'Fat' Sheds Light on Weight Myths

By Thomas Shull

The Detroit News, December 31, 1997
Copyright 1997 the Detroit News

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It’s New Year’s Eve. You may be thinking of the coming bacchanalia, but if you’re like many Americans, your conscience has begun tapping you softly on the shoulder.

So you’ll make a New Year’s resolution, and odds are good it will be to lose weight.

But odds are, you’ll fail. Like too many American, you’ll go about it wrong.

Should you give up? Not in the opinion of Michael Fumento, author of The Fat of the Land: The Obesity Epidemic and How Overweight Americans Can Help Themselves.

Fumento is a medical journalist at the American Enterprise Institute who has already written extensively about AIDS and seems to revel in emotionally charged topics. Yet his book is as much an appeal as a polemic. He unleashes a surprising deluge of studies, carefully measured arguments and puckish quips to overwhelm Americans’ emotional resistance to embracing the rigors — and joys — of meaningful weight loss. This good book is as convincing as it is (excuse the term) digestible.

Fumento starts with a simple, relentless message: Being overweight is bad for you. It is second only to smoking in the number of preventable deaths it probably helps cause, striking an estimated 300,000 Americans every year.

He reviews massive studies conducted by researchers at Harvard, Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Metropolitan Life Insurance, the American Cancer Society and elsewhere that involved tens and even hundreds of thousands of people and demonstrated unmistakably that people with extra pounds have shorter lives. To drive the point home, he discusses links between obesity and heart disease, cancer, hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, arthritis, gallstones, gout, blindness and other ailments that range from depressing to deadly.

The problem, he notes, is not just full-blown obesity. Every extra pound over the ideal weight for your build is associated with a shorter life.

Fumento knows the common objection: The statistics are suggestive, but can’t show independent causality. "And," Fumento adds, "essentially this is correct. Likewise, you could argue that the heavy, sharp blade of Madame Guillotine was not the actual cause of death of France’s Louis XVI. Rather, it was the severing of his vertebrae, the cutting of all the blood vessels in his neck, and the slicing of his windpipe. Add to that the trauma caused by his head dropping several feet into a wicker basket. But for some reason, historians don’t usually make this point."

It’s one of Fumento’s rare overstatements, but it hits home if you’re not already swallowing hard at the grisly numbers. Throughout the book, he methodically forces the burden of proof onto those who argue obesity doesn’t matter. And he dismisses the usual reasons to plead that obesity can’t be helped.

You have a fat gene, right? Well, maybe you do, says Fumento, but even if you have two, there’s no evidence you can’t overcome the slight handicap — and genes hardly explain why Americans are far and away the fattest people in the world.

Perhaps your metabolism is slow. Conceivable, he replies, but heavy people generally gave higher, not lower metabolisms, and studies repeatedly show that they eat much more than they say they do.

Ironically, the more rational objection to weight loss is fear of failure. But while Fumento notes that defeat — so-called "yo-yo dieting" — is not the hazard many argue, he also points out that failure rates are likely overstated and that the research literature shows that people can indeed lose weight and keep it off.

How? The answers are unforgivingly direct, and they sound a lot like what your mother told you. Eat good foods — most especially fruits and vegetables — not processed snacks and sweets. And exercise more, both for endurance and muscle.

Citing numerous studies, Fumento does a beautiful job explaining why these appear to help and are generally better than drugs or weight-loss centers. He also has another proof of their effectiveness: himself. During the two years Fumento wrote this book, he slowly lost, and then sustained the loss, of an impressive 20% of his body weight.

My only qualm about the book is Fumento’s call for a national health crusade against obesity. He is generally careful to limit the role of government and caution against viciousness, but I suspect you can’t say obesity "kills," even rhetorically, without unleashing the same horde of tedious busybodies, lawmakers and bureaucrats Fumento bemoans in the hyperactive anti-tobacco campaign.

And Fumento slips sometimes. In arguing that appetites must be controlled, he quotes a rabbi saying, "The mugger, robber, murderer and rapist are all in the grip of their appetites." It’s hard to caution against being overly harsh when violent thugs are being discussed; though in modern America, the obese, like murderers, will probably be absolved as victims. Instead, fast food restaurants will become the "deadly gun dealers" of tomorrow.

But I can set this concern aside in deference to this entertaining, intelligent, and comprehensive book — and to something deeply moving that I experienced a few years ago. After several false starts and some genuine despair, I shed 20 pounds through diet, volleyball and running.

And from that moment to this, not a single day goes by, whether I’m chasing my son on the soccer field, climbing the steps at work, or getting dressed in the morning, that I don’t feel a sense of release, even joy, at my weight loss. It feels just like what Fumento says it is. Life-giving.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on obesity. He is the author of numerous books, including Science Under Siege.