How About a 'Crusade' Against the Conventional Wisdom on Childhood Obesity?

First Lady Michelle Obama teaches Dr. Oz how to do the Dougie Dance.

In yesterday’s Daily Briefing about the dreadful media coverage of the attacks in Benghazi, Erick Erickson coined the term “conventional wisdom machine” to describe the mainstream media. The conventional wisdom machine efficiently turns out flimsy facts, sometimes with a flourish.

Vying for a spot on the list of the top 10 most ill-timed political stories, on September 12, 2012, First Lady Michelle Obama appeared on The Dr. Oz Show, and when he posited, “The greatest threat to national security that we have is obesity,” she said, “Absolutely.” Yes, on the day after the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, when we awoke to learn of our Libyan ambassador’s murder and embassies burning, both reminding us that we continue to face dire national security threats, the first lady appeared on television declaring body fat our #1 concern.

What threat did the first lady imagine? Obese people aren’t accepted into the military. True, insufficient military personnel threatens national security, but the size of our military force means nothing if we do not send them to the right place. It was just such an egregious error that cost Ambassador Stevens his life the previous day.

In addition, the interview contained some inappropriate elements. While the administration twists itself into knots not to offend Islam, the interview is titled “First Lady Michelle Obama’s Health Crusade.” And for a final flourish of cluelessness, Mrs. Obama taught Dr. Oz how to “Dougie,” which, according to the lyrics of the song, is a dance meant to blow off mean “niggas” and attract hook-ups with “bitches.”

Any single one of those items would be cause enough for raised eyebrows. Taken together, they are dumbfounding. And they all come before the substance of the interview, an obesity epidemic. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, we don’t have one.

 The U.S. has many obese people, but not an outbreak. The conventional wisdom machine has convinced many of us of a phantom epidemic by failing to cover contrary facts.

The Dr. Oz interview of Mrs. Obama revolved around obesity, specifically in children. Mrs. Obama mentioned the often-noted fact that the drastic rise in obese children has happened in a single generation. She’s right, but not due to changes in childhood size. The “epidemic” results from changes made to measurement and classification in the national statistics. They moved the goal posts. From “The Epidemic that Wasn’t“:

The latest statistics on childhood overweight from the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They show that since the childhood growth charts were redesigned nearly a decade ago, there have been no statistically significant change in the percentages of young people at or above the 95th percentile (labeled as “overweight” and some are now calling “obese”).

This is significant because prior to 1999, the definition of “overweight” and how it was measured changed, as did surveillance. Even the NHANES surveys were redesigned several times. That makes it especially challenging for the public to readily see what’s happened and exactly how much children have grown. [See Creating an Epidemic.] The last statistical change that helped to accentuate public perceptions of an epidemic was when new child growth charts were issued in 2000, using BMIs rather than heights and weights (instantly placing nearly two-thirds of children in higher percentiles, despite no increase in their actual weights). An epidemic of obesity was declared by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson on March 9, 2004, launching an aggressive government campaign and massive funding to address a purported crisis. This was followed in 2005 by the Surgeon General Richard Carmona making the epidemic of childhood obesity a national priority and anti-obesity initiatives went into high gear. Claims of an epidemic of childhood obesity continued even while repeated reports were being issued by the National Center for Health Statistics continuing to show no actual increase in children’s sizes since 1999.

In addition to trying to fix a phantom problem, Mrs. Obama’s healthy eating “crusade” is a poor solution.

Again from Junk Food Science, an archived blog well worth your time to browse, we learn healthy eating programs not only fail but also have the dire unintended consequence of promoting childhood eating disorders. Granted, Mrs. Obama explained that she never talks to her daughters about body weight because she doesn’t want them to become obsessed with body image, but attention on food focuses children on body image whether we intend it or not.

I learned that when we moved back to Texas after five years in London. In their early years, I had successfully created healthy eaters. Later, the children attended a school where healthy eating was expected, not discussed. I’m a mom who is often caught saying crazy things like, “Put down that broccoli and go watch TV!” Two months into our school here in Texas, however, I had to fight my (very skinny) children to eat. They tore fat off bacon, refused meat, asked for organic produce, and complained about restaurant meals. They worried about getting fat. I quashed the problem as quickly as I could, but it was clear that it originated in health policy. (We had a similar experience with racial issues.)

Unfortunately, an “epidemic” of childhood obesity is not the only flimsy meme churned out by the conventional wisdom machine, and when aided by popular figures like Mrs. Obama, the conventional wisdom is that much harder to fight.

Last week, a friend, prompted by a NPR story about the “new” findings that organic food wasn’t healthier, asked me to discuss whether John Q. Public is too stubborn to alter his opinions when faced with new evidence. John Q. Public is not too stubborn about his opinions. He is too invested in them.

People seek meaning, purpose, a connection to something greater than themselves. Things like religion or belief in individual liberty or American exceptionalism provide that meaning, but the relativists convinced many of us that such beliefs are foolish. So people create meaning elsewhere. From Jonah Goldberg a long time ago,

Perhaps it was when Nietzsche pronounced God dead that so many decided to do His job themselves. Today, we are our own priests. Our truths are own “inner truths.” Our morality is bought retail.

Pick a topic: healthy eating, organic food, education reform, hurried children, global warming — interior decor! — they all claim moral components. Breaking the conventional wisdom is not as simple as merely reevaluating facts. To break the fierce grip of conventional wisdom, we, the opposition, must possess solid contrary evidence, make that evidence visible through the throng of “authorities” who tout the conventional wisdom because they want you to know what good people they are, and replace the lost moral significance of the conventional wisdom.

It is not easy to do.


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