Recently, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommended that doctors refer all patients with a body mass index of 30 or more to a program designed to promote weight loss. A successful program, according to the panel, combines counseling sessions with concrete weight-loss goals, nutrition advice, and education on setting limits and recognizing barriers to change. The recommendation was met with mixed reviews from doctors and politicians involved in the healthcare debate. Some cited it as a “long-overdue” prod to physicians while others acknowledged the additional responsibility it would place on doctors who are already facing time and resource constraints.
What the debate skims over, however, and what may be the most important point is not a single study demonstrates the long-term benefits of an intensive weight loss program for health. This oversight is at the crux of the war on obesity and America’s obsession with weight loss.
One of the central misconceptions fueling the task force’s recommendation is that body weight alone is indicative of health. Many studies have indicated that weight, when viewed in conjunction with other lifestyle habits like exercise, is not related to disease or early death except in the morbidly obese. Other studies point out that equal numbers of thin and fat people exhibit unhealthy eating habits and whether or not those habits become externally apparent is largely determined by genetics. To assume all fat people are unhealthy and all thin people are healthy is prejudicial and does a disservice to both groups.
Another misconception is that everyone who is fat must suffer from some form of disordered eating. In reality many people with a BMI above 30 are healthy adults who exhibit moderate eating and exercise habits. Likewise, many people at a “normal” BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 do display maladaptive eating habits. Using BMI alone as the criteria for admission into a free counseling program both sets the stage for further discrimination against fat people and excludes many “normal” weight individuals who might benefit. In short, It is a grave mistake to assume everyone at a “normal” BMI is making healthy choices and everyone above a “normal” BMI is not.
As part of the initiative, doctors are urged to refer obese individuals to programs where weight loss is the primary goal and benchmark for success. There are many problems with this. First, weight loss programs fail for about 95% of dieters and ultimately cause more health problems from the resulting weight cycles. Second, there is not sufficient evidence linking weight loss with improved health outcomes in the long run, which the task force openly admits but appears to dismiss in another classic case of succumbing to popular culture rhetoric about dieting. The task force states that in some cases, programs include exercise sessions. From an evidence-based perspective, this should be priority number one. Research has shown dramatic improvements in health from exercise alone, and obese but fit people are as healthy as fit people falling within the normal BMI criteria. A focus on weight loss over increased physical activity gives people an inaccurate tool for gauging health.
Dr. Jack Der-Sarkissian notes that more than half of all obese patients are never told they need to lose weight, and that’s just “not fair to the patient.” Hmmm…. Let’s talk about what’s really not fair. It’s not fair that doctors assume all fat people have homogenous eating habits and weight loss is the lifesaving miracle panacea. It’s not fair that doctors assume a fat person is automatically unhealthy and on the flip side, a thin person is healthy. It’s not fair that so many medical problems a fat person encounters are attributed to weight with no further investigation. It’s not fair that people at “normal” weights are rarely offered nutritional advice, diagnostic testing, or counseling because they are assumed to be healthy. It’s not fair that so many people with diagnosable eating disorders do not get the treatment they need because they don’t meet certain weight criteria, while the government wants to the foot the bill for every fat person to a enter a weight loss program.
When will health officials come to realize that both physical and mental health are independent of body size and the people who could actually benefit from counseling fall all along the weight continuum.