Obesity has never killed anyone

14th November 2008 at 00:00
Researchers have been accused of obscuring evidence about global obesity levels

Policies aimed at reducing child obesity are "hysterical and clumsy", because researchers refuse to confront the truth - that there is no global obesity crisis.

Australian academic Michael Gard ruffled feathers aplenty in Edinburgh this week when he made that claim and accused researchers of obscuring evidence that obesity levels were stabilising.

Dr Gard, an associate professor at New South Wales's Charles Sturt University, has spent years poring over international obesity research papers.

He has found widespread evidence of obesity levels falling or levelling off, including research involving 400 Aberdeen children between 1997 and 2004 and similar findings from British Columbia in Canada. "That should give us reason to pause every time we hear someone say that by the year 2050 everyone in Scotland will be obese," Dr Gard said.

The perception of a worldwide pandemic had led to "hysterically populist policy".

In Ontario, Canada, minimum levels of physical exercise were mandatory but it was often too cold to go outside, so pupils did five minutes of "desk aerobics" each morning - a practice which teachers "hated". It was similarly "expensive and clumsy" to introduce mandatory reports on pupils' body mass indexes (BMIs) for parents, an idea often mooted by health officials.

Dr Gard expressed sympathy for policy-makers who had to make decisions based on misleading findings, which were rendered even more alarming by sensation-seeking media.

"When you talk about crises, certain things become thinkable which wouldn't otherwise be thinkable," he said.

Research was showing a levelling-out of obesity in certain groups, including high-income groups in Scotland, while it was rising in other communities such as Australian ethnic minorities.

"It doesn't make sense to talk about pupils as a whole," he said. Yet researchers seemed reluctant to convey that in their abstracts.

Research papers into the causes of obesity were united in only one thing: they were inconclusive.

This showed the "futility" of trying to "nail down" obesity into a list of risk factors. Blanket responses to obesity, such as increasing PE in schools and banning fatty foods, were therefore too simplistic.

The widespread portrayal of obesity as a disease had "served us very badly", since it encouraged this "one-size-fits-all" approach.

Obesity was a result of one's social environment. Tackling the problem, therefore, should involve providing support and resources for those who worked with individuals, families and communities.

"Obesity isn't a disease," Dr Gard said. "It never killed anybody. It has no risk factors. The search for risk factors hasn't produced useful knowledge."

Dr Gard spoke at the Holyrood Events conference "Childhood Obesity: working together for a healthier future", where he clashed with fellow speaker Godfrey Xuereb, an expert on diet, physical activity and physical health at the World Health Organisation.

Mr Xuereb compared Dr Gard's stance to the South African health minister who in the 1980s played down the threat of HIVAids, with disastrous consequences.

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