Marion Nestle: Anecdata is better than real data!

I guess Marion Nestle is becoming something of a nemesis of mine?

I was looking through the NYT trying to find an article that I’d read earlier, and I came across this article from 2004 with this quote from Marion Nestle:

”It’ s one thing to talk about statistics and another to talk about what’s happening to individuals,” said Dr. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. ”Everyone notices that there are more overweight people now.”

Really, Marion Nestle? You’re a scientist, and you’re telling us that we should trust our impressions (which, by the way, are highly susceptible to being shaped by things like, say, headlines about the obesity panic epidemic) over the actual data? I mean, you could have gone with, “These increases in weight may not seem like a lot, but that doesn’t mean there’s no effect on health,” but you went with “everybody knows” instead?

The context of that quote, by the way, is as a counterpoint to the main person focused on in the article, Dr. Jeffrey Friedman. The article was written by Gina Kolata. Both of them have some fame in Fat Acceptance circles. Here’s a sample:

Over the years, Dr. Friedman says, he has watched the scientific data accumulate to show that body weight, in animals and humans, is not under conscious control. Body weight, he says, is genetically determined, as tightly regulated as height. Genes control not only how much you eat but also the metabolic rate at which you burn food. When it comes to eating, free will is an illusion.

”People can exert a level of control over their weight within a 10-, perhaps a 15-pound range,” Dr. Friedman said. But expecting an obese person to decide to simply eat less and exercise more to get below the obesity range, below the overweight range? It virtually never happens, he said. Any weight that is lost almost invariably comes right back.

The same goes for gaining weight in general, Dr. Friedman argued. A person who has the genes to be thin is not going to get fat because portion sizes increase. It makes no scientific sense, he said.

If you’re familiar with the way these articles usually end, you’ll be expecting it to end with, “But still try to lose weight, everyone!” The last couple paragraphs sort of lean in that direction, but it’s an improvement:

Obesity, Dr. Friedman says, is a problem; fat people are derided and they have health risks like diabetes and heart disease. But it does no one any good to exaggerate the extent of obesity or to blame the obese for being fat.

”Before calling it an epidemic, people really need to understand what the numbers do and don’t say,” he said.

Athough Friedman sees obesity as a problem, he doesn’t contradict his earlier statements that we don’t know a way for fat people to make themselves not-fat. He mentions fat stigma, but since he says it makes no sense to blame people for their weight, I think he would say the way lessen fat stigma is “don’t blame people for their weight,” not “lose weight and then the stigma will stop!” Although just about everyone in  FA agrees that the health risks of fat are exaggerated in the media, you’ll find some disagreement about whether there are health problems caused directly by fat. I think that there probably are, but I don’t think we have any good solutions to them. (Although, again, exaggerated–you’d think that weight was the ONLY thing putatively under your control that had an effect on your health if you listened uncritically to the media.) And if we do find solutions, they may look more like “better knee surgery” than “more effective ways to maintain weight loss”.

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