More on the Fat Beat

How could is the enemy of fact

In April, I complained about Newsweek’s assertion that the recession was making us fat. The problem with the piece was that it perpetuated a ‘poor people eat poorly’ narrative, without any input from public health experts, or, you know, facts.

Today, Newsweek went ahead and ran another piece touting the connection between obesity and the recession. A new Gallup study finds that the percentage of Americans who can be considered obese has increased by 1.7 percent. Newsweek is calling this relatively small increase a “jump,” because rates were mostly flat between 2003 and 2006.

But instead of leaving well enough alone, Newsweek blogger Kate Dailey reaches for a tenuous connection (emphasis mine):

So what led to this jump in obese Americans? It could be that the increased stress of the recession, combined with cost of healthy fresh foods (as compared to processed food), is resulting in conditions that promote weight gain. The research from Gallup-Healthways found that those who qualified as obese were also less likely to have access to basic needs such as food, shelter and health care.

There’s that word again: “could.” According to the piece, some behavioral scientists note that there are links between stress and weight gain, that stressful times lead people to reach for comfort foods, and that unhealthy foods provide cheap options.

Which is all fine, but for now there’s no hard data connecting the recession to increased obesity. First of all, there’s the problem of timing: the cited poll covers “the past year,” but the economy didn’t completely tank until September, so it’s unclear how much of this damage was done before or after the financial collapse.

It’s possible that, as the piece suspects, the recession is responsible for or has contributed to the increase in obesity. But, more likely, there are many underlying causes, much more complex than Newsweek’s reductive hypothesis. That’s why “correlation does not equal causation” should be written in bright lights in every newsroom. Plus, it seems to be pretty generally understood that obesity rates have long been rising among children, for instance. Access to healthcare and fresh produce in poor communities were problems long before the recession set in.

The author herself notes that the body-mass index which is the basis for the survey is an outdated measure for obesity statistics. BMI compares height against weight, but doesn’t account for the relative weight of muscle versus fat tissue—so a very muscular person may appear obese by the measure.

Which is all to say that if in fact Americans are becoming more obese, it’s a problem and worth our concern. But, articles that rely on weak conjecture are problematic as well. To her credit, Dailey presents the recession/obesity connection as a question rather than as a statement. But the article brings the question no closer to being answered. It’s tempting for reporters to want to develop tenuous connections between their beats and the financial crisis. But our broken public-health system is concern enough, and messy reporting just distracts from that truth.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.