- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2006

We may be fatter than we let on.

Obesity levels in the United States have been “grossly underestimated,” according to a study released yesterday by the Harvard School of Public Health, which factored in a common human behavior: tending to lie about our weight and height.

Women typically underreport their weight, while men younger than 45 exaggerate their height, and such vanity can skew health survey results, the researchers say. Their study compared discrepancies in national weight trends among more than 1.4 million respondents who reported their weight by telephone during surveys conducted from 1988 to 2002 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and those who fessed up face to face and later were weighed at a medical center.

The researchers concluded that estimates of obesity in individual states and the District of Columbia have been too low because of the phenomenon.

The adjusted data showed obesity increasing from 16 percent to almost 29 percent in men and from almost 22 percent to 36 percent in women in that 14-year span.

“Our results provide the first estimate of the levels in trends in state-level obesity in the U.S., corrected for bias in self-reported height and weight,” said lead author Majid Ezzati, an associate professor of international health at the school. “Using this data, national and state public health institutions can better target resources and programs toward combating the growing epidemic.”

Though the researchers were in a “cooperative agreement” with the CDC, the agency declined to comment yesterday on the findings. The CDC estimates that 30 percent of U.S. adults are obese, defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher.

“The Harvard people are showing signs of desperation. They have been screaming that we are having a health calamity in this country for 50 years, yet our life expectancy and overall health continues to improve. This is Harvard’s own gross exaggeration,” said Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado and author of the 2004 book “The Obesity Myth: Why America’s Obsession with Weight is Hazardous to Your Health.”

He called the Harvard research noteworthy on a sociological level but said figures from the American Medical Association (AMA) and other sources show that it had little medical viability.

“People lie about their weight, and that’s interesting. But according to an AMA study last year, it’s only those with a BMI of over 35 — which is just 6 percent of the population — who are at a truly dangerous weight level,” Mr. Campos said. “Studies like this can be at the mercy of all kinds of statistical distortions.”

Gary Foster, director of Temple University’s Center for Obesity Research and Education, said the research deserves attention.

“Other research has indicated that people are more likely to fudge the truth about their weight on the phone rather than in person, and this would suggest that the prevalence of obesity is more than we think it is,” Mr. Foster said. “Still, there is no getting around the fact that obesity is a major problem in America, and it needs to be addressed.”

The Harvard study, which was supported by grants from the Association of Schools of Public Health and the National Institute of Aging, was published in this month’s issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, a British publication.

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