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

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Studying Time: 7 minutes

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


The subject material of this submit falls underneath the heading of unusual/not stunning, I believe. For me, listening to the knowledge I’m about to share with you clarified some issues I already knew as a result of it lined up the main points neatly. Specifically, Huge 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, College 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).

When you subscribe to my e-newsletter, chances are you’ll do not forget that I wrote a bit about Flegal just a few months again, particularly referencing very strong 2005 and 2013 analysis papers she co-authored within the Journal of the American Medical Affiliation, which discovered that being “obese” 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 study 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 dangerous for you?”) of the “Upkeep Part” podcast. (She additionally has a brand new article in Annual Overview of Diet about her profession as a lady in analysis, which additionally addresses the knicker twisting).

The rising weight reduction drug market

Again to Flegal’s current discuss, which began with the blunt assertion that the medicalization of physique dimension (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 harm.

Flegal identified that lots of language about weight at this time is sensationalist, with “weight problems” is portrayed as essentially the most prevalent well being downside. Nonetheless, previous to the late 20th century “obese” and “weight problems” weren’t thought of a population-wide well being danger. Analysis within the Seventies and Eighties discovered that BMI was not associated to heart problems as soon as they thought of different components.

Then, within the Nineteen Nineties got here a transition to using prescription weight reduction medication for long-term therapy of “weight problems.” First got here Fen-Phen in 1992. In 1995, the Meals and Drug Administration permitted 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 cross, as a result of the Redux and Fen-Phen have been each withdrawn from the market in 1997 as a consequence of unfavourable cardiovascular uncomfortable side effects. Sibutramine (Meridia), was permitted in 1997 as a supposedly safer different to Fen-Phen and Redux, then withdrawn in 2010. Orlistat (Xenical) was permitted by FDA in 1999 and remains to be round even supposing the uncomfortable side effects embrace gasoline with oily anal discharge, and pressing or hard-to-control bowel actions. Enjoyable!

The medicalization of physique dimension

A spokesman for the pharmaceutical firm Roche mentioned “a part of our problem shifting 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 challenge, not as a well being challenge:

  • The IRS wouldn’t permit weight reduction therapy to be thought of as a medical deduction for tax functions.
  • Weight reduction medication have been comparatively ineffective and had a checkered historical past.
  • Medical 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 coated all ages and lots of subjects. The report used BMI to outline three grades of “obese” (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 an absence of scientific consensus on what this meant, precisely.

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

Lobbyists pushing “public well being”

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

Definitely, the drug firms 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 will 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 government board hadn’t agreed to it. However the assembly occurred, and a draft report written by IOTF turned 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 obtained two copies although she didn’t request them.) So, why launch the report early if it was going to come back out formally in just a few years anyway?

Poof…you’re now “obese”

Flegal mentioned on the identical time the WHO stuff was happening, the NIH Nationwide Coronary heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) committee was making ready new medical pointers for “obese 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.

Probably the most important results of these medical pointers was that the BMI cutoff for “obese” was lowered from 27 (28 for males) to 25. So in a single day, thousands and thousands of individuals turned “obese,” at the very least in line with the NIH. “Weight problems” was now outlined as BMI 30 or larger.

The NHLBI pointers obtained criticism, together with concern that the brand new pointers left the door open for widespread use of food regimen medication – and probably for weight stigma. Amongst different considerations have been that the rules didn’t take into consideration vital ethnic variations in weight that had been noticed (and debated) for years. Even former Surgeon Normal C. Everett Koop mentioned broadening the definition of obese “will confuse the general public and the medical neighborhood. It needlessly stigmatizes thousands and thousands of Individuals and lacks a strong scientific rational.”

A 1999 New York Occasions article identified that the brand new “obese” and “weight problems” reduce factors offered the pharmaceutical trade 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 Diet Examination Survey between 2013-2016 discovered that it’s not simply individuals who have BMIs within the “obese” or “overweight” class who’re attempting to drop extra pounds. Greater than 35 p.c of girls with BMIs within the “underweight” or “regular weight” classes tried to drop extra pounds within the earlier 12 months, as proven on this graph:

Formally labeling “weight problems” as a illness

Returning to our unique timeline, IOTF was working onerous to get the Facilities for Medicare & Medicaid Providers (CMS) to cease prohibiting protection for weight problems therapy. The Medicare Protection Handbook mentioned fairly clearly that “Weight problems itself can’t be thought of an sickness… Program cost might not be made for therapy of weight problems alone since this therapy isn’t cheap and mandatory for the analysis or therapy of sickness or harm.” That is important, as a result of medical insurance firms typically comply with 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” therapy in healthcare profit plans. In different phrases, about reimbursing healthcare suppliers for weight problems therapy. CDC adopted up by requesting that CMS take away the prohibitive language from the Medicare handbook, 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 all the time dangerous, and for some folks in some circumstances, it could truly be protecting.
  • Many consultants suppose “weight problems” — the physique effectively storing energy as fats — is a traditional adaptation to a set of circumstances (durations 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” might damage sufferers by amplifying stigma round weight and pushing folks into pointless and ineffective “remedies.”

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


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

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