At the Risk of Getting Too Political

In Weight-Loss Maintenance on July 20, 2011 at 9:28 am

At Big Fat Blog, from time to time, political arguments erupt in the comments, and then shut down quickly, over which US political party is the most size accepting.   The arguments are quashed, generally, by the Libertarians who point out that both the left and the right view fat as a moral issue.  The right sees obesity as a failing of personal responsibility, whereas the left sees it as metaphor and consequence of society’s greed and overconsumption.  The Libertarians then make an unsubtle marketing plea, since they see themselves as the original torch bearers (and remain more consistent and stalwart than the upstart tea partiers) of “keep government out of our lives.”

Well, I am on an email list for an online, left-leaning news analysis publication called Truthout, and, truth be told, I don’t click through very often.  But, for obvious reasons, this article, Are Chemicals Making us Fat?, caught my eye.   Could it be that the left is coming ‘round?  

It’s a rather simplistic article, written as though this conversation is brand-spanking new “Researchers have called these chemicals endocrine disruptors. . . But a new, more relevant term for these chemicals has emerged. They are now also called obesogens.”

Has emerged?  Bruce Blumberg of the University of California at Irvine takes credit for coining the term obesogen, and his research using that word seems to date back to the mid-2000s, but the conversation regarding endocrine disruptors and obesity has been going on for decades.  (Our conversation at this blog, which I extended not once, not twice, but three times, is one of the most fun conversations on the topic.)

I am uncomfortable with the Truthout article for a number of reasons.  I don’t like how it conflates and confuses obesity and diabetes, as though they are conjoined twins.  This is a common practice now, and a panic-laden term “diabesity” has “emerged” to express this concept.  Generally, if blame is assigned, the arrow indicates that obesity causes diabetes, (though that assumption is regularly challenged).  In fact, if you type into Google the phrase “diabetes causes obesity” the default search at the top of the pop-up list is “obesity causes diabetes,” as though Google feels obligated to correct you. 

The Truthout article also crosses my comfort threshold with this alarming and unfootnoted statement “For the first time in 200 years, children now have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, primarily due to obesity and diabetes.”  No doubt this is the Olshansky et. al. article being overstated and misused once again.   This sentiment has now entered the “common wisdom,” if you count panic as an act of wisdom

The article goes on to make a number of other unfootnoted statements of fact in order to pave the way for its conclusion.   I suppose this is to be expected in a commentary piece, but is it also to be forgiven?  I know I don’t forgive Fox News for its unsupported statements of “fact” which then draw its commentators to conclusions that I find unsupportable. 

In the Truthout essay, the author, Dr. Brian Moench, reaches the following conclusion:

Our regulatory agencies and even the courts are still playing by a rule book written by the tobacco industry, which states that we must always wait for unequivocal proof of damage before we can regulate. Of course, there is never unequivocal proof, more study is always needed. But that is not an excuse to not act on the evidence that we already have.

Take a look in the mirror and at your glucometer. If you don’t like what you see, you may want to reconsider whether you support the anti-regulation/personal accountability fever sweeping over the country with the new Congress. Whether you can ever be thin again or get over your diabetes may be more a matter of what happens in Congress than what happens on your treadmill.

Hmmmmm.  I have all kinds of thoughts and mixed feelings about this.  The floor is open.

  1. Yeah, Dr. Brian Moench (hereafter known as Dr BM, how fitting) isn’t taking into consideration genetics at all – if you have relatives with type 2 diabetes, your chances of ending up with type 2 diabetes increase exponentially. Yes, those “obesogen” additives could make it happen sooner, but so could living a stressful life, or any other of a number of factors. Dr BM isn’t looking at all the thin people with t2d or all the fat people who don’t have t2d, he’s jumping on the bandwagon, years after the parade left the staging area, with what he thinks is news. Hate to inform him, we’ve seen it before, it’s not all that “new” and it’s not something that government regulation is going to “cure”.

  2. Actually, although I’m proudly left of centre (that means a raving Marxist maniac in the eyes of many Americans, though I would call myself a social democrat) at this particular moment in time, I’m less concerned about the political aspect of weight and more apt to be stuck on those who brandish the latest scientific study as being the last and best word on obesity.

    Allow me to rant about the doctor who just commented on my most recent blog post who said that the BMI has 99.9% accuracy with respect to health and that to criticize the BMI is just the kind of cop-out fatties use to excuse their own high number (my rendition of his song, not his words literally).

    The left and the right are both mouthpieces for the war on obesity. They may place the blame on different sources, but, as you point out, the panic is the same, as well as the constant return to “scientific” sources that show their age and their warts very fast. Funny thing is, since roundly criticized studies like Olshansky et al. uphold the current attitude of panic, they still remain the gold standard in much of the weight-loss world.

  3. “This sentiment has now entered the “common wisdom,” if you count panic as an act of wisdom.”

    All I want to say is that this is one of the best lines I’ve seen!

  4. I’ve got to say, “Whether you can ever be thin again or get over your diabetes may be more a matter of what happens in Congress than what happens on your treadmill” has got to be one of the most bull@#$% statements I’ve ever seen.

    • Agreed. Public health policy makers should be concerned about infectious disease and the safety of the food supply; perhaps even on the structure of towns and cities (i.e. requiring sidewalks and bike lanes). They have no business blaming individuals for their health problems and then attempting to nanny-state them away.

      • Am I understanding you correctly that you think endocrine disruptors such as BPA should *not* be regulated, then? Why not? While they’re not the end-all, be-all for sure – as vesta44 pointed out, genetics are a huge part of the equation* – I think the evidence has accumulated to the point where it’s hard to ignore that endocrine disruptors are contributing to the so-called “obesity epidemic.” So why *not* regulate them? If they’re not doing much, if any, good, and they’re doing demonstrable harm – why leave them unrestricted?

        *Actually, I no longer think it’s genetics OR obesogens, but rather genetics AND obesogens. I’ve been mulling this over for a while, and reading Dr. Sharma’s review of the Rokholm et al. study in PLoS One cinched it for me. The genetics have always been there, and there have always been overweight and obese people in the population, but we seem to be shifting further up the BMI spectrum in the last 40-50 years (certainly I see it in my own family and friends). Endocrine disruptors have come out in this time period, but yet not everyone is obese. Rokholm et al’s study showing that genetic effects on obesity are stronger in an obesogenic environment (plus the other study Dr. Sharma reviewed, wherein only children with a higher BMI are affected by “risk factors” e.g., hours of TV watching) are the keys, I believe: endocrine disruptors are selectively affecting those with genetic predispositions towards obesity, shifting them further up the BMI spectrum than they would have been otherwise, contributing to what so many are rushing to call the “obesity epidemic.”

  5. I think it’s less about how much you weigh and more about how much sugar you eat. It’s been my experience that my health and my sugar consumption are definitely related and not in a good way. That includes starchy foods that become sugar when digested, like bread or pasta. Has anyone done a study to see whether heavier people who don’t eat many sugary/starchy foods have the same chance of developing diabetes as heavier people who do eat a lot of those foods?

    • I understand where you’re coming from with this, but I’m not sure you’re right. I’ve been fat since childhood, the daughter of a fat diabetic who was also fat since childhood. My dad was diagnosed with diabetes when he was around my age; early forties. I’m not even “prediabetic.” Both of us have had similar diets; we both love pasta and we’re both (usually) moderate drinkers. Alcohol is pure sugar, as I’m sure you know.

      The differences between his habits and mine? I’ve been a lot more physically active throughout my life, and my diet has more fiber and mucronutrients. I eat less meat and more vegetables than he did/does. Honestly, I could live on carbs, vegetables, cheese and nuts and when I’m by myself I almost do. I’ve always had vegetarian tendencies, and not in a low carb way.

      Now, it’s possible that I just didn’t inherit his diabetes. It doesn’t run on the other side of the family. However, my build is from his side, and the diabetes tends to come along with it. I suspect that it’s the physical activity that has prevented it. Even now, when I’m off the wagon with the regular exercise, I’m walking probably 5-10 miles a week and I live in a 3rd floor walkup. I’m just not naturally a sedentary person. Being still all the time drives me nuts.

      I know there are people with such a strong predisposition for diabetes that they get it even with regular exercise. However, the diabetes that runs in my family seems to be on the mild side, and maybe I’m holding it off just by failing to be a complete lazy-ass. Seems to have worked so far.

      • I think you may both be right on this. What I believe is that a) the human body can thrive on a wide variety of diets, and b) different diets may work better for different people.

        I’ve found that for myself, I do better with more fat and meat than I was inclined to eat in years past, plus lots of fruits and veggies and fewer grains. Not a lot of processed foods. I’ve gone to full-fat dairy and more beef (grass-fed). I tried going vegetarian many times and never felt all that great on it, but am seeing better health this way. But this is for my particular body, my particular health issues. I know many people who thrive on vegetarian and higher-carb diets.

        What I don’t think is that a one-size-fits-all diet prescription works for everyone, whether it’s vegan or Atkins or anything in between. What often happens, though, is that people find the way that works for them and decide to become evangelists. (Not accusing anyone here of that.)

    • Both my anecdotal experiences and research suggests this is not the case. In my family, my father always ate healthier (more vegetables, less processed foods, less sugar and fat) than my mother, yet my father was pre-diabetic while my mother’s blood sugar levels are fine. Even more so, my mother’s sister always ate far healthier, exercised more, and weighed far less than both my mother and my father – yet she has full diabetes.

      As for the research, the title of this page, which reviews a wide, peer-reviewed literature base, says it all: You did NOT eat your way to diabetes!.

  6. Hi Debra! I looked for an email address to ask this question since its not a direct comment on this blog post, but couldn’t find one so I apologize. I recently lost 53 pounds, and reallly want to maintain. I feel like I am just really beginning the journey now. Before I focused on eating to lose weight, now I want to focus on eating for health and maintaining. I currently run 5 days a week which should help my weight. Your blog really has given me some great info but I need more! Do you have any recommended sources or books for nutrition or even wieght maintenance? Whenever I search I just pull up the latest fat diet which isn’t really what I am after. I want to gain a better understanding of nutrition so I can make better food choices, and I also want to understand better about my health and hormone system. I have read Real Food by Nina Plank which was interesting.

  7. Wow, great conversation.

    With regard to sugar v. obesogens, I’m with Viajera. The movement of the center of the bell curve — our communal rise in average weight — corresponds with the advent and increase in obesogens. We ate lots of sugar and simple starches in the early 1960s. Homemade pies, ice cream, bread, bread and more bread (and forget about “whole grain” — wasn’t even in our vocabulary), and potatoes hadn’t been demonized as evil “white” food, so we ate them at nearly every lunch and dinner. But now these sugars are mixed with obesogens, processed with obesogens, microwaved with obesogens, etc.

    On the other hand, some research says we are eating more sugars too, and likely thanks to that covert and ubiquitous additive HFCS, which we just don’t “measure” with our tastebuds as accurately as good old sucrose.

    I think we’re right to be thoughtfully considering what to do about obesogens. How far to go with regulation? Clarity in labelling may be all we can demand now. I don’t think a simple number on plastics, for example, is sufficient for most consumers. How many people know the difference between a 1, 2 and 7? If they know those, do they know their 3, 4 or other numbers? I don’t know if we’re at a place to ban anything, but cool heads need to stay ahead of this issue, and over-heated terms like “nanny state” make me as uncomfortable as Dr. BM’s left-leaning rhetoric. Protecting our common welfare is a legit function of government by the people for the people.

  8. Debra, with respect, I don’t think the term “nanny state” is overheated when it comes to some of the policies that are being discussed right now; for example, taking children away from their parents because their BMI is past some arbitrary level.

  9. In that particular case, it may be the perfect descriptor! The state is trying to nanny us and our children. And if we didn’t hear the word so often (in the context of seat belts, motorcycle helmets, car emissions, gun regulations, etc.), it would have integrity and impact when used to make the argument against that ridiculous suggestion. But it has lost its integrity. It is not a precise and powerful phrase that is used carefully. It’s a mosquito buzz phrase that Libertarians use to bind with the political right and ridicule the left. Moreover, removing children from their parents is not what this blog post is about, anyway. It’s about regulating obesogens. It’s a very different animal requiring careful thinking. Buzz phrases don’t help, nor does Dr. BM’s open-ended scare mongering.

  10. It’s a mosquito buzz phrase that Libertarians use to bind with the political right and ridicule the left.

    Huh. I would have thought it would be the perfect phrase to describe the Republicans’ position on abortion, too. Oh well. I usually think of myself as a liberal (in the American sense, anyway), but maybe I do have some libertarian in me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: