Friday, September 03, 2004

A waisted story

Women's shapes are changing - but are waist sizes really exploding?

SizeUK, a national survey of body shapes undertaken by University College London, the London School of Fashion and numerous clothes makers and retailers, suggests average waist size has shot up from 27.5 inches in 1951 to 34 inches today - an increase of about 25 per cent. Yet average weight has only increased from 136 pounds to 143 pounds - about five per cent.

Women are getting fatter then - but not very much. Some of this increase can be explained by the fact that women are now taller than they were. Moreover, bust and hip sizes have only increased by an inch or two. One difference is that the first survey was conducted in 1951 - not long after rationing ended, so people were not exactly living in the land of plenty.

The other is that for both surveys, as one of the researchers, Jeni Bougourd, confirmed to me, women were measured in their underwear. This means that many in the 1951 sample would have been wearing girdles and corsets designed to produce artificially narrow waists. As such, the survey reveals as much about changing fashions as changing levels of body fat.

Strangely, however, the role of underwear (and the fact that average weights seem to have increased so little) has been largely ignored in news reports of the survey. Many in the media seem too obsessed with finding the next headline about 'the obesity epidemic' to take a peek at the facts underneath.

SizeUK announce results from UK National Sizing Survey, London College of Fashion, 1 September 2004

Unhappy meals

As children return to school after the summer break, the UK government's food watchdog is telling parents to make lunches healthier. 'Lunchboxes still packed with fat, salt and sugar', declares the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in response to its annual survey of lunchbox contents across 28 schools.

The FSA says that 'children are eating double the recommended lunchtime intake of saturated fat and sugar, and up to half their daily recommended salt intake'. FSA nutritionist Sam Church said: 'We all know that what children eat now can have a big impact on their diet and health in the future and that there is nothing wrong with children having the odd snack, but these should be eaten in moderation and as part of a varied and balanced diet.'

The only reason this story is newsworthy is because of the ongoing panic about obesity. Yet there is little evidence to suggest that what we eat as children has a direct connection with later eating habits or weight.

Children are notoriously fussy eaters, refusing to eat anything they don't like. Parents are mostly concerned with making sure that their kids eat enough at lunchtime, as long as there is some goodness in it, on the basis that they can exercise the usual carrot-and-stick discipline at mealtimes in the evening. So what features in a lunchbox isn't necessarily reflective of children's diets as a whole - nor does it make sense to assume that adults will eat the same things they did when they were kids. Adults usually have enough sense to realise that eating a variety of foods is important both for health and pleasure.

But even if all these assumptions were accurate, there is little reason to believe that eating more than a certain level of fat, sugar or salt is in itself harmful. Human beings around the world, and throughout history, have eaten a variety of different foods, in smaller or larger quantities, and thrived. It beggars belief that a little more salt or sugar could be a major health risk, except perhaps for very young children. And there is no clear relationship between obesity in childhood and obesity in later life. Only 30 per cent of fat children will become fat adults - and even then, only the most extremely overweight and unfit are likely to suffer serious health consequences as a result.

In fact, the FSA report itself accepts that any rise in obesity is unlikely to be due to increasing food consumption. 'The most plausible underlying explanation is a fall in energy expenditure due to the explosion in sedentary computer games, hours spent watching television and parental safety concerns resulting in curtailed activity outside of school hours. Added to this is a fall in time devoted to activity within the national curriculum and a four-fold increase in the numbers of children driven to school.' But facts won't be allowed to get in the way of a good panic. Unlike our kids, it seems, this one will run and run.

Lunchboxes still packed with fat, salt and sugar, Food Standards Agency, 1 September 2004

First published on Spiked's Don't panic page.

Obesity statistics in question

The much-touted figure of 300,000 deaths per year in the USA from obesity could be a massive over-estimate because it is based on taking risk in non-elderly populations with a low risk of death from other causes and extrapolating to the whole population. But age is such a decisive factor in mortality risk that the extrapolation is invalid. And, as Steve Milloy points out, there are actually health benefits to obesity in later life. - Views - Junk Science - Government Questions Obesity Scare