The Morning File: Americans: increasingly fat and in denial

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Not only are Americans more and more obese, but they are lying about it.

From the sounds of it, this is one pathetic, lazy, gluttonous, dishonest country we should be ashamed of -- though it goes without saying, of course, that it is better than any other nation on the planet. We may lead the world in obese truth-fudgers, but by golly they're our obese truth-fudgers.

This latest bout of self-flagellation comes courtesy of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. The lean, upright folks there evaluated people's responses to a large, annual, health-related survey called the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.

For the 2008 to 2009 period, they compared what people said about their weight with the actual change in it in the past 12 months. The study participants, no small sample at 775,000, reported on average that they had lost some weight. The truth, however, was that average weight had increased by about 1 pound in the prior year and the prevalence of obesity among those in the survey increased from 26 percent to 26.5 percent.

"If we had relied on the reported data about weight change between 2008 and 2009, we would have undercounted approximately 4.4 million obese adults in the U.S.," said Catherine Wetmore, a biostatistician at the Children's National Medical Center.

Apparently, Americans would rather make it sound like they're health-conscious than do any of the actual lifestyle work involved, which can be a hard slog. The question is, just who do we think we're fooling?

Our doctors? Well, they've got the actual measurements in their records.

Our mates? They see us with our clothes off, so there's no hiding the blubber from them.

The college kids working the counter at Bruster's? Hey, once they ask if we want "the usual," it's obvious they recognize us from the other times we stopped in this week. They know that if we're losing weight, it must be from the most unusual and glorious diet ever concocted.

It likely isn't a shock that men did a worse job estimating (or lying about) their weight change than women. Males, after all, don't spend a lot of time asking their brethren, "Do these Dockers make me look fat?" If you were older, you were also more likely than young adults to either miss or fudge the truth about your weight gain.

"On average, American adults were off by about a pound, which, over time, can really add up and have a significant health impact," said Ali Mokdad, a University of Washington professor.

A couple thousand years ago, this wasn't such a big issue, because unless you were an emperor, it was pretty hard to sit around all day and eat so much and do so little that you could become obese. These days it requires no special status or income level -- just a desire for very little physical activity away from the dinner table and snack jar.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention actually counts some 36 percent of U.S. adults as obese, rather than the lower percentage cited in the survey above. This is based on your body mass index, which looks at whether your height and weight are in balance or out of whack, such as when someone who is 5-foot-5 weighs 180 pounds or more.

Your chances of being neither obese nor overweight are only 1 in 3, according to federal health officials, which makes it sound like you're an unhealthy blob unless you're a marathoner, beach volleyball Olympian or Angelina Jolie. (Remarkably, the federal government seems never to be concerned about the lack of pounds on people such as Ms. Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Keira Knightley and other Hollywood starlets who at times look sickeningly emaciated.)

Those who like to complain about their metabolism being bad as an excuse for weight gain may be happy to know the National Institutes of Health is looking into how genetics affects one's ability to control weight. It is specifically recruiting thin people for a study analyzing how they can consume high calories without ballooning up. (It is possible that the location of the study may have to be kept under wraps, so that no deranged overweight person shows up to wipe out these heretofore lucky, skinny people.)

Presumably, the researchers only want those people who actually avoid putting on weight, instead of those who simply say it's the case. Unfortunately, it seems to be a lot easier to find the latter than the former.


Gary Rotstein: or 412-263-1255. Ruth Ann Dailey is on vacation.


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