Brave New Diet

By Sally C. Pipes
Wednesday, December 26, 2007

If you're like most Americans, you've probably stuffed yourself like a holiday turkey during the past few weeks. So it should come as no surprise that the average American gains about one pound between Thanksgiving and New Year's, according to the National Institutes of Health. That pound a year really adds up over the decades. Today, 17 percent of children are overweight.

By the time they reach adulthood, that number climbs to 66 percent.

It's a common political refrain that America faces a childhood obesity epidemic that's turning us into a nation of blubbery diabetics.

Underlying this is the premise that we're helpless before gingerbread cookies and honey-roasted hams -- unable to resist these and other foods and incapable of putting down our forks. We can be cured, it seems, only by government intervention such as the banning of trans-fats and sodas from public schools.

But is it the food, or is it us? Is it a proper role of government to tell us what we can or can't eat? And are we really as fat as the NIH numbers suggest?

Before we let Uncle Sam into our kitchens, at school or at home, these questions deserve some exploration.

For starters, government data about what constitutes "overweight" and "obese" are misleading.

The standard metric for this measurement is a person's body-mass index, or BMI -- the ratio of one's height to one's weight. But at best, BMI is a rough tool that does not take into account an individual's body type. A six-foot-two athlete who weighs 210 pounds would be classified as "obese" according to BMI charts -- despite his 32-inch waistline, 17-inch biceps and his less than 6 percent actual body fat.

If you believe the BMI tables, most of the best players in the NBA and NFL are "overweight," including superstar athletes Kobe Bryant and Tom Brady.

Many Hollywood heartthrobs also qualify as fatties -- Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Tom Cruise and George Clooney, to name a few.

What's more, the acceptable BMI continues to be ratcheted downward -- transforming those who were considered perfectly healthy yesterday into "overweight" and "obese" today.

Before 1998, a "healthy" BMI was anything less than 27. Then, suddenly, the government changed the "healthy" number to anything less than 25. Overnight, more than 25 million people who were previously considered to be a healthy or normal weight were reclassified as overweight. Looked at another way, the government artificially manufactured an obesity crisis by moving the BMI goal posts.

This raises the question: Are supposedly overweight people in fact heavier than they ought to be?

While more people might be overweight now, and it's true that people who are seriously overweight tend to have a higher risk of developing some illnesses, the government flip-flop suggests how difficult it is to determine what truly is overweight.

Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had to publicly concede in 2005 that its estimate a year earlier of "400,000 obesity-related deaths per year" should have been 112,000. But once prevented deaths are factored in, the figure is closer to 26,000 deaths per year -- one-fifteenth its original estimate.

The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports has stated that what matters most, in terms of overall health, is whether a person is active. People who happen to be a few pounds overweight but who exercise regularly "have a lower morbidity and mortality than normal weight individuals who are sedentary."

More important, is it government's role to help us reduce our rolls? Or is it a matter of personal responsibility?

We know that fries and cheeseburgers aren't healthy fare. And thanks in part to heightened concerns about obesity, we can now buy low-fat salads at just about every fast-food outlet in the country. The same supermarkets and convenience stores that sell popcorn and candy bars also sell healthful foods.

People make choices. And government should protect -- not restrict -- the freedom to make those choices so long as we're not harming others.

While we may not always like the choices others might make, it is essential that we all have the freedom to choose for ourselves. Once we accept the idea that the Nanny State should step in when it's "for our own good," we've taken a very big step down the road to something like the scene painted in George Orwell's "1984" -- when citizens wake each day to mandatory exercise classes on the Telescreen.

Most of us would prefer to choose for ourselves whether to exercise or have an extra helping of apple pie. And if we gain an extra pound over the holidays -- so what? That's why we have New Year's resolutions.

Sally C. Pipes is president and chief executive of the Pacific Research Institute and the author of "Miracle Cure: How to Solve America's Health Care Crisis and Why Canada Isn't the Answer."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company