Saturday, July 28, 2007

Signposts to Sanity

An occasional feature where your ever lovin' Granny points you to other people's really good stuff. And, as you can tell from our fat little signpost, today we are dealing with weight.

I wasn't going to say any more about this study, having posted If You Can Catch It, giving a light hearted take at the nonsense involved (because when I tried to address it seriously I couldn't keep my language decent and Maya reads this blog on occasion and has excellent reading skills), and linking you to Shark-fu's equally light hearted take on it. However, like Sandy Szwarc, below, I find that this study is turning up everywhere. The fact that it should be laughed out the door doesn't seem to be occurring to anyone who isn't a fat-activist. I'm finding that the more I think about it, the hotter I get. I don't like being the target of bias, and the fact that for so many years I bought into it myself just makes it that much worse. It isn't enough that I'm fat, unhealthy, gluttonous, slothful, and a bad person, now I'm also responsible for both a collapsing health-care system and the weight gain of my friends. If I bought into this stuff (or as much of it as was around at the time) when I was younger, how are fat children going to react? Are they going to be shunned even more than they are today? Will they stop getting invitations to birthday parties because their little friends and the parents of their little friends don't want fat being spread to them? Will their parents, in the hope of helping them to have a social life, be even more driven to put them on the diets that science says will eventually make them fatter? Too much. So, I am linking you here to three recent posts which really examine it in depth.

Kate at Shapely Prose has looked at it in two posts. The first, Fat Is Contagious
2) Obesity, according to this study, is more socially transmissible from one man to another than one woman to another.

Does this jibe with other research that suggests women are much more invested in social networks, more communicative with their friends about personal issues and, not for nuthin’, more susceptible to mirroring their friends’ eating behaviors when they do eat together?

4) As I understand it, spouses did not “affect” each other as strongly as even geographically distant friends.

This goes back to point 1. Are we really meant to believe that people in one of the most intimate possible relationships, who communicate daily, eat together, and share umpteen “lifestyle” factors, are less likely to “transmit” obesity to one another than friends who live on opposite coasts? What is it that makes you fat, then? If we believe it’s diet and exercise, how is it conceivable that people who live together do not affect each other’s diet and exercise habits as strongly as pals who rarely see each other? And regardless of what they’re claiming the direct cause of obesity is here, do we really believe that people are more susceptible to the opinions of distant friends than their own spouses?


So the whole premise that justified this review of another study’s data — that we, as a country, are SO MUCH FATTER than we used to be — is basically horseshit. There’s that.

Finally, it sounds like what they’re really afraid of is people telling their friends it’s okay not to diet. If that’s what’s actually happening here? I hope it becomes a goddamned epidemic.

The second post of Kate's I want to direct you to is Warning: If You Read This, You Might Get Fat
Now, I do stand by what I wrote, which was that we don’t know how to make a naturally thin person fat. I was thinking specifically of the prisoner study, where a bunch of men ate ridiculous amounts of food and stopped exercising in order to deliberately gain weight, but the weight gain didn’t last; as soon as they went back to eating normally, they went back to right around their original weights.
What that study does point to is the existence of a stubborn natural weight range in every individual. Anyone who’s dieted and gained it back (i.e., pretty much everyone more than 5 years out from the last diet) will recognize an incredibly familiar pattern in the prisoner study — it’s the reverse of what we’ve lived out, but the elements are all the same. They tried to push their bodies beyond their natural weight ranges, and their bodies resisted mightily. Their metabolisms changed to account for the changes in diet and exercise and try to force them back into their natural weight ranges. And as soon as they stopped the unnatural diet, their bodies returned to what was normal for them.

That’s exactly what happens to dieters.

But because it’s a weight range we’re talking about, and because dieting is akin to starvation as far as the body’s concerned, when dieters go back to normal, they often end up fatter than they were — presumably at the top of their natural weight ranges. Dieting, as a rule, not only doesn’t make you permanently thin — it makes you fatter.

Now back to the important point here: this fact that I overlooked offers one simple, plausible explanation for the “fat is contagious” findings: friends recommend diets to each other. And diets ultimately make people fatter. And if those people started out at the top of the “overweight” BMI category, dieting could very easily have pushed them into the “obese” one.

It’s unlikely that that fully explains the correlation they found — but frankly, it’s a much more plausible theory than the one that has fat people calling each other up and saying, “Hey, you know what? I overeat and never exercise, and I feel great! You should try it!”

Sandy Szwarc, at Junkfood Science has also addressed this "study" in her post Oh, What A Tangled Web We Weave.
I wasn’t even going to write on this “study” because it elicited nothing more than thinly veiled hate speech and was such junk science I was certain no one would take it seriously.

I was wrong.

Within hours of the press releases, a massive, well-orchestrated marketing campaign was off and running. By dinnertime yesterday, Google noted 300 nearly identical articles had been published about it and there were 500 by this morning. Television and radio reporters have been gushing over it, with MSNBC reporting that having a fat friend can make you fat and be downright dangerous for your health.

Let’s not beat around the bush. The key message of this study was to justify and promote the social shunning and discrimination of fat people.

Not one health or medical writer, even at the most prestigious consumer or medical publications, has critically reported on this study or even appears to have read it. Not one has made a critical examination and pointed out its unorthodox methods, its findings that conflict with known science and known biological mechanisms, or the flawed and contradictory findings within the study itself. Not one.

We are to believe, it seems, the media images that we’ve all gained gargantuan amounts of weight, rather than the average 7 - 10 pounds actually evidenced over recent decades among our increasingly diverse population, as reported by Dr. Jeffrey Friedman, head of the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics at Rockefeller University in New York.

Medical writers at publications such as MedPageToday were equally credulous, giving physicians the action point: “Explain to patients who ask that this observational study found that the likelihood of a person becoming obese is heavily influenced by obesity in their friends, siblings, and spouse.”
No need to go on, as you’ve heard all of this, too. But what you haven’t heard was that this paper wasn’t actually a study, researching people using recognized, proven sound medical research methodology.
They made no efforts to give any physiological explanations for these implausible findings or how long-distance relationships might be more associated with obesity than genetics. Nor, did they have any data on the closeness of the friendships or how often people were in contact with their supposedly fattening friends

Forgetting that their study was a data dredge looking for correlations, which is unable to ever demonstrate causation,

This study illustrates the difference between politics and good science. The reporting and responses from media and medical professionals have illustrated the difference between prejudice versus knowledge, understanding and compassion. There is absolutely no credible science to support stigma against any group. You cannot “catch” fat from associating with a fat person anymore than you can catch “black” from a black person.

What the science knows about obesity “should be sufficient to end the opprobrium of the obese,” said Dr. Friedman. “To end the stigma of obesity, the scientific community must communicate more effectively a growing body of compelling evidence indicating that morbid obesity is the result of differences in biology and not a personal choice.”

The public trusts medical and journalism professionals to give them reliable information to help them. Over the past 24 hours, that trust has proven to be undeserved.

Since Kate and Sandy have said this so well, I hope I won't feel driven to say any more about it myself. I do have to say, though, that this study reminds me of nothing so much as The Bell Curve.

1 comment:

Kay Dennison said...

I'm just going on record as not caring if someone is fat, thin, black, white, polka dot. short, tall, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, agnostic, able-bodied, handicapped, Republican, Democrat, or any combination of the former! I am tired of bigotry of any stripe. Why don't we stop studying this nonsense and learn to deal with others as who they are?