Friday, August 19, 2011

This Is Not Okay

Yesterday, M showed me this tweet by @SFoodie, the food blog run by SF Weekly:

This made me want to reach into the Internet and throttle the writer for: (1) poor reading comprehension skills, (2) sloppy reporting, and (3) irresponsibly handing people a "science-based" excuse for ignoring a potentially life-threatening health problem.

Let's be perfectly clear: The study referenced in the tweet DOES NOT SAY THAT BEING FAT IS HEALTHY.

The real story? Canadian researchers looked at whether people with high Body Mass Index (BMI) scores are uniformly at high risk for an early death. To test this, they looked at a bunch of people they classified as "obese" BASED ON THE SUBJECTS' BMI SCORES, ranked their health according to the Edmonton Obesity Staging System (EOSS), and compared mortality rates. A subject with an EOSS score of 0 was one who showed no problematic symptoms, while a person with a score of 4 (the highest possible score) was one with severe chronic diseases and disabilities.

The conclusion? Not all folks with high BMIs are at risk of early death.

This is not rocket science, folks. A high BMI tells you absolutely nothing about the state of a person's body composition or health. A muscle-bound person with little body fat might have a very high BMI and a flabby "skinny fat" smoker might have a "normal" one, but it doesn't mean that the former is obese any more than it means that Michael Jackson was a super-healthy fella. Body mass should not be mistaken for body fat. And while the researchers (unfortunately) used "high BMI" interchangeably with "obesity," let's be real: When most people think about obesity, the dictionary definition comes to mind -- and it's all about "excessive accumulation and storage of fat in the body."

Take elite CrossFit firebreather Rob Orlando. His BMI is above 29, which puts him in borderline "obese" territory. But does he look fat to you? Would you use the word "obese" to describe him?

Let's face it: BMIs are completely useless as an indicator of health. And in fact, this is precisely what the Canadian researchers were seeking to show. As a recent CNN article pointed out, "[t]he main question was whether BMI alone could determine who dies early, said Dr. Arya Sharma, the lead author [of the study]." Unsurprisingly, the answer was "no." (Duh.)

You wouldn't know it from the articles written about the study, though. SF Weekly's article, for example, looks like this:

That's right: "[Y]ou can have your cake, eat it, and, um, have some more."

And this wasn't an outlier. Other "respectable" publications wrote headlines like:
Similarly, Facebook and Twitter lit up with further distortions of the study's conclusions:

No one's going to spend even a minute on Google to track down the original study. They're not going to hear that BMIs are bunk. But they will take away the message that "being fat can be GOOD for you" -- so why worry?

P.S.: WTF, Barry Sears?