The man  scratches a nape

There is no doubt that health messages are confusing. What causes cancer one week cures it the next. And messages about what to eat seem to get increasingly complicated. Cap that off with the overarching theme, which comes through, most health messages that “we are all doing the wrong thing” and it is little wonder people switch off.

There is a particular narrative to public health messages and almost a certain morality, which runs through them. Smoking, drinking, laying in the sunshine, gambling and overeating could in years gone by be seen as “sinful”. In modern secular times they cannot be presented in this light or as a sign of weak character so they get woven into a health narrative.

Whilst smoking is bad for you, alcohol is only a problem if it is used excessively, a bit of sunshine is actually good for us and gambling is a behavioral NOT a health issue and only a problem if done beyond ones capacity to afford it. (For the purists, knock on effects from problem gambling can impact health).

And the big one is of course weight and how much we eat. The World Economic Forum in Davos was told that more than half the world’s adults would be overweight within two decades. Health and nutrition experts said the “deadly” obesity crisis had to be tackled with government action.

Unstated but clearly implied is money for the favored programs of all these experts.

Where does this figure of 50% come from? It is based on the Body Mass Index (BMI), which defines normal weight as being between 18.5 and 24.9. A figure of 25 -29.9 is overweight and 30 or above is obese. These figures were lowered in 1998. The BMI was developed in the 1830’s to determine averages and only became popular in the 1970’s. However it is only useful as a statistical analysis tool and has no useful application in “diagnosing” individuals. It has taken on that role because it is easy to use.

Furthermore it significantly overstates the problem. Hence it remains popular with those who want to promote a crisis.

According to the same experts at Davos, “In the last 30 years the percentage of the worlds population that is overweight or obese has doubled”. They fail to mention that this has corresponded with public health messages to be on a low fat diet and an explosion of public health programs!

Lets be blunt. Being significantly overweight is bad for your health. It increases the likelihood of numerous diseases. We also lack energy and do not look our best.

However the cut off is too low! A major meta analysis of 100 studies on 3 million people showed that those with a BMI of up to 30 did not have any increase in all cause mortality. In other words being technically a bit overweight does not shorten your life expectancy.

If an increase in all cause mortality where the cut off for being overweight then instead of 66% of Americans and a similar proportion of Australians being classed as overweight the number would be around 16%! This is an issue but hardly a crisis.

I raised this issue on my regular spot on the Paul Murray show this week and was of course criticized. Yet despite accepting the point about BMI the percentage of people overweight quoted (to support the crisis claim) still was based on this.

You can be sure that if the meta analysis had shown a slight increase in mortality the findings would have been promoted widely. Those in public health would have used it to justify their crisis claims. The fact that it did not hence, does not fit the narrative and so is best “ignored” and at worst pilloried.

So what do we do? For many people weight loss would be very beneficial to their health. For a much bigger group eating more healthily would improve your health regardless of whether you lose some weight or not. By this I mean reducing processed foods and eating more “real” food, which used to grow somewhere or move around.

For many people losing some kilos may provide more energy, allow a drop in clothes size and leave you feeling generally healthier. These are valid reasons to re-examine your eating patterns. For those interested you can check out eat4life on my website.

However trying to scare people is not productive. Creating a crisis so you can get government funding is in my opinion wrong. We need to be wary of experts talking up a crisis and offering to fix it. Especially when the facts contradict the experts.