This weekend, a friend alerted me to the latest season of the Showtime series, Penn & Teller. According to the show's site, in Season 5's premiere, "Obesity":
Penn & Teller reveal truths about the Obesity epidemic. A visit to an Obesity conference exposes the uncomfortably cozy relationships between the medical establishment, the diet companies and the weight loss industry. An advocacy group for overweight people tells us about the hardships and discrimination brought about by their weight. Plus, the first-ever Penn & Teller 'Fat Guy Olympics.'Penn, a la Paul Campos, introduces the topic quite bluntly: "The obesity epidemic is bullshit." He and Teller (I'm never quite sure how Teller earns his keep, though he does jump on a treadmill at some point during this episode), debunk the obesity myth by visiting "The Annual Meeting of the Obesity Society" in 2006, sponsored by, as they point out, the drug companies that make diet pills, where a bunch of (usually) thin researchers suggest that curbing obesity is simply a matter of controlling diet and exercise. P & T note that if the equation were that simple, none of these researchers would have a job!
P & T actually interview Paul Campos, Professor of Law at the University of Colorado, and author of The Diet Myth. Campos weighs in on the "obesity epidemic," suggesting our nation's collective weight is a sign of economic development instead, and offering three of myths that support the "science" of obesity:
1) Weight is a good proxy for health. (Campos suggests, in fact, that we really don't know anything about a person's health, judging by her weight.)P & T go on to tackle the BMI, battling the notion that one need be a certain height and weight (not one's natural weight, of course) in order to be considered healthy. The 6'6", 310-pound Penn suggests, in jest, that, according to the BMI charts, he should weigh 124 pounds and be 5'4". The next thing we know, he's lying prostrate on a table, as a man with a chain saw prepares to remove his lower legs. Comedy aside, the point is well-taken: Asking a man of his size to lose large amounts of weight may be as preposterous as asking him to shrink in height.
2) Going from fat to thin can improve your health.
3) We know how to produce long-term weight loss in populations.
P & T interview a Professor Oliver, who suggests that we're wired to be obese (and promiscuous, to boot). Penn then challenges the all-too-common "willpower" argument: "If you have the willpower to overcome several million years of evolution, cool. More for the rest of us."
The show also interviews Glenn Gaesser, Ph.D., author of Big Fat Lies: The Truth about Your Weight and Your Health. Gaesser suggests the diet industry is notorious for "blaming the victim," suggesting that dieters fail, not the diets themselves (if you just would have stuck with it, you know?). Gaesser goes on to warn, as many of us realize, about the dangers of yo-yo dieting and suggests that fat people who exercise regularly are healthier and have a lower mortality rate than thin people who don't.
As Penn concludes: "Is our knee-jerk 'horror of obesity' out of whack with reality? Fuck, yeah!"