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An Epidemic of Obesity Myths

It's been called as dangerous as terrorism and compared to the Black Death and a massive SARS outbreak. But what is the truth about obesity?

Overblown rhetoric about the "obesity epidemic" has itself reached epidemic proportions, sending the public and the media into a frenzy over the nation's waistline. Policy makers have responded with knee-jerk solutions, such as zoning restrictions on restaurants and convenience stores and taxes and warning labels on certain foods. Meanwhile, trial lawyers are strategizing to bring large-scale lawsuits against restaurants and food companies.

Sue Scale

Activists, politicians, bureaucrats, and lawyers rely on commonly repeated obesity statistics for their shock value. These figures include:

  • 400,000 Americans die every year as a result of obesity.
  • 65 percent of the country is overweight or obese.
  • Obesity costs Americans $117 billion a year.

In this report, the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF)—a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies, and consumers working together to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choice—exposes the major flaws and exaggerations in the obesity statistics and research repeated time and again.

While extreme obesity remains a genuine health risk, this report documents the extent to which many researchers and academics are actively questioning obesity hype. Relying on peer-reviewed publications and esteemed health experts, it outlines the scientific evidence rebutting obesity hysteria.

The 2004 edition of this report exposed many flaws in the widely publicized conclusion from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that excess weight kills 400,000 Americans a year. After months of intense pressure from CCF and top-notch reporting from Science magazine and The Wall Street Journal, the CDC admitted serious errors in its conclusion. In April 2005 a vastly superior study concluded that excess weight results in fewer than 26,000 deaths annually.

Critical media analysis and editorials from dozens of national newspapers followed. The Baltimore Sun called the CDC's 400,000-deaths statistic "The Chicken Little scare of 2004." Scientific American published a damning article titled "Obesity: An Overblown Epidemic?" It reported that "a growing number of dissenting researchers accuse government and medical authorities—as well as media—of misleading the public about the health consequences of rising body weights."

The latest edition of An Epidemic of Obesity Myths provides a timeline of the unraveling of the CDC's inflated 400,000-deaths statistic. It also brings new evidence to bear against many other obesity myths.

This report also details how the $46 billion weight-loss industry is helping to generate obesity hysteria to justify government insurance coverage for obesity drugs and treatments. The pharmaceutical industry in particular is putting its enormous resources behind research that grossly exaggerates the health risks and costs of being overweight, as well as its prevalence. Once they convince us of the "problem," drug manufacturers will peddle the (lucrative) "cure." An April 2005 article in The New York Times quoted Donna Ryan, an obesity researcher affiliated with Louisiana State University, saying: "Everybody is just foaming at the mouth to make money from obesity drugs."

This report is by no means intended to dismiss the genuine health risks of obesity for the heaviest individuals. Nonetheless, the public has been force-fed many obesity myths by agenda-driven special interests. Their success would invite regulation, legislation, and litigation—which can drive up the cost of food for consumers and limit selection. This report is intended to provide policymakers, the media, and the public with an easy-to-understand resource about the issue-before they fall prey to one of the greatest tall tales ever told.