Facts are facts, but the facts you choose to tell change the story, and, in the case of perceptions of the ‘ideal body’, can fuel physical and mental health problems, with consequent costs to society and damage to individual lives.
Today’s i newspaper includes an article entitled “Overweight and obese men ‘have higher risk of premature death’“. An online version of the same article “Obese men three times more likely to die early” appeared online yesterday on the iNews website. A similar article “Obesity is three times as deadly for men than women” reporting the same Lancet article appeared in yesterday’s Telegraph.
The text describes how moderately obese men die up to three years earlier than those of ‘normal’ weight1; clearly a serious issue in the UK given growing levels of child obesity and the fact that the UK has the highest levels of obesity in Europe. The i quotes professors from Oxford and the British Heart Foundation, and the Telegraph report says that the Lancet article’s authors suggest their results refute other recent research which found that being slightly heavier than ‘normal’ could be protective and extend lifespan.
The things in the reports are all true. However, to quote the Witness Oath of British courts, it is not sufficient to tell “the truth”, but also “the whole truth”.
The Telegraph article also helpfully includes a summary of the actual data in which the reports are based.
As the articles say, this does indeed show substantial risk for both men and women who are mildly obese (BMI>30) and extreme risk for those more severely obese (BMI>35). However, look to the left of the table and the column for those underweight (BMI<18.5). The risks of being underweight exceed those of being mildly overweight, by a small amount for men and a substantial amount for women.
While obesity is major issue, so is the obsession with dieting and the ‘ideal figure’, often driven by dangerously skinny fashion models. The resulting problems of unrealistic and unhealthy body image, especially for the young, have knock-on impacts on self-confidence and mental health. This may then lead to weight problems, paradoxically including obesity.
The original Lancet academic article is low key and balanced, but, if reported accurately, the comments of at least one of the (large number of) article co-authors less so. However, the eventual news reports, from ‘serious’ papers at both ends of the political spectrum, while making good headlines, are not just misleading but potentially damaging to people’s lives.
- I’ve put ‘normal’ in scare quotes, as this is the term used in many medical charts and language, but means something closer to ‘medically recommended’, and is far from ‘normal’ on society today.[back]