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An open letter to the anti-fat brigade: enough is enough

By Michael Gard - posted Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Have you ever noticed how often nutritionists change their mind? One day high fibre diets help prevent bowel cancer, the next day they increase cancer risk. Then the roulette wheel spins again. Voila! Dietary fat is back in the good books after once being blamed for everything from heart disease to snoring. Ditto dairy foods, bread, pasta, alcohol, water, green food, yellow food, you name it.

If the word “science” is stretched to breaking point with nutrition, the study of exercise and health blows it to pieces. Should we exercise every day or three times a week, at high or low intensities, for a short or long time, in teams or by yourself? On all of these questions scientists are no closer to agreement than they were 100 years ago.

One reason for the confusion is that the people doing the research are, in many respects, normal. Like many of us, when they think of “health” they see images of elite athletes and supermodels, while exhibiting more than a tinge of middle-class self restraint when it comes to food.


The fact that elite athletes and supermodels are neither healthier nor live longer than other people has been an ongoing source of disappointment to the anti-fat brigade. Their research also tells them that starting an exercise program will either make a minuscule difference to your body weight or none at all. But don’t expect them to admit this in public.

Faced with the persistent refusal of Western populations to heed their dubious advice, nutritionists, exercise scientists and now, it seems, the medical profession have invented the “obesity epidemic”.

Worse still, our governments, eager to be seen to be doing something, have joined the anti-fat brigade and are now throwing perfectly good tax-payers money at the issue. And as with most moral-panics, it is our children who seem destined to bear the brunt of adult anxieties. This is sad and unnecessary.

The statistics currently being thrown around regarding childhood overweight and obesity are patently alarmist.

Studies tracking childhood obesity levels over time around the world are quite rare and generally equivocal. There are many different ways to measure obesity among children and - surprise, surprise - some methods produce high levels of childhood obesity and some don’t.

As the health journalist Ray Moynihan recently pointed out in the British Medical Journal, there are many interest groups, including some of the world’s leading obesity scientists, who want to change the definition of childhood obesity in order to make it as easy as possible for children to be classified as obese.


If they have their way childhood obesity “rates” will sky rocket overnight, just as they did the last time they shifted the goal posts in the 1990s. And all of this will have been done despite there being no study in the history of science showing that childhood obesity causes you to die young.

A few years ago I attended a conference where I listened to a young Australian researcher talking about her research into children’s weight. To the horror of her research supervisor who was sitting close by, she candidly admitted to feeling sorry for the “normal” looking children whom she was forced to classify as overweight. In other words, the kids didn’t look overweight, but the “science” said they were.

Next time you take your kids to school, watch the other children as they arrive. If the scientists are correct, between two and three out of every five children should be so overweight as to endanger their health. This is self-evident nonsense.

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About the Author

Michael Gard is a senior lecturer in dance, physical and health education at Charles Sturt University's Bathurst campus. He is the author of two books, The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality and Ideology (with Jan Wright) and Men Who Dance: Aesthetics, Athletics and the Art of Masculinity.

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