Numbers Reveal Gravity of Obesity Problem

Statistical Sticking Points

Before the round number of 300,000 gains currency by being incessantly repeated, some arithmetical caveats regarding it should be raised. It is no doubt dependent on a variety of debatable assumptions.

What proportion of deaths from stroke, for example, ought we to attribute to obesity? How about deaths from diabetes? And how old, on average, are the people who die from obesity-aggravated diseases? What if one is obese for 20 years, permanently loses a lot of weight, and then dies from a heart attack 15 years later? What percentage of that death ought we to chalk up to obesity?

Different answers to these questions lead to widely different estimates of the number of deaths from obesity.

Problems with the definition of obesity are also difficult.

Do we use weight alone, historical charts, the body mass index or BMI (defined below), direct measurements of fat? And where do we place the cutoff lines without being too arbitrary? What about the special problems of defining early childhood obesity? How do we take into account a person's sex? Body-frame? Are there strong medical or normative reasons for our decisions? Is there any element of demonization of the obese present? Of cultural bias?

Obesity is an increasingly serious problem that can hasten death and lessen quality of life. Our response to it should be to lose our stomachs, not our heads.

Professor of mathematics at Temple University and adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia University, John Allen Paulos is the author of several best-selling books, including Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. His Who’s Counting? column on appears every month.

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