Obesity Coverage: Give or Take 75,000 Deaths

Obesity Coverage: Give or Take 75,000 Deaths
The media cant seem to get the CDCs updated obesity statistics straight

By Amy Menefee
May 19, 2005

     Recent news coverage of obesity statistics has fluctuated more than a dieters weight. The networks have gone back and forth with the numbers they cite, while The Washington Post and USA Today have given a one-sided account of obesity risks, leaving out recent good news that mildly overweight people live longer.

     A May 17, 2005, Washington Post article was the latest to omit half of the news on obesity statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On April 20, 2005, CDC researchers announced in the Journal of the American Medical Association that earlier figures, blaming obesity for 365,000 deaths annually, were drastically skewed and that the new figure was 112,000. This number, however, had to be adjusted to include people who actually saw benefits from a few extra pounds, and the adjusted total came to about 26,000 deaths. The CDC even said more people died from being underweight that total was 34,000.

     Still, the Post has continued to report 112,000 annual deaths from obesity without telling the rest of the story. In the May 17 Health article that cited that number, writer Sally Squires addressed the controversial Body Mass Index, a ratio of height and weight that the CDC has used in obesity studies. As Squires pointed out, that measurement can provide a misleading picture of a persons health. While BMI is a useful screening tool to identify people who may be at elevated risk, it was never intended to be the sole measure, Squires said. Because the index evaluates only height and weight, it doesnt account for factors such as age and sex. Many fit athletes are classified as overweight or even obese based on the BMI, due to muscle weight.

     That discussion of the BMI put the Post one step closer to accuracy on the subject of obesity. In an April 27 Business article, Caroline E. Mayer and Amy Joyce talked about the revision to CDCs numbers but stopped with the 112,000 deaths. They did not include the adjusted total of 26,000, the benefits found in moderate extra weight, or the information about more deaths linked to underweight conditions. USA Todays Nanci Hellmich also has used the 112,000 figure without mentioning the adjustments in two articles since the revisions were publicized.

     The New York Times, on the other hand, fully explained the information and its revisions in Gina Kolatas April 20 article. In January, the agency's researchers corrected calculation errors and published a revised estimate of 365,000 deaths, she explained. Now the new study says that obesity and extreme obesity are causing about 112,000 extra deaths but that overweight is preventing about 86,000, leaving a net toll of some 26,000 deaths in all three categories combined, compared with the 34.000 extra deaths found in those who are underweight.

     Meanwhile, the networks have been inconsistent. On the April 20, 2005, World News Tonight, ABCs Charles Gibson cited the 112,000 number, though earlier that day on ABCs Good Morning America, Robin Roberts had reported the adjusted total of 26,000.

     Likewise, on CBS Early Show April 21, 2005, Dr. Emily Senay repeated the 112,000 number, though on the CBS Evening News on April 25, Jim Axelrod said the statistics had been revised way down from 365,000 a year to just under 26,000. NBCs Tom Costello correctly cited the 26,000 on April 22s Today.

     When the new numbers came out, the Associated Press reported that the CDC wasnt planning to use 26,000 as the number of obesity-related deaths. CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said because of uncertainty in the calculations combined with the health risks of obesity, the CDC would not use the smaller number in its public campaign. So far, many in the media are following suit. Previous Business & Media Institute studies on obesity coverage have found overblown emphasis on this epidemic at the expense of facts.

     To read these studies, please visit: