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An Epidemic of Obesity Myths
From Science To Activism

Before Olshansky's article was published, the Center for Consumer Freedom set out to determine the veracity of Dr. Klish's initial claim about this generation of children living shorter lifespans than their parents. At that point, dozens of activists, politicians, researchers, and even respected public health officials had already taken Klish's statement and run with it. In March of 2004, Surgeon General Richard Carmona told Congress: "Because of the increasing rates of obesity, unhealthy eating habits, and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents."

But Carmona's spokesman told the Center for Consumer Freedom: "I don't think that there is a study somewhere that life expectancy will shrink if we don't do this. I think that it was just based on some literature that he had read … It was an amalgamation of the information he has been reading."

In the fall of 2004, the Department of Agriculture's Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services told a Congressional subcommittee that "this may be the first generation of children not to live as long as their parents as a direct result of [childhood obesity]." His spokesman did not return follow-up calls after telling the Center for Consumer Freedom in an initial conversation that he could not find any research to substantiate this claim.

In the summer of 2004, when TIME magazine and ABC News co-hosted a highly publicized and decidedly one-sided conference on obesity, the head of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) began the proceedings by saying: "If we don't do something to reverse these trends, we will raise the first generation of Americans to live sicker and die younger than their parents." Announcing an initiative to fight childhood obesity, President Bill Clinton said: "For the first time in American history, our current generation of children could live shorter lives than their parents." Similarly, National Governors Association chairman Mike Huckabee announced his "Healthy America" initiative citing the study.

A similar statement showed up in a report from the RWJF-funded Trust for America's Health, titled "F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing in America." The first page of the proposal reads: "many experts … predict that the nation's younger generation may be the first in American history to live sicker and shorter lives than their parents." When asked if they could name their "many experts," the group cited three: the Surgeon General, Klish, and "someone" at the CDC. (After a day of searching all the CDC could produce was an editorial quoting a doctor affiliated with the agency's VERB program.)

The Trust's spokesperson added: "The reason that we use these kinds of facts is because it does draw press attention to the problem … A lot of policy organizations [use soundbites that do not rely on scientific literature], because they draw attention, quite honestly."

Preventive Medicine Research Institute founder Dean Ornish offered a similar explanation for his (and others') regurgitation of Klish's and Olshansky's false claim: "I think this gets quoted because it gets people's attention to what is a real problem that only seems to be getting worse. To that extent, it can be useful."

Altogether, the Center for Consumer Freedom contacted more than a dozen people who had stated publicly that childhood obesity would make this the first generation of children to have a shorter lifespan than their parents. And time after time, they failed to provide a single source to back up their claim. The only exception was Yale professor David Katz, who cited two studies that supposedly prove his point that obesity is shortening life expectancy. Neither study substantiates this claim.

Although both studies indicate that the severely obese may suffer health complications due in part to their weight, they don't come close to suggesting that obesity could change the CDC's estimate that children born in 2004 are expected to live more than six years longer than their parents.

Neither does the research of Olshansky, Ludwig, Allison, and their colleagues.