Reading Is Good for You

Reader Charlie sent me a link to this article in the September 2007 Scientific American, in which professors from the Harvard School of Public Health argue that the idea of fat not being intrinsically unhealthy is “complete nonsense.” Specifically, it criticizes a 2005 paper by Katherine Flegal et al, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. People in the fat acceptance community know that paper well: it was the big one that said people in the overweight category have the lowest mortality rate, and suggested that previous estimates of the death toll of obesity were off by, oh, a couple or three hundred thousand a year.

For some reason, Scientific American decided it was time, two years after the study was published, to attack Flegal’s research. So they gave the boys at Harvard a jingle.

[Harvard professor Walter] Willett thinks this assertion is simply the latest recycling of the notion that Americans have been somehow duped about the risks of obesity. “About every 10 years this idea comes along that says it’s better to be overweight. And we have to stomp it out,” he says. Willett’s research has identified profound advantages to keeping weight down—even below the so-called healthy levels.

That’s the kind of quote that might have caused me to despair if I hadn’t remembered Willett’s name from Rethinking Thin. See, there’s a whole section in Kolata’s “The Fat Wars” chapter (pp. 201-209 in the hardcover) about how, after Flegal published that paper, the Harvard School of Public Health went apeshit. They even

held a seminar to refute it, making sure that newspaper reporters were not only invited to the meeting but able to watch it and listen on a Webcast if they could not attend in person. It was an exercise in attack science.

A seminar to refute one paper. Why on earth would they do that?

Well, The Harvard School of Public Health was home to one of the most important previous studies of the health effects of fat, a long-term one done on nurses. The nurses’ study showed that being fat carried a substantially increased mortality risk. But Flegal’s paper pretty much said, “You did it wrong and you got it wrong.”

So that’s pretty much what they said back to her in that seminar. And are now saying 2 years later in Scientific American.

The difference between the Scientific American article and Rethinking Thin is, Gina Kolata actually talked to Katherine Flegal and the other researchers with whom she published that 2005 paper. So, for instance, where the SA article just reports the Harvard boys’ assertion that Flegal’s study was fucked because she didn’t exclude smokers or the chronically ill, Kolata adds that A) Flegal deliberately didn’t, because she felt that previous studies (like, uh, the Harvard nurses’ study) had cherry-picked their subjects, and she wanted a group that was actually representative of the general population, and B) once she and her co-researchers had all that raw data,

They looked at the results both with and without current or former smokers and people who had chronic diseases. They posted the extensive analysis on the Internet — journals like the Journal of the American Medical Association allow for only so much additional data — and the results always came out the same: There was no mortality risk from being overweight and little from being obese, with the exception of the extremely obese, whose death risk was slightly higher.

Here’s how Scientific American presented that:

Flegal has acknowledged that she did not exclude the chronically ill from her study but argued in a follow-up report that she had done further analyses that showed it would not have made a difference. The disagreement turns on subtle statistical arguments. What is clear, however, is that Flegal’s paper is one of a handful that contradict many studies that support the conclusion that being overweight is harmful. Flegal is not necessarily wrong, but the preponderance of evidence clearly points in the other direction.

Do you see what just happened there? First, they make it seem as if Flegal acknowledged a mistake and scrambled to compensate for it, as opposed to acknowledging only that she deliberately included those populations and then analyzed the data both with and without them. Then, they bury the fact that she did it on purpose under the real point of this article: a gazillion obesity researchers can’t be wrong!

Seriously, that’s the entire argument the article makes. “Flegal is not necessarily wrong,” but boy, a whole lot of other studies found something else! Um, yeah, that was kind of the point of Flegal’s study. Flegal and David Williamson, an epidemiologist at the CDC, looked at previous studies, determined that those had gotten the statistics wrong, and designed a study that made a good faith effort to get the statistics right. Oddly enough, their conclusions turned out vastly different from those of previous studies. And two years later, this article is here to tell us Flegal, Williamson, et al, are wrong because… their conclusions are vastly different from those of previous studies.

Here’s Kolata again:

Flegal says she had a real education in the politics of obesity.

“Everyone thinks they already know the answer,” she says. “Anything that doesn’t fit, they have to explain it away or ignore it. All these people who just know weight loss is good for you. It’s just taken for granted regardless of the evidence.” She was not naive about her findings, she said. “I expected people would get perturbed, but I really didn’t expect the way they did it. All these erroneous so-called fact sheets. And these misinterpretations and making up things we’d said.”

Paints a slightly different picture than the Scientific American article, don’t it?

And how many people who read that article are going to know off the top of their heads that The Harvard School of Public Health A) did one of the studies Flegal and Williamson deemed egregiously flawed before beginning their research, and B) has apparently had a hate-on for them ever since their paper about that was published?

Not many, I’m guessing. But Gina Kolata took the time to look into Flegal and Williamson’s side of the story — like, you know, an actual journalist might — so I knew it off the top of my head, and now you know it, too. And it changes everything, doesn’t it? Knowing that, you can see quite clearly that the SA article isn’t actually saying Flegal’s wrong — in fact, the author takes pains not to say that — it’s just saying a whole lot of people in the obesity research community don’t agree with her. And I mean, duh. That’s worth writing about two years later?

So the Scientific American article did not remotely convince me that Flegal is wrong and fat is bad for you. It did, however, strongly reinforce one thing I’ve believed to be true for most of my life: reading is good for you.

26 thoughts on “Reading Is Good for You

  1. Thank you so much for writing about this! That article (and the others in that issue) made me want to scream and throw things.

  2. And how many of the studies saying obesity is bad for you are funded by the diet industry and big pharma? If you start out with the idea that fat is bad, then you are going to skew the results of any study you do by ignoring anything that says you’re wrong. Fueling the fire under the ‘obesity epidemic’ keeps the money flowing. After all, if diets really worked, the diet industry would eventually go out of business.
    I’m slowly working my way through the books about fat and learning more every day. Reading is good for you, you learn from every book, every article, every blog you read.

  3. I hadn’t seen the article yet. I’m glad I haven’t. There’s been enough going on lately in my life to be blasted with this without warning.

  4. This whole thing smells to me like Walter Willett threatened a lawsuit against SciAm for their Paul Campos article of 2005 unless his views were given “equal time.” Walter Willett, unfortunately, is a nutbag who gets to wear the “Harvard” label and as such gets taken a lot more seriously than he deserves. He’s notorious for believing that a BMI 21 or under, (with no lower limit specified) is the healthiest for everyone, which means that my boyfriend, who is thin enough to have protruding shoulder bones, would barely be slender enough to be considered “healthy.” Baaaah.

  5. my boyfriend, who is thin enough to have protruding shoulder bones, would barely be slender enough to be considered “healthy.”

    Wait, are you telling me some thin people date fat people? ON PURPOSE? ;)

  6. Wait, are you telling me some thin people date fat people? ON PURPOSE?

    Don’t tell Walter, K? I don’t think his fragile cranium could handle knowing that.

  7. Flegal works for the CDC? Because I wouldn’t necessarily trust anything coming from an agency of THIS government either – even if it DOES otherwise jibe with my worldview. The government has many spurious agendas, perhaps even more so than Big diet and Big pharma,which seem to coincide miraculously quite often….

    Not that i’m a conspiracy theorist… just saying.

  8. Madge, Katherine Flegal can be considered a CDC dissident. She has gotten into major hot water with DCD director Julie Gerberding, for example, about the CDC’s former assertion that 300,000, or 400,000 people, or whatever FUDdy numbers they’re running in any given month, are dying from being fat. So believe me, she doesn’t trust them either.

  9. Kate, I love you. I was so upset by that article until I came here and read this.

    And Meowser, my skinny fiance had a good laugh when I told him that according to the Harvard health department, he’s considered “overweight” at 6’0 and 165.

  10. Everytime I want to made a contribution to this blog I have to cover my mouth with duct tape. I’ve been morbidly obese and I’ve been thin, and I’ve been somewhere in between. If I want answers to questions, I ask the people that have BEEN THERE, not the people who write articles and have pre-conceived ideas on what it’s like to be fat, skinny, and what they feel is a good weight for them. Until the time comes, I will keep my mouth shut, ears open, and listen to the posts and comments.

  11. William Willard has been spreading fat hatred under the guise of science for decades now. His sctick is as outdated as his bow ties, that guy is a creep. And JoAnn Manson, another coven member has ties to several pharmacetical companies. Of course the truth needs to be stopped, less $ for pharma. Pharma has to come down even harder now that people have less money to spend on necessities. The scare tactics need to get much stronger in toucher economic times. William Williard should go back to his master in hell! I can’t even stand to look at a pic, there is just something about him that gives me the creeps.

    “Fat can be beautiful. Intolerance is ALWAYS ugly.”

  12. I loathe Willett and the Harvard cabal.

    When I was in school to become a dietititian, 2/3 of my professors were great admirers of his. One even consdered anorexia a “lifestyle choice” that would soon be proven to extend life in those who did it properly, like the “fasting for life extension” studies that were done in mice.

    Most of my classmates lapped this swill up with enthusiasm. Unfortunately for me, I already had an MS in Nutrition and five years of pharma industry experience. I asked too many questions and annoyed my professors to no end. I was not a popular student. ;)

  13. Brilliant, Kate! This is the type of information that needs to be shared and put out there. I’m so glad you have this blog. Keep ’em coming, you are fantastic!

  14. Damn, professors of nutrition don’t know the difference between very low calorie but nutrient maximized food intake and starving yourself to death? You could certainly question the body wisdom of the former, but the latter is undoubtedly lethal when left unchecked.

  15. Walter Willett is the second most cited author in clinical medicine. Scary. And if I had a BMI under 21, I’d be a walking skeleton! If Dr. Willett knew my real BMI, his head would probably explode.

  16. I’m studying for my MS in Nutrition currently and am daily amazed how much the field buys into the OBESITY EPIDEMIC and pays pathetic homage to the government and big pharma for their efforts to cure teh fat. One of my professors fully believed in the 2005 revise of the dietary guidelines aka ‘my pyramid’. and NONE of the compulsory textbooks or reading material i’ve encountered EVER question the safety of such products as splenda or aspartame. Because the FDA approved it. They love us and would never hurt us.
    It’s insane. And there’s good ole’ Walter Willett at the helm, being upheld as the pinnacle of health and scientific genius.

  17. Kate, did you see this news article, about how obesity may in part be caused by prenatal exposure to a virus? Note the establishment researchers peddling the “laws of physics” and “we don’t want fat people to stop feeling guilty” nonsense.

  18. Nobody, that article just made me lose my mind!

    “The cause for obesity in everyone is the same,” said Dr. Samuel Klein, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “You eat more calories than you burn up; You can’t get away from that basic law of physics.”

    See, y’all, it really IS that simple, a doctor said so! (huge eye roll)

  19. One even consdered anorexia a “lifestyle choice” that would soon be proven to extend life in those who did it properly, like the “fasting for life extension” studies that were done in mice.

    Ah. So I guess all those anorexics who die just aren’t doing it right.

    Holy fuck. And folk think us FA types are deluded.

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