First, do no disinformation
People who go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's web site looking to learn something about weight and health are currently treated to a wealth of misinformation.
First, they are told that a "healthy weight" is generally between a BMI of 18.5 and 24.9. This statement flies in the face of the actual epidemiologic data, and at a bare minimum it creates a completely phony "overweight" category (BMI 25-29.9) that includes most Americans.
Second, they are told that if they attempt to eat a "healthy" diet, and engage in moderate-intensity physical activity at least five days a week, they will lose weight and keep it off. This statement, again, is completely unsupported by any data and indeed has been refuted about as thoroughly as any empirical assertion can be.
We know what happens when people attempt to produce significant long term weight-loss by modifying their diet and exercise patterns: They lose weight, and then they regain it. Often they end up weighing more than they did before they attempted to lose weight.
A great deal of research suggests that this pattern of weight cycling, or "yo-yo dieting," is itself bad for people's health. So the government is telling people to pursue an unnecessary goal -- achieving a "healthy" (sic) weight -- by methods that almost always fail to produce that goal and that indeed often lead to consequences (weight cycling) that leave people worse off than they would have been if they had never tried to lose weight in the first place.
Instead of parroting the propaganda of America's multibillion-dollar weight-loss industry, which continues to push its useless, expensive, and dangerous "cures" for an imaginary disease, our government should tell people the truth.
The truth is that a very broad range of weights are perfectly consistent with good health; that physical activity is highly beneficial to people even though it rarely results in significant long-term weight loss; that exactly what constitutes a "healthy diet" for any particular individual is a very controversial subject on which there is currently nothing like scientific consensus; and that we simply don't know why Americans weigh more now than they did a generation ago, or if this is in fact a problem.
Given all this, what would a rational government policy toward weight and weight-loss look like? In my view, it would include at least the following features:
- A scrupulous avoidance of the terms "overweight" and "obesity," which have no scientific basis and which therefore irrationally stigmatize those who are so labeled.
- The encouragement of physical activity for its own sake, not as a weight-loss tool.
- Nutritional information and advice that actually reflects the considerable uncertainty that surrounds the subject.
We would all be better off if the search for weapons of body mass destruction simply ceased.
Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado and syndicated columnist for Scripps Howard. His most recent book is "The Obesity Myth."
Government is the potential MVP