Obesity Coverage: Give or Take 75,000
The media can’t seem to get the CDC’s
updated obesity statistics straight
By Amy Menefee
May 19, 2005
Â Â Â Â Recent news coverage of obesity
statistics has fluctuated more than a dieter’s weight. The networks
have gone back and forth with the numbers they cite, while The
Washington Post and USA Today have given a one-sided account of
obesity risks, leaving out recent good news that mildly overweight
people live longer.
Â Â Â Â A May 17, 2005, Washington Post article was the latest
to omit half of the news on obesity statistics from the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention. On April 20, 2005, CDC researchers
announced in the Journal of the American Medical Association that
earlier figures, blaming obesity for 365,000 deaths annually, were
drastically skewed and that the new figure was 112,000. This number,
however, had to be adjusted to include people who actually saw
benefits from a few extra pounds, and the adjusted total came to
about 26,000 deaths. The CDC even said more people died from being
underweight – that total was 34,000.
Â Â Â Â Still, the Post has continued to report 112,000 annual
deaths from obesity without telling the rest of the story. In the
May 17 Health article that cited that number, writer Sally Squires
addressed the controversial Body Mass Index, a ratio of height and
weight that the CDC has used in obesity studies. As Squires pointed
out, that measurement can provide a misleading picture of a person’s
health. “While BMI is a useful screening tool to identify people who
may be at elevated risk, it was never intended to be the sole
measure,” Squires said. Because the index evaluates only height and
weight, it doesn’t account for factors such as age and sex. Many fit
athletes are classified as “overweight” or even “obese” based on the
BMI, due to muscle weight.
Â Â Â Â That discussion of the BMI put the Post one step closer
to accuracy on the subject of obesity. In an April 27 Business
article, Caroline E. Mayer and Amy Joyce talked about the revision
to CDC’s numbers but stopped with the 112,000 deaths. They did not
include the adjusted total of 26,000, the benefits found in moderate
extra weight, or the information about more deaths linked to
underweight conditions. USA Today’s Nanci Hellmich also has used the
112,000 figure without mentioning the adjustments in two articles
since the revisions were publicized.
Â Â Â Â The New York Times, on the other hand, fully explained
the information and its revisions in Gina Kolata’s April 20 article.
“In January, the agency's researchers corrected calculation errors
and published a revised estimate of 365,000 deaths,” she explained.
“Now the new study says that obesity and extreme obesity are causing
about 112,000 extra deaths but that overweight is preventing about
86,000, leaving a net toll of some 26,000 deaths in all three
categories combined, compared with the 34.000 extra deaths found in
those who are underweight.”
Â Â Â Â Meanwhile, the networks have been inconsistent. On the
April 20, 2005, “World News Tonight,” ABC’s Charles Gibson cited the
112,000 number, though earlier that day on ABC’s “Good Morning
America,” Robin Roberts had reported the adjusted total of 26,000.
Â Â Â Â Likewise, on CBS’ “Early Show” April 21, 2005, Dr.
Emily Senay repeated the 112,000 number, though on the “CBS Evening
News” on April 25, Jim Axelrod said the statistics had been revised
“way down from 365,000 a year to just under 26,000.” NBC’s Tom
Costello correctly cited the 26,000 on April 22’s “Today.”
Â Â Â Â When the new numbers came out, the Associated Press
reported that the CDC wasn’t planning to use 26,000 as the number of
obesity-related deaths. CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said
because of “uncertainty” in the calculations combined with the
health risks of obesity, the CDC would not use the smaller number in
its public campaign. So far, many in the media are following suit.
Previous Free Market Project studies on obesity coverage have found
overblown emphasis on this “epidemic” at the expense of facts.
Â Â Â Â To read these studies, please visit: