Go Ahead, Be Fat and Happy

So advises the Wall Street Journal, in a commentary, “Worth the Weight,” by Arthur Brooks.

Now contrarian articles usually make for good reading, and presumably that was the reason the WSJ ran this piece. Oh, it’s in the Saturday edition going into the long Presidents’ Day weekend, a good time for lighter fare (no pun intended). Plus the author has also written a book, “Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism.” So he’s the Journal’s type, a true believer.

But if you are going to be contrary, you need either to make a good case or be humorous. This piece does neither. The only reason I am bothering to take apart this particular article (aside from it being a slow news period) is that it illustrates the low standards of the WSJ editorial page.

The article argues that we shouldn’t worry about being overweight, since fat people (defined as a body mass index, or BMI, over 25) are happier and more charitable:

Indeed, according to data from the University of Michigan and Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy, people in the overweight category in 2001 were 11% less likely than those in the normal range to say they felt inconsolable over the past month. They were also 18% less likely to have felt worthless, or to say that “everything was an effort.”

As we all know, happiness tends to be reflected in the way we treat others. Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, overweight people are more likely to behave charitably than people in the normal BMI range. This is particularly true for men. For example, while 68% of men in the overweight category gave money to charities in 2001, only 62% of men in the normal range gave (although giving falls back considerably when we move into obesity). Overweight men were also the most likely to volunteer their time for various causes and charities.

Let’s start with the basics. Brooks isn’t qualified to opine on this topic. He’s a professor of public administration at Syracuse University. He doesn’t have a degree in medicine, psychology, or public health. The only source he cites is a University of Michigan and Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy’s study, which I wasn’t able to find on the Internet, and no link was provided in the article. That organization is not expert in medicine, psychology, or public health either.

Now not being able to access the study, I am in the dark as to its design and methodology. However, from what I can glean, they appear to be dubious. First, for any study of this sort to be valid, it has to have a large enough sample. Second, one has to have reasonable confidence in the data gathered.

It’s the latter where this study almost assuredly falls short. This study reads as if it was a questionnaire. God knows what participation rate it had, and whether elements like the heading or the wording of the first few questions biased the sample (for example, if the early questions were about weight, the very fat might have decided not to participate).

But even if we assume the sample is valid, we then have problems with the methodology. People lie about their weight and about money. It’s a given that both the allegedly thin and the heavy people understated their weight. It’s also likely they overstated their charitable giving.

And retrospective recollections are notorious unreliable (that’s why Nielsen uses diaries, and serious psychological studies have people track their moods during the day).

Given the factors, we have can come up with numerous alternative explanations as to why the study came out with the results it did: the thinner people were more honest in their answers, only fat people who were reasonably happy with themselves participated in the study. Or perhaps the real cut isn’t fat vs. thin, but social vs. not. Sociability is linked with better mental health. Extroverts would also be more likely to engage in other group activities like charities. Social people presumably eat out more often than the self-sufficient, so maybe the study proves the problem is restaurant meals. Or perhaps its age linked. Older people are heavier on average due to slowing metabolisms, and they also have more discretionary income. Oh, and older people are happier on average too. The study says it corrected for income level, but it didn’t say it did for age.

Or maybe the study illustrates the impact of antidepressants. The most widely consumed type, selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs (Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft are in this family) produce a 15-20 pound weight gain with long-term use. So maybe the reason the fatties report being less unhappy is that the ones who have a propensity to moodiness are already on meds.

I could go on and on, but you get the point.

We have a single, questionable study confirming an old stereotype. All witches are thin, except for Gilda the Good Witch of the North. Scrooge is skinny while Father Christmas is fat. Cassius had a lean and hungry look while Falstaff was Fat Jack. But these images were born when the only people who could afford to be fat were at least moderately well off.

Even if we accept the premise, that fatties are OK because they are happier and nicer, we get into a more complicated calculus. The heavy are also stereotypically irresponsible (witness Falstaff). Even the study Brooks cites talks favorably only about the moderately overweight. The really fat impose costs on society. They take up more than their share of space on airplanes and in subways, and diabetes is a burgeoning health care crisis. Even if the heavier cohort is more charitable, does it offset the other costs associated with their weight?

What is telling is that Brooks acknowledges, then dismisses, the likely real culprit of America’s weight problem (after a remarkable assertion:

First, it is self-evidently untrue that a BMI below 25 is “normal,” when only a minority of adults come in under this number (in some communities, virtually nobody does). There is no disputing that thinner is healthier, but between cheap food, long work hours, supersized restaurant portions and a ban on the delights of nicotine, thin is simply no longer how most “normal,” well-adjusted people look. The bright side is that in America (unlike many other countries), a normal life also involves foursquare virtues like charity and a good deal of happiness.

Second, we all know that it’s harder and harder to stay thin in America. The growing effort required to do so might be emblematic, in some cases, of a tradeoff between focusing on oneself and thinking of others. In the “Devil’s Dictionary,” Ambrose Bierce defines an abstainer as “a weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure.” When it comes to dessert, today’s abstainer may tend to be the person who denies the rest of us a smile or donation.

“It’s self-evidently untrue that a BMI of under 25 is normal?” Not until 20 years ago. “Normal” does not mean “healthy” or “desirable”. In some low income communities that have a propensity towards diabetes, it may become “normal”. Does that justify complacency?

The culprit is the modern lifestyle, and its manifestation is more extreme in America than elsewhere. We work longer hours, which implies more stress, more reason to turn to fast food or prepared meals, less opportunity to exercise. Although Europeans are getting fatter too, their belief in reasonable working hours and leisurely meals has kept the overweight epidemic somewhat at bay.

The other cause, not as well publicized, is temptation, pure and simple. Human beings were designed to survive starvation and pack on pounds during the rare (in evolutionary terms) times of abundance. The World Health Organization has concluded that BMI is positively correlated with “availability of surplus calories.” In other words, all those vending machines in offices and schools, food halls in airports and transportation hubs, and ubiquitous snack and drink vendors really work. They are successful in getting us to eat more. They profit at the expense of our health.

So why did this article run? Is Brooks a shill for the food industry? Almost certainly not. But the story typifies the Journal’s refusal to even consider that capitalism can conflict with social good.

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