Video: Obesity myths

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Dateline NBC
updated 11/14/2004 10:13:57 PM ET 2004-11-15T03:13:57

We're simply too fat, we're told. Even our own government nags us about slimming down. And then we get harped at by official health agencies, which tell us obesity is now an epidemic that could kill almost as many people as smoking.

Paul Campos disagrees. Health risk? National epidemic? Baloney, says Campos. We're being fed a plate of lies.

Paul Campos: “The obesity epidemic that we're hearing so much about is largely a product of cultural hysteria and moral panic.”

Hysteria? Panic? Campos is a university professor in Colorado who spent the last five years researching and writing "The Obesity Myth." That's right. Myth.

Campos accuses the government and the health establishment of duping people into believing that losing weight makes you healthy.

Campos: “The scientific data simply does not support these claims we're undergoing some sort of serious health crisis because of increasing weight.”

In fact, if you believe Campos, you may not really be fat at all. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese.

But Campos claims that is simply not true, because the science behind the government's method of classifying Americans as underweight, normal, overweight or obese is flawed, he says.

That measurement is called the body mass index, or BMI, and it's a calculation using a person's weight and height. Anybody with a number over 25 is considered overweight. Over 30, and you're obese.

Campos: “We are putting the definition for overweight at such a low level that the large majority of the American population is supposedly overweight now including people like Brad Pitt… he's right in the middle of the overweight range.”

A spokesperson for Brad Pitt says the figures used to calculate his BMI are not accurate.

But why would government agencies and medical researchers want to make us think we're too fat and unhealthy if we aren't? Here's where Campos moves in for the kill. All that attention to our excess weight is less a matter of health, says Campos, and more about making money.

Keith Morrison: “You portray yourself as an advocate for truth and honesty and say that obesity research is funded by the diet and drug industry which influences every step of the process?”

Campos: “Absolutely.”

Morrison: “And you stand by that?”

Campos: “Absolutely.”

While we worry about getting slim, Campos claims, the universities and diet doctors fatten up on our money, so one angry man finally to the rescue. Or is it more like sabotage?

Dr. David Heber: “If this guy discourages one person from seeking the help they need, he may be hurting someone's health.”

You might not be surprised to hear that most obesity experts do not like what Paul Campos has to say. Dr. David Heber is the director of the Center for Human Nutrition at UCLA and the author of his own diet book, “The L.A. Shape Diet.”

Campos, says Dr. Heber, has tapped into the frustration many people who have tried to lose weight certainly feel, and has told them what they might want to hear. But has not them the truth. which is, says Heber, this:

Heber: “If you have that extra 20 or 30 pounds in the middle, you'd better do something about it.”

It's not just losing weight, says Dr. Heber, but specifically targeting excess body fat, that helps prevent very real medical problems.

Heber: “For the vast majority of Americans, obesity is increasing their risk of diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension, as well as common forms of cancer.”

But what about that accusation of greed, that profit motive Campos serves up?

Dr. Heber says that's completely false.

And, he adds, there is one thing Americans might want to keep in mind when they consider Campos' s claims.

Campos: “I have not gone to medical school. I'm a lawyer.”

Morrison: “ And as a lawyer, you know that if you're going to be put on the stand to be an expert witness, somebody would grill you for quite a long time about your medical experience, wouldn't they?”

Campos: “Yeah, they would.”

Morrison:  “Where'd you get your degree? Where'd you get your advanced degree? How many accolades have you received for your work in medical research? And you'd have to answer, nothing.”

Campos: “Yeah, that's right.”

And then there is the admission law professor Campos passes on to his readers. While writing his book, he says, he developed a much healthier lifestyle and lost nearly 70 pounds.

Campos, who denies any financial motivation in writing his book, says along the way he kept his focus on getting active and eating healthy foods, not the numbers on the scale. So, although Campos sticks by his critique of the health and diet industry, he has actually wound up living by the very advice that his opponent offers everybody.

Heber: “What I'd like people to do is change their diet, lose the fat, build the muscle, lift weights, do aerobic exercise, get into the best shape you possibly can.”

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