Monday, April 30, 2007

Obsessive fatties grow in number

I haven’t posted for a while on obesity. I have not lost interest in the area, it is just that I think economists and others have frustratingly little to offer in the way of robust analysis of what is going on. It is not clear what is causing increased average body weights, whether weight increase is as unhealthy as some contend and whether losing large amounts of weight improves health. I’ll get back to thinking about these issues when my current obsession with tobacco issues cools.

Certainly widespread community concern about obesity is having an impact. An article in the Age points out that community hysteria is developing over obesity. In particular, a dramatic escalation in eating disorders has occurred with new figures revealing rates have doubled in the last decade. In Australia those regularly binge eating, abusing laxatives, making themselves sick or undergoing extreme fasting jumped from 4.7% in 1995 to 11% in 2005.

Prevalence of full-blown anorexia and bulimia has remained constant at 2 to 3% but the percentage with the above disorders rose from 2% to 4.6%. While women were 5 times more likely to suffer from an eating disorder, there was a sharp increase in men bingeing and purging.

Experts say the nation's so-called obesity crisis has created huge fears of being overweight in a weight-conscious community.

Obesity might be a problem but so too are unbalanced attempts to address it. TV shows such as The Biggest Loser promote unhealthy weight loss procedures. Reducing weight should definitely be done gradually if you are to avoid increased mortality risks.

The survey giving rise to these findings involved more than 3000 people in South Australia and looked at adult eating disorders. It will be presented at a conference today – when I get a link I will post it.


Francis Xavier Holden said...

I'm glad you haven't lost interest in obesity. I think the area is complex and the media and in this case I think even health practitioners and researchers are guilty of a bit of hysteria and I'd argue moral panic.

The neo-wowsers have latched onto this weight /fatty issue and I'm sure Clive Hamilton will soon have a book out.

The "hard care" areas of eating disorders have remaine dconstant at around 3% - it's the softer fuzzier definitional areas that have allegedly grown. Looks to me as if a lot of this can be seen as a growth in definition parameters.

The ideal image of the skinny person isn'tall that healthy and theres plenty of good arguemetn to suggest that the BMI as currently used is wrong and wrong on the side of calling too many people overweight.

Whilst there is plenty of evidence that people are getting bigger and heavier it's not clear that the average person is in much or any health danger.

Certainly as people get older 65+ the evidence is that a bit of what now is seen as chubbyness is a GOOD thing and adds to health outcomes.

I'm fascinated with this area and luckily I'm one of those people who don't put on much weight, so I'm pleased that people like you are doing some hard yards on looking at research quizically.

I'm thinking of applying for an NHMRC grant (or even set up a CRC) to get Sam Ward and Derrida to work with you on the D&A/ smoking stuff to keep you from getting a dose of the Clive Hamiltons. Should make for good outcomes.

Naturally there will be a small management overhead fee built in for me to supply spiritual guidance and sartorial advice.

Jan said...


There may be two different trends that need to be separated.

The eating disorder numbers may document 'hysteria over trying to be skinny', not necessarily 'hysteria over obesity'. As these would arguably have different drivers and consequences and as they are related to different parts of the population.

Specifically, it could be the case that many/most people trying to lose weight are NOT the obese but those with a perfectly 'healthy' weight.

hc said...

fxh, I think I agree with all your observations. In fact I'd go further. The evidence that being moderately overweight leads to health problems is weak. Dieting often fails and where is does not it has adverse effects on mortality.

Happy to accept your offer of grant-getting assistance. We will have to negotiate the fee.

Jan, Maybe you are right. But I've heard that anorexia sufferers see themselves as fat. Of course many of these people are normal or below-normal weight.