fat if it weren't for the fact that "fat" is an expression that she has come to embrace. She says just like gays and lesbians who call themselves "queer," some overweight people want to own the word that's used by people who discriminate against them.

"People have been doing activism in this area since the sixties," she said. "Since the civil rights movement and the gay liberation movement there was also a fat liberation movement."

Rothblum is editor of an anthology called the Fat Studies Reader. Her book has gained so much attention that it was reviewed by the New Yorker Magazine prior to even being published. The book comes out in October. Fat studies is part hard science, part social science and part political activism. The fat studies "philosophy" says that the health effects of being overweight have been greatly exaggerated. They say most Americans have thoroughly confused health concerns with aesthetic concerns. Rothblum says being thin has become a fad, if not an actual obsession.

"This is not just an obsession and focus that people have who are really fat. It's an obsession and focus that people have who are average weight and also who are very thin. We have a huge epidemic of eating disorders," Rothblum said.

There's no denying that Americans have become much heavier. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 34 percent of American adults are now obese. That means they have a body mass index of 30 or more. As recently as 1990, a typical state had fewer than 15 percent of its residents obese. But Paul Ernsberger emphasizes that those numbers describe weight, not health. Ernsberger is a med-school professor at Case Western Reserve University and he's one of the contributors to the Fat Studies Reader. He argues the body mass index now overshadows much more important health indicators, like blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

"I think most people believe the BMI is like the number one most important health indicator. I don't think most doctors really believe that," he said.

Ernsberger also likes to point out that Americans are now living longer than ever before.

"Every year, we set new records for life expectancy," Ernsberger said. "So, you know, we keep getting heavier and we keep getting healthier."

Last year the Archives of Internal Medicine examined the health records of more than 5,000 people. They found that half of overweight people and a third of obese people were metabolically healthy. Garth Jacobsen is a surgeon with UCSD's Center for Treatment of Obesity. He says the fact that life expectancy has increased, thanks to innovations in medical science, has little to do with America's expanding waistline. He adds that obesity is closely linked with many illnesses, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

"If there are clear associations between things like being overweight or obese, and if you lose the weight you don't have those problems anymore, why do you want to take six or seven medications. And even now we don't have a medication that will cure diabetes. Weight loss will cure diabetes," said Jacobsen.

New associations between obesity and health problems continue to come to light. Paul Thompson is a professor of neurology at UCLA. He has found that people in their seventies who are obese actually have eight percent less brain tissue than normal weight people, putting them at greater risk of Alzheimer's disease.

"If you eat fatty foods the blood vessels in your brain are getting thinner. The nutrients being brought to your brain, oxygen for example, are being depleted. Over a long period of time the brain tissue begins to die," said Thompson.

None of this means that being a little bit overweight is of great concern. Maintaining the body shape of a fit 20-year-old might make you feel young, but it doesn't necessarily mean you're healthier. Even so, Jacobsen says weight trends in America are a cause for concern.

"I think what we need to be careful of is the little bit overweight individuals are becoming obese," he said.

The National Center for Health Statistics shows that today, the number of obese people exceeds the number of simply overweight people in the U.S.

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