Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop doing diet pills and Bolivian marching powder

Posted By on 07.28.09 at 02:20 PM

Clearly, when an opinion gets expressed in online comment boards and Neil Cavuto's house of insanity, it must be taken seriously! Is Dr. Regina Benjamin too fat to be surgeon general? Reasonable people can disagree, sez Julie Deardorff!

Actually, it's kind of staggering that anyone on the health beat would write this mess:

After all, are chubby dietitians or portly physicians in any position to advise others how to get healthy?

That question is at the heart of a debate set off when Dr. Regina Benjamin was nominated for surgeon general.

As noted above, one side of the "debate" seems to be limited to online comment trolls and Neil Cavuto's televised series against decency (this Telegraph article is the best I could find otherwise). The other side, from what I've seen, is mostly doctors and people who aren't professional obesity trolls. YMMV.

But with the nation's obesity crisis worsening, some advocates say it's increasingly critical for health care workers and those with visible, influential roles to "walk the walk" and serve as role models.

Gather, young journalists, around the screen, this is a great lesson in how to prop up a dead argument: note the word "obesity." Is Benjamin obese? Sure don't look like it. Sure isn't any information in the article to suggest it. But by using that word, you can keep pushing the piece down a completely separate track:

"A doctor doesn't need to be perfect, but it'd be hard for me to take financial advice from a CPA who had just filed for bankruptcy," said Dr. Timothy Harlan, medical director of the Tulane University School of Medicine, who says he believes physicians should make a genuine effort to be healthy.

A kick save and a beauty. Bankruptcy? "Make a genuine effort to be healthy?" Did anyone say she doesn't? Does it matter to the author?

Moreover, some research widely circulated in the online "fatosphere," an arm of the fat acceptance movement, suggests that carrying around a little extra flesh doesn't necessarily mean you're unhealthy.

I'm just going to assume that "some" was italicized in the original draft. Sure, some research says that a little extra flesh doesn't necessarily mean you're "unhealthy," according to fat people. The punchline about obesity and health is below. But here's where it really gets good:

"Weight and health are not the same thing," Abakoui said. "There are thin people who are unhealthy and there are fat people who are healthy."

Yet substantial research has shown that weight is inextricably linked with both personal and economic health. Obesity, which disproportionately affects African-Americans and other minority groups, is a risk factor for a number of chronic diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.

Emphasis in the original. Srsly. This paragraph is ingenious:

1. Sure, "some" research says one thing, but the "substantial" research says something else.

2. Note how Deardorff contradicts the medical professional quoted above by eliding "weight" and "obesity." This is how it's done. This is a master at work. If you don't think Benjamin is obese by the time you're done reading this article, you clearly weren't paying attention.

3. FAT PEOPLE ARE TAKING YOUR MONEY

4. Just, wow: "disproportionately affects African-Americans and other minority groups." See, since she's black, it matters double.

Now let me blow your mind:

Our results are similar to those from other recent studies, confirming that underweight and obesity class II+ are clear risk factors for mortality, and showing that when compared to the acceptable BMI category, overweight appears to be protective against mortality. Obesity class I was not associated with an increased risk of mortality.

That's from a study published in Nature last month. Here's Paul Campos, who's written widely on obesity and moral panic:

Note that the NHANES III data reveals that most people who are classified as obese have a lower mortality risk than so-called normal weight people. About two-thirds of "obese" Americans have a BMI of between 30-34.9, and currently we're seeing about 14,000 fewer deaths per year in this group than would be expected if the group's mortality risk was the same as that of "normal weight" individuals.

Steven Blair, professor of exercise science, epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of South Carolina:

His research indicates that “obese individuals who are fit have a death rate one half that of normal-weight people who are not fit.”

We can't force Dr. Benjamin to step on a treadmill, or get her cholesterol levels, or check her blood pressure, or determine whether she's "fit," but Deardorff - a health reporter! - having seen a picture and read some comment boards, sees fit to toss around weasel words like "a few extra pounds" and "portly" and to suggest that she's not a good "role model" even though, presuming a BMI (insofar as that's worth) of 30-35, she might have a lower risk of mortality.

Either way, the point is that the science is hardly conclusive, and obviously we know fuck all about Dr. Benjamin's physical fitness. But Deardorff piles on the loaded words to undermine Dr. Benjamin's qualifications - for a post that's largely about scientific judgment.

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