Tuesday, March 4, 2008

et tu, Eric Oliver?

Reading the latest CBS News Story on Fat out of London today is an extreme experiment in "good cop, bad cop" for readers.

For those of you unfamiliar with the technique (in other words, those of you who've never seen an American television show or movie involving the police), the "bad cop" starts off aggressive in order to attempt to intimidate the suspect. In this case, the bete noir of baby flavoured donuts bludgeons the reader with a one-two combination of visual (a disembodied fat stomach over too-small trousers) and tried-but-untrue fattism:

"Go on, have another doughnut. "

Then the good cop steps in. His job is to befriend the suspect, earn their trust, and invite confidence.

"The obesity epidemic has absolutely been exaggerated," said Dr. Vincent Marks, emeritus professor of clinical biochemistry at the University of Surrey. "

There's some back and forth for a while, with the good cop coming out ahead as Eric Oliver, author of the most excellent "Fat Politics." His book was one of the first I read when I got into FA, so I got ready for the white knight to run to the rescue. Sure enough:

"Blaming obesity for diabetes and heart attacks, Oliver says, is like blaming lung cancer on bad breath rather than on smoking. Excess weight may actually be a red herring, Oliver says, since other factors like exercise, diet or genetic predispositions towards diseases are harder to measure than weight. "

All right! Go Eric Oliver!

It gets even better, of course, now that the good cop is on a roll.

"Yet the 1997 Geneva consultation was held jointly with the International Obesity Task Force, an advocacy group whose self-described mission is "to inform the world about the urgency of the (obesity) problem." According to the task force's most recent available annual report, more than 70 percent of their funding came from Abbott Laboratories and F. Hoffman La-Roche, companies which make top-selling anti-fat pills. "

Finally, a mainstream news source is catching on to the plethora of conflict-of-interest that exists in the world of obesity research. What an excellent bit of fact to cast doubt on the legitimacy of one of the more institutionalized anti-fat organizations. Bravo to CBS for bringing it out into the light of day.

But wait, although 70 percent of the article is pure refreshing gold, the bad cop isn't quite done yet. In a surprise move, the good cop switches roles and leaves the FA reader reeling from the let-down:

""The vast majority of people who get labeled under the obesity epidemic are well under 300 pounds and probably are not facing big health consequences," Oliver said. "It's the morbidly obese people who should be worried." "

This from the author of such a great book on fat bigotry? Ouch.

So sum-up, if you ignore the first two paragraphs and the last two paragraphs, the information in this article is fantastic. Getting through the sanity-watchers barricade to get there, however, is a slog.

Call me pessimistic, or better yet lugubrious (since it's one of my favorite words), but the hasty scramble for legitimization by Eric Oliver in the closing sentence, the rush to assure the reader that he's not talking about the really fat (which, by his definition, includes me), that it's ok to target them with all the institutionalized social hate and government programs as long as you don't hate the middlin' fatties...that's disappointing. I really, really hope he was misquoted or taken out of context. That's always a possibility to keep in mind. I've been horribly misquoted in interviews before, to the point where I had to wince and count to ten before calling the editor. Could Oliver really be suggesting that only "kinda fat" people are really being misrepresented?

Say it ain't so.....


Twistie said...

I, too, hope Mr. Oliver was misquoted. I know when my husband ran for the local city council, the local newspaper repeatedly said he'd said things that made him sound like a complete whacko. I knew he hadn't said these things, because I was very much there when he didn't say them.

Let's hope it was misquoting. It's hard to believe that a man who has crusaded so strongly for FA would have said that.

Meowser said...

OK, if you "should be worried," exactly what are you supposed to do about it? We've already established that you can't "eat" your way into a 300-pound body (or even a 200-pound body) if you are not genetically predisposed to be that size. Therefore, unless you are a rare exception, you probably cannot "un-eat" your way to a more "acceptable" size, either. Not permanently, anyway. Although I'm sure you could have lots of "fun" torturing yourself with bouts of temporary weight loss.

Even if he considers 200 pounds to be an "acceptable" weight for a woman -- and that in itself is a pretty radical view to be expressed in the popular media -- very, very, very few women have ever managed to lose 100 pounds through diet and exercise alone and keep them off permanently.

And even if diet and exercise could get 30 pounds off you, at 300, you'd still weigh 270, which is still "morbidly obese." So why is nobody asking that crucial followup question -- "given the fact that almost nobody, and especially not middle-aged women, can diet off 100 pounds permanently and weight-loss surgery has an unacceptably high death and complication rate, what are 'morbidly obese' people supposed to do about it if they're 'worried' and not one of the few 'lucky losers'?"

Harpy said...

I'm hoping for a misquote, too.

There are plenty of obesity researchers and investigators who acknowledge that the "morbidly obese" category does seem to actually carry a slightly higher risk of various conditions...but point out that it's still a pretty low risk overall. The hand-wringing fat-haters make it seem like being any kind of fat but especially Really Really Fat is equivalent to smoking a pack a day. It's just not. Even the most "morbidly obese" woman still has a life expectancy greater than that of nearly all men, but you don't see people going around insisting men take female hormones and get gender reassignment surgery so they can be "healthier". (I mean, that'd be about as useful as gastric bypass, right?)

Dr Paul Ernsberger (researches diabetes and obesity, is quoted in Oliver and Campos's writing) reckons the slightly raised poor health risks of the very fat can well be explained by yo-yo-dieting/weight cycling, and the stress and stigma they face daily. If someone could manage to put together a study of fat people who'd never dieted and had good self-esteem, they'd find no notable health risks - but try finding enough fat people for that! This is also discussed in Glen Gaesser's 'Big Fat Lies' book.

And again, no one knows how to make naturally-fat people "normal" weight. Gina Kolata's 'Rethinking Thin' has a discussion of how fat people who've become thin (no matter how "sensibly" they did it) have the metabolic profile of a starving person, not a healthy naturally thin person. Starving's definitely not healthy.

Anonymous said...

I seriously doubt Eric was misquoted. His book is filled with misinformation and was poorly researched on obesity science and nutrition. I would never ever recommend it to anyone. He is not a doctor or medical professional. He is not an advocate of fat people. He is about politics.
Fat is not a measure of behavior or health -- and it doesn't matter if you weigh 200 or 400 pounds. No one dies of fat. Period. We need to love our bodies whatever size we come in.

Anonymous said...

I don't think he was misquoted, as the content is consistent with his book, but I'm sure it's out of context.