CF Gets Fat Stat Wrong

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Consumer Freedom (CF) is "a coalition of concerned individuals and businesses working together to promote personal responsibility and protect a full menu of consumer choices." Part of what they do is point out errors in science and tricky statistics that are used by activists to promote particular agendas. And usually they do a pretty good job. So this morning, when I received a list of their latest headlines and observations, I was surprised to see a decided misstep.

In this dispatch, CF complained that John McLaughlin, host of The McLaughlin Group, stated that in the last twenty years the obesity rate for children in Maine had risen by 200%. CF questioned the source of this statistic, stating that it more than doubled other estimates. So far, so good.

But then CF slipped. They implied that the statistic was invalid because in 1998 the government changed the definition of "overweight." The implication is that this redefinition artificially inflated the obesity rate. But that conclusion is wrong.

True, in 1998 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) held a consensus conference and, after looking at data on the increased incidence of various diseases with increasing fatness, decided to change the level of body mass index (BMI) at which adults were considered overweight. Previously, those with a BMI over 27 were considered overweight; after the conference, those with a BMI over 25 were to be considered overweight. Whatever one's opinion about whether this was a valid change, the fact remains that that while the definition of "overweight" was changed, the conference did nothing to change the definition of adult obesity (BMI over 30). Thus, changing the definition of overweight contrary to CF's implication did nothing to change the number of folks who would be considered obese. And anyway, such cut points refer to adults, not to children.

If CF wants to throw stones at other's poor use of statistics, they should first make sure their own statistics aren't made of glass!

Ruth Kava, Ph.D., R.D., is Director of Nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health.