Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Campos: Fat doesn't equal unhealthy

Campos: Fat doesn't equal unhealthy

August 1, 2006

Occam's razor is a logical rule of thumb suggesting that, roughly speaking, a simple explanation which accounts for all the data is better than a complex one that does the same. For example, the fact that biologists have never seen a unicorn can be explained by the theory that unicorns are superintelligent beings that have devised technologies to make them undetectable to humans.

A simpler theory is that unicorns don't exist.

A story in The New York Times, authored by its excellent health writer Gina Kolata, illustrates how useful Occam's razor can be. The story chronicles the astonishing improvement in health Americans have enjoyed over the course of the past century - what Kolata describes as our transformation "from small, relatively weak and sickly people to humans who are so big and robust that their ancestors seem almost unrecognizable."

Over the course of the past few generations the average American has gone from being thin and sickly to being fat and healthy. The average American man is 3 inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than he was at the time of the Civil War (Kolata's story focuses on the health records of Civil War veterans).

This means the typical Civil War veteran had a body mass index of 23, which put him in the middle of what our public health officials incorrectly label the "normal" range of weight (it was normal to be thin in the 19th century, mainly because so many people were malnourished).

Meanwhile, today's average middle-age male has a BMI of 28, putting him toward the high end of the government's "overweight" category.

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