That Ridiculous “Outrunning Obesity” Article

bad scienceAn article in Mashable today called “You Can’t Outrun Obesity” begins:

A team of British cardiologists have said it’s time to “bust the myth” that regular exercise tackles obesity.

The strongly-worded editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, published in the May edition of the journal, says you can’t outrun a bad diet and that although regular exercise reduces the risk of developing a number of health issues such as heart disease, dementia, some cancers and type 2 diabetes, it doesn’t promote weight loss.

I hate when they say “tackle” obesity – like people should be running at me in the street or something. But that’s not what’s super messed up here  What’s super messed up is that these doctors are aware that movement reduces the risk of developing heart disease, dementia, some cancers, and type 2 diabetes (the exact reasons that we’re given for losing weight,) and instead of saying “Hey, this seems like more evidence to suggest that maybe we should be more focused on evidence-based health interventions and less focused on manipulating people’s body size,” they are trying to downplay the actual health benefits because the evidence-based health intervention that they’ve found doesn’t make people’s bodies smaller.

They go on to suggest that a low carb diet is best, citing an article that isn’t even primarily about weight loss, that notes that health benefits can be seen without weight loss, that spends most of its conclusion section trying to justifying why we should accept shitty studies as good enough, and relies for its proof of low carb diets as “the best for weight loss ” on two studies, neither of which had weight loss as a primary outcome measure, one of which looked at 26 people over three months, and another that looked at 82 people over three months. Whoooeee that’s some good sciencing!  (Sarcasm meter 10 out of 10)

The problem here is that we’ve become so obsessed with trying to get everyone into the same height weight ratio that we’ve taken our eye off the ball of giving people options and information that will support their actual health.

Most studies about weight and health don’t take behavior into account, which is weird because those that do take behavior into account find that behaviors, and not body size, are the best predictor of future health.  To be clear, health is complicated, multi-dimensional, not entirely within our control, not guaranteed under any circumstances, not an obligation or a barometer of worthiness.

But if scientists were going to be honest with us they would say “Even if making people thin would make them healthy (and that’s an unproven hypothesis,) we have absolutely no idea how to make more than a tiny fraction of people thinner long-term and most of those people are losing very small amounts of weight.  We have no idea how to make fat people thin, and many of the things that we are trying have horrible side effects, including death.  We do know that stigma and oppression can be dangerous for people’s health, and that behaviors can positively impact health without impacting weight at all.  So we recommend making sure people have access to the information, food, and movement options (if any) that they would choose, and that we do everything we can to avoid shaming, stigmatizing, or oppressing people, and then let people make their own choices about how to prioritize their health and the path that they want to choose to get there.”

Instead, we live in a world where scientists who get grants from the Atkins Foundation [for low-carb dieting] write papers trying to sell people on the benefits of the diets that they are payed to endorse (check the small print in the footnote on page 1) and irresponsible, scientifically illiterate media that report them as if they are the gospel-according-to-weightloss truth.  And it’s always the people who are paying the diet companies – and not the scientists being paid by them  – who suffer for it.

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23 thoughts on “That Ridiculous “Outrunning Obesity” Article

  1. A low carb diet is such an effing privilege! Due to whatever is going on with my body, I have to limit carbs if I don’t have digestive issues. I have to cook a lot of meals. I can’t grab a sandwich on the go. Treats are weighed against how much time I want to spend in the bathroom the next day or too.

    I suppose it would be somewhat easier if I enjoyed raw veggies, but I don’t, so I have to cook them, which takes time. Even salads require a certain amount of prep. If I want soup, I prefer to make my own because even veggie soups have high carb counts, possibly due to rice or potatoes, I’m not sure.

    I long for the days when I could dump tomato sauce on pasta call it good.

    Now I have to shop regularly, cook and do dishes every day and long for the occasional slice of cake if I don’t want to deal with the results.

    I suppose it is better for my diabetes, but lord it is a hassle. AND I get really hungry sooner if I don’t eat enough fat with a meal.

    Here endeth the rant.

    1. Also more expensive. I try to eat low carb because I feel healthier when I do, and I definitely consider a privilege to be able to afford to eat that way. Pasta and rice are way cheaper, and help make veggies and meat go further. Right now my diet is mostly veggies (mostly fresh), dairy and as much meat as I can manage (I don’t really like meat that much!) and it is definitely more expensive to eat like that!

  2. Well, my experience is the same, exercise doesn’t make me thinner – it “only” makes me feel better and healthier and have lots and lots of fun, but all of this doesn’t seem to matter much to these “experts”. I can get really angry about that, because so many people seem to do exercise only for losing weight, it seems to be an annoying task that just has to be done, and if they don’t lose weight, they quit doing it. It’s so sad that so many people don’t seem to find the form of movement that is really fun for them and makes them feel better in body and soul, because that matters so much more than losing weight.

    1. That’s one of the reasons I gave up on exercise – I wasn’t losing weight, and I don’t really enjoy it, so, eff it!

      Still trying to convince myself that the invisible benefits are worth it.

      1. My husband (also fat) loves going to gym. To me, it’s like purgatory, though I would relent on this if there was an affordable gym near me with a year-’round pool.

        Instead, I garden. I get that movement that’s supposed to be good for me, plus at least a few good-looking plants enjoyed by me and the neighbors. Win-win.

      2. Well, I want those invisible benefits only if it is FUN also. So if you want to do exercise, I hope you find something you really like and can look forward to. If you don’t want to, then don’t.

        I just found out that I really love cycling, never really tried that before. So yesterday I did a great long cycling tour in great weather and a beautiful landscape, and when I came home, I was HUNGRY: I ate a big piece of cake and a big salad and a pizza. I guess those “experts” would have wanted me to eat just the salad and go to bed hungry, because “weightloss”. Baaah, that would take all of the fun out of the experience, I never would love cycling if all they way I would have to think “I can’t eat when I come home”. I really hate this strong connection between moving your body and weightloss that our society makes. I am sooo thankful that I learned it differently from my family, because in my family nobody is slim but everbody loves movement.

      3. Back when I lived right up the hill from an affordable and fat-friendly gym, I used to drag myself in three mornings a week at stupid o’clock and go bouncing home all shiny with endorphins. It didn’t matter that I knew it was going to feel awesome; I still had to drag myself to the gym every time and psych myself up for that lousy first 5 or 10 minutes.

  3. So first off we have a study to tell us that exercise does not make everyone thin.

    Then we have “sure exercise is great for your health, but it won’t make the size one the tag of your jeans any smaller!” Oh no! So glad they got their priorities in order there!

  4. What a wasted opportunity to promote exercise as good for the health of everyone, and promote good health. Instead it gives the message – that I should give up on exercise if my total goal is weight loss – which is what the doctors keep telling me the goal is. Grrrr

    1. I know. They’re finally admitting balanced nutrition and exercise won’t make a fat person thin… and then saying that means fat people shouldn’t bother with them, because we don’t need to be healthy like we need to be thin.

      I’d say “A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim,” but I don’t believe health was ever the fatphobic engine’s aim. I believe it was their excuse. Eliminating fat people because of our cosmetic variance was their aim, and they certainly haven’t forgotten it.

  5. The shine has long worn off Atkins, and soon its trendier variation (Paleo) will also be inevitably eclipsed by something new. Gotta’ keep the marketing going in an attempt to get the flagging interest back up. :/

    1. I just love it when people say that Paleo will make me thin, because “there weren’t any fat people back in the paleolithic age.”

      Yeah, and those old, Old, OOOOOLD statuettes of fat ladies were something that those ancient artists did just completely out of the blue, based on absolutely no real-world experience.

      1. I’ve always wondered about that. When you see a “Venus of Willendorf,” she’s presumably an ideal: a fantasy. Perhaps she was not meant as a true portrait of Womanhood at a time where food was scarce and mobility was literally required to keep you one step ahead of a predator. She was a symbol of rarely-attainable plenty, instead.

        The cartoonist Shary Flenniken had a great cartoon along those lines once. Primitive women went to their local holy man and complained because their men were all obsessed with the “Venus” statuette. The women were angry because no matter what they did, they could never be as fat as the “goddess” was. 😉

        1. Haha! Oh, that’s good!

          However, there are multiple “venus” statues, across many cultures, and places, and they all share the “fat woman” characteristic, and I’ve seen fat bodies today who look just like that, which leads me to believe it is not simply some imagined ideal, but based on a real woman.

          Although why these “venus” statues always seem to be headless, I don’t know. I guess the “headless fatties” thing started out as some form of fat-goddess worship? I like that better than the dehumanizing way it’s done now. “But, see, they couldn’t show her face. It would be sacrilege! She’s a goddess, after all!”

          I am now thinking of various ways a disgruntled fat goddess would smite an uppity artist who dared to make her nose wrong. Hehehe.

          1. We discussed something similar in an art history class. The head is more likely to fall/smash off because it sticks out. Much like the Venus de Milo’s arms have gone, probably because they were not close to her body. Same with legs in other ancient statues. Same reasoning for the penis on Michelangelo’s David: if it was to scale, it would be too big and would have fallen off on its own, so he downsized. 🙂

            1. Wow, I never thought of that. Thanks for the info. I never learned that stuff in my art appreciation class.

              Frankly, I was bored to tears in that class. I know what I appreciate, and them telling me WHY I was supposed to appreciate it did nothing for me, especially, when they were extolling the virtues of such weird stuff as a teacup made out of fur. I like the old masters, because I can look at those paintings, and know exactly what I’m looking at. The modern stuff just confuzzles me. So, I learned to parrot the teacher and say what she wanted, so I could get the grade, and check off the requirement.

              We didn’t do much on sculptures, though, or maybe I just blocked it from my memory.

          2. I saw a really interesting paper/essay/something a while back hypothesizing that some of them may have been self-portraits — a lot of the proportions are similar to the perspective you have when looking down at yourself, and especially in a pre-mirror age, you can’t usually see your own head.

  6. Just as a scientist, I’d like to make sure that you guys know that when we can’t get our work published, we lose our jobs. I’ve had papers where reviewers have made me add something to my conclusion that I don’t agree with, but I’ve had to do it because once a paper is submitted to a journal, that journal owns it. If I don’t make the changes they want, my work doesn’t get out and I’ll lose my job. I’ve started including a footnote that Id like to thank a reviewer for bringing up the point, but I still have to put the damn point into my paper.

    1. Wow, that really stinks. It’s not enough to just be awesome at your job. No. You have to play office politics AND publishing politics, and probably from time to time, actual political politics, as well.


      This is why a very smart woman I know got out of science, completely. She loved the actual science of it, but all the rest drove her right out of the field.

      1. It’s unbelievably frustrating. I spent 10 years getting advanced degrees because I want to help people, not because I just really loved accumulating student loans. I love working at a university because I love teaching and having the opportunity to mentor young people with an interest in science, but the pressure to get 5-7 articles published each year in high impact journals is exhausting, and usually means that I’m compromising why spence of integrity by adding conclusions and clinical implications that I don’t actually think I have evidence to support. I don’t blame your friend for getting out of the field one bit.

        1. It’s the same for humanities disciplines now too, though not quite as high-pressure and not as much in the public eye. Professors have to publish to get tenure, and if you’re denied tenure you HAVE to leave (most non-academics don’t realize that. A tenure denial means one year of grace and then you’re fired.) We don’t have to publish five to seven articles a year, more like two or three, and we pretty much have to write a book to get tenure. I happen to love research and writing and have done well with it, but there’s no doubt that it takes time away from teaching.

          1. Yes, in my final year of a religious studies degree, they explained about the publishing. Also journals count for 2-3 points, book reviews 1 point, and books 7 points. So they push is usually for books. That may explain why humanities discipline books are so shoddy because they have to dish out more of them.

            I had no idea about the science writing though. When I first started in uni. (in astrophysics) they explained that scientists are the worst writers in the world, so you have to meet an “effective writing” component. You could take a test, get 80% on your high school english final, or take a course. I got 50% on the english final, failed the test, and took the course (and passed). They don’t teach writing to scientists though, they just expect you to know how to be perfect already.

            Like keedaa said, it’s tough. I decided not to continue with getting my MA because of religious differences and I felt my thesis was no longer my own. At the small uni (used to be a uni. college) I studied at and work at the library still, they profs have said they’d love to teach alongside me. Not sure if there is the push to publish there.

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