CDCs Numbers Collapse Under Weight of New Study

CDCs Numbers Collapse Under Weight of New Study
Analysis finds estimates of obesity deaths 14 times higher than reality. Center for Disease Control vows not to promote fact that obesity is much less of a danger.

By Dan Gainor
April 20, 2005

     Two big news stories left the food police frustrated in their battle to promote the nations obesity epidemic. The governments replacement for the food pyramid wasnt anti-industry enough to satisfy some critics. Those new diet guidelines showed up the same day the Centers for Disease Control admitted they had wildly overstated obesity deaths. To add insult to injury, that new study found that people who are modestly overweight actually have a lower risk of death than those of normal weight, according to the Associated Press.

     All of this is big news to anyone who has been watching the major media cover food issues and Americas obesity epidemic for the last year. For a year, the media have been highlighting the issue of obesity and the numerous risks it poses to Americas health.

     The biggest news, of course, was the CDC adjustment. This was the second time in recent months that the CDC had to admit its figures on obesity deaths were inflated. They had previously claimed excess weight caused about 400,000 deaths annually. After that figure was questioned late last year, the CDC reassessed the situation and lowered its estimate to 365,000. The latest study shows that even the adjusted total was about 14 times higher than the roughly 26,000 now believed to be correct.

     The study also pointed out that being overweight isnt even necessarily bad and might even lead to a longer life. According to an April 20, 2005, New York Times article: 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 26,000 deaths compared with 34,000 extra deaths found in those underweight. That means that extremely obese people are still at high risk. But the next riskiest group is actually underweight eaters. People who are only mildly overweight live longer, according to the study.

     Those new numbers arent making the people at the CDC happy. AP added that: CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said because of the uncertainty in calculating the health effects of being overweight, the CDC is not going to use the brand-new figure of 25,814 in its public awareness campaigns and is not going to scale back its fight against obesity. The story didnt point out that the CDC had no trouble promoting those numbers when it felt they were as high as 400,000.

     The latest study also pointed to flaws in the standard measure of obesity the Body Mass Index. That calculation is a function of a persons weight and height. The number has long been questioned because it fails to take muscle into account. Athletes typically register as overweight or obese using the BMI even if they are in excellent shape. Nevertheless, this same measure is the one the government uses to calculate obesity.

     Both the overestimation of obesity deaths and the flaws in the BMI were prominent in two studies on obesity released by the Media Research Centers Business & Media Institute during 2004. While those studies highlighted the anti-industry spin prevalent in many stories, the second study also included covered the two new current problems with obesity science:

     Weight loss was thrust into the spotlight by the recent admission that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wildly misstated the impact of obesity on death rates. The CDC had concluded that obesity was responsible for up to 400,000 preventable deaths a year, but inflated that result by tens of thousands because of statistical errors. This is in addition to the ongoing criticism CDC receives for its reliance on the Body Mass Index as a way to determine obesity. The BMI is highly flawed and counts muscular athletes as overweight or obese.

     The CDC staff arent the only ones struggling with the obesity problem. The Department of Agricultures new food pyramid is also stirring the pot. Under the new government dietary guidelines, the old food pyramid is replaced by 12 distinct food pyramids. The new pyramids are intended to be geared toward each individuals needs.

     On ABCs World News Tonight April 19, 2005, reporter Lisa Stark highlighted anti-industry criticism in her report, pointing out that The pyramid doesnt tell people what foods to avoid, such as those with added sugars. This was exactly the argument of the left-wing Center for Science in the Public Interest and, naturally, that was who Stark talked with next. CSPI Nutrition Policy Director Margo Wootan, a long-time critic of the food industry, immediately launched into her complaint that They dont have the political courage to encourage people to eat less of products that are made by their friends in agribusiness and the food industry.

     Starks report did include a less vitriolic criticism from Dr. Walter Willett from the Harvard School of Public Health who complained that the new pyramid was just overly precise. He added, Its just quite unrealistic.

     To make matters worse, the USDA Web site for the pyramid has been completely overwhelmed and unable to handle the Internet traffic. That site is:

The two Business & Media Institute studies on media coverage of the obesity issue are:

Big Media Continue Skewing Obesity Debate (May-October 2004)

Big Medias Role In Covering And Promoting the Obesity Debate