TCS Daily

What's the Matter with (Ar)Kansas?

By Paul Campos - August 10, 2005 12:00 AM

Last week, former President Clinton appeared on CNN to discuss what he called a major health crisis involving children and food. Was Clinton addressing the situation in Niger, where perhaps three million people, including 800,000 children, are in serious danger of starving to death? No: Clinton was referring to his home state of Arkansas, where according to the former president 38% of the state's children are either overweight or at risk of becoming so.

Clinton applauded Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee's initiative to limit severely the contents of school vending machines, and the hours during which students can access them. "The bottom line is that we've got too many kids too overweight," Clinton said. "And they're walking time bombs. They're going to get adult onset diabetes too early. They're going to have cardiovascular problems. And the system is really going to be stressed."

Clinton then went on to relate his own struggles with weight during his Arkansas childhood. "I was the fat band boy," he confessed. "When I was thirteen, I was 5'8" and weighed 185 pounds."

The Clinton interview represents an almost perfect microcosm of the hysteria that envelops public policy discussions regarding weight in America today. This hysteria is marked by several recurring features.

First, these discussions tend to take place in a fact-free environment. Consider Clinton's allusion to a supposed epidemic of Type II diabetes among children. This has become a central claim of the public health establishment's anti-fat warriors, and it has been repeated in literally hundreds of stories in the major media in the last couple of years.

Something you won't find in these stories are statistics regarding how many children actually have Type II diabetes. The reason is simple: Type II diabetes remains very rare among children and adolescents, despite an epidemic of claims to the contrary. For example, a recent study surveyed more than 700 extremely fat children, more than half of whom had a family history of Type II diabetes. In other words, the study's cohort represented the tiny slice of the childhood population most at risk for developing the illness. And how many cases did the researchers uncover in this highest-risk group? 50? 100? 200? Answer: exactly one.

What about the claim that frightening numbers of children are either overweight or at risk for becoming overweight? Our public health agencies define children as overweight if they are in the 95th percentile of weight for their height and age, and as at risk for becoming overweight if they are between the 85th and 95th percentile. If it occurs to you to ask how, given this definition, we could avoid always having precisely 15% of our children defined as either overweight or at risk for overweight, then you clearly don't have what it takes to run a public health agency.

Second, weakly supported claims about the dire health consequences of higher than average weight are followed by completely unsupported claims about how this or that governmental initiative will ameliorate this supposed crisis. One would think that, before advocating steps such as legally prohibiting schools from making certain foods available to their students, the proponents of such steps would have some evidence that fat kids eat more of those foods than thin kids. But one would be wrong: there is no such evidence.

For instance, a recent 34-nation study of more than 130,000 children found that fat children ate the fewest sweets, and that how many fruits, vegetables and soft drinks children consumed had no correlation with their weight. The food police tell us it's simply "common sense" that fat kids are fat because they eat lots of junk food, while thin kids are thin because they don't. But of course that's the difference between common sense and science: Science actually requires some data.

Third, the proponents of common sense often project their own neuroses and anxieties about weight onto the data that so spectacularly fails to support their claims. Bill Clinton assures us he no longer feels like the fat band boy, while Governor Huckabee recently lost nearly 100 pounds. Well good for them -- but do we want to allow politicians to turn their own battles of the bulge into phony morality plays, by investing those battles with a public health significance they don't really have?

Paul Campos is author of "The Diet Myth: Why America's Obsession with Weight Is Hazardous to Your Health.


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