Campus & Community

HSPH joins battle over America’s waistline

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Forum examines evidence on obesity, health, death

The Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) weighed in on the battle over America’s bulging middle Thursday (May 26), with a panel of health experts saying a government study showing that being somewhat overweight may actually save lives is flawed and sends a dangerous message.
The event, “Weighing the Evidence: A Forum to Examine the Latest News About Overweight, Obesity and Mortality in America,” presented a panel of health experts from the Harvard School of Public Health, the American Cancer Society, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

The panel examined the methodology of an April 20 study led by Katherine M. Flegal of the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study showed that being somewhat overweight resulted in a slight reduction in mortality.

After its publication, the study prompted a wave of media headlines questioning the longstanding assertion that gaining weight is bad for your health. Food industry groups also seized on the research, running at least one full-page newspaper advertisement calling the obesity epidemic “hype.”

“It is irresponsible for commercial interests to trivialize what has become a major health problem in the United States and globally,” said Michael Thun, vice president for epidemiology and surveillance research at the American Cancer Society.

The controversial CDC study comes after years of data showing that the American public is rapidly gaining weight. Just since 1991, the rate of being grossly overweight, or “obese” has increased dramatically. According to CDC data, in 1991 just four states had obesity prevalence rates of 15 to 19 percent and no states had rates of 20 percent or above. By 2003, four states had obesity rates above 25 percent, 31 states had rates of 20 to 24 percent, and 15 states had obesity rates of 15 to 19 percent.