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Spoiling the joke

David Brooks, attempting to be humorous, opines the following at the New York Times: "Living Longer Is the Best Revenge" (registration required - http://www.bugmenot.com may be able to help). And I'm here to ruthlessly nitpick it.

The release of a report in The Journal of the American Medical Association indicating that overweight people actually live longer than normal-weight people represents an important moment in the history of world civilization.

The history of world civilization? Try the history of Western civilization over the last 100 years or so. Prior to that and elsewhere, most people don't believe that what the US government considers to be a "normal weight" is necessarily the healthiest weight.

Mother Nature, we now know, is a saucy wench, who likes to play cosmic tricks on humanity.

Do you mean, like the cosmic trick of the fact that the Earth isn't at the center of the universe? Because the notion that people with a few pounds more than other people might have a chance of living a little longer doesn't exactly strike me as "cosmic."

health-conscious people can hit a point of negative returns, so the more fit they are, the quicker they kick the bucket. People who work out, eat responsibly and deserve to live are more likely to be culled by the Thin Reaper.

Er, try "the US government and health insurance companies and doctors have for years been mistaken about what is the 'healthiest' way of living and the most 'responsible' way of eating." And, amazingly enough, bodies don't necessarily pay that much attention to social moral judgements such as these people "deserve to live" longer than those people.

I've been happy because as a member of the community of low-center-of-gravity Americans, I find that a lifetime of irresponsible behavior has been unjustly rewarded.

A lifetime of behavior that your society told you was "irresponsible" but your body went ahead with anyway because it knew the right way to nourish itself has turned out to put you in the cohort of people who statistically live the longest. Or in other words, your body is smarter than you are, you stupid jerk. Which shouldn't actually be a cause for embarrassment - the instincts that cause living beings to take in nourishment are a heck of a lot older and better refined than the consciousness than causes humans to feel like they know better than what their bodies tell them.

I like to be reminded that the universe is basically crooked. ... In reality, life is perverse and human beings don't get what they deserve.

Humans make up notions of "deserve" that have nothing to do with reality. Which doesn't mean reality is "perverse." It means humans are mistaken.

Mother Nature is happy to tolerate marginally irresponsible misbehavior. She doesn't want you to go completely to seed. If you're truly obese and arouse hippos when you visit the zoo, you could still punch your ticket at any moment.

Ah, thank goodness "Mother Nature" still has a modicum of human decency.

Darwin was wrong when he talked about the survival of the fittest: it's really the survival of the healthy enough to get by.

Darwin never used the phrase "survival of the fittest," as any good geek will tell you. (But you're right anyway. On this, at least.)

Comments

( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
supergee
Apr. 25th, 2005 08:48 pm (UTC)
It is not fun to have Babbling Brooks on my side.
angeyja
Apr. 25th, 2005 10:02 pm (UTC)
Or in other words, your body is smarter than you are, you stupid jerk. Which shouldn't actually be a cause for embarrassment - the instincts that cause living beings to take in nourishment are a heck of a lot older and better refined than the consciousness than causes humans to feel like they know better than what their bodies tell them.

About two weeks ago I read a book by a vet whose focus is primarily "assisting" the patient's body to heal itself. This made a lot of sense to me. I know there are exceptions.

It also reminded me how screwed up orientations can get.
firecat
Apr. 26th, 2005 08:39 am (UTC)
I get the impression that veterinary medicine is in general a lot more sensible than human medicine.

Orientations?
johnpalmer
Apr. 26th, 2005 12:28 am (UTC)
I had that very thought... that if being "mildly overweight" meant that you, on the whole, tended to live longer, it suggested that "mildly overweight" was "at a healthy weight"... barring any other major disadvantage, at least.

firecat
Apr. 26th, 2005 08:41 am (UTC)
Yes, and the way everyone continues to report this range as "overweight" even as they are reporting that such people live longer is...telling.
aquaeri
Apr. 26th, 2005 12:20 pm (UTC)
I had an interesting break this afternoon, when I decided to try to chase down where the original idea that BMI=25 is the boundary between "normal" and "overweight" came from. I learnt all kinds of interesting trivia.

For example, one study suggested that mass/weight*weight wasn't any more accurate at predicting female body shape etc than mass/weight (where 42 was the ideal, nicely enough). This would mean that a short woman could weigh considerably more than via the BMI, suggesting that (since there are more short women than men) that the BMI isn't quite right, to me anyway.

There was also an interesting study from Wales (I think) which showed that the healthiest cohort (in terms of surviving the longest) were the men who had BMIs around 23 at 18, and then gained an average of 16kg over the next 20-30 years. The men who stayed at the same BMI were more likely to die early.

Then there was the study that showed absolutely no effect of BMI in relation to mortality, but amazing effects of fitness, and particularly women who classified themselves as unfit had three times the risk.

I also found it fascinating the way many studies reported U-shaped mortality curves and claimed with a straight face that there was a linear relationship between increasing weight and health risk. Huh?

I didn't manage to ever figure out where the BMI=25 cut-off came from, though. It's like sacred gospel, passed from organisation to organisation, and the studies that take it for granted are the ones to approach with a lot of caution from what I could tell. Oh, the BMI did become popular sometime in the 80s, which wasn't exactly balanced in its attitude to size and shape.
firecat
Apr. 26th, 2005 04:08 pm (UTC)
I didn't manage to ever figure out where the BMI=25 cut-off came from, though.

Fairly recently the approved BMI was revised downward by the US government - I think the top of the range went from 28 or 30 to 25. If I recall correctly, the government's thinking on this may have been "if people think the approved BMI is lower, they will make more effort to avoid gaining weight." (As opposed to their having studies to back up the new number.) There were news articles at the time about how the new BMI range put actor Tom Cruise and almost all professional baseball and football players into the "overweight or obese" category.
aquaeri
Apr. 27th, 2005 09:09 am (UTC)
I didn't actually have the US government in mind. I had in mind the categories:
< 18.5 "underweight"
18.5 - 24.9 "normal"
25 - 29.9 "overweight"
>30.0 "obese"

These categories are used, with these names, in many places other than the US. They're mentioned in Australia, where WHO is the claimed source. I first saw them in a book back in the 80s. I'm trying to figure out who came up with them, and why they got so generally adopted when we seem to have plenty of evidence they don't correspond to anything meaningful.
firecat
Apr. 27th, 2005 05:04 pm (UTC)
Those are the same categories I'm talking about. I'm pretty sure they were originally higher and revised downward recently. WHO is sometimes influenced by US policy, especially when industry money is at stake.
aquaeri
Apr. 27th, 2005 10:27 pm (UTC)
My memory is that the book I was looking at back in the 80s did have exactly those categories, i.e. >25 BMI was "overweight". Unfortunately the book is 1200km away, so I can't check.

(It was either the first or second edition of "Everygirl" by Llewellyn-Jones. I see from Amazon that the fourth edition came out in 2003, but nothing about previous editions.)

Actually, what I think I remember was that "underweight" was < 19.0 in "Everygirl", so that would be an adjustment since then. That was around the time that I discovered that <21.0 was underweight for me.

What would be very interesting is if the "overweight" category started at >25, went up for a while, and has now been put back down. But I'm finding it really hard to get documentation, partly I'll admit because I'm not sure what to search for.
ruth_lawrence
Apr. 26th, 2005 04:04 am (UTC)
Most excellent sarcatic killer post!

I expect to hear shortly that they also 'discover' that the high-carb biet they've been telling all of us to eat for ages causes type two diabetes and a number of other things.

You know, I'm cynical enough that I don't think these Authoritative (read: authoritarian) Institutions are stupid: they're just heavily into (crowd) control and manipulation at any price, I suspect.

(Another expample: because of the extremist info on the dangers of skin cancer in my country, many more people are getting osteoporosis).
firecat
Apr. 26th, 2005 08:44 am (UTC)
Thanks!

They've discovered that already, which is why they're now back to telling us to eat a low carb diet (the same diet that they were telling us to eat in the 40s and 50s - which I grew up on, because that's when my parents developed their food beliefs).

I think the Authoritarian Institutions are heavily into perpetuating themselves at any price.

Osteoporosis is also more likely to occur among thin women than fat women, but you rarely hear that given as a reason why weighing somewhat more might be good for you. This study might change that, since it shows that thinness is especially associated with earlier death among older people.
ruth_lawrence
Apr. 26th, 2005 09:06 am (UTC)
The women in my family tend to die within ten years of becoming slim in old age.

Perhaps it's a sign their bodies aren't working too well that they lose the weight.

I don't grok authoritarianism, or the people who are inclined to obey such institutions without thought
firecat
Apr. 26th, 2005 04:19 pm (UTC)
Perhaps it's a sign their bodies aren't working too well that they lose the weight.

A lot of older people have trouble eating enough and absorbing enough nutrition.

Me neither.
sashajwolf
Apr. 26th, 2005 05:54 pm (UTC)
They've discovered that already, which is why they're now back to telling us to eat a low carb diet

That's interesting. Is that an official recommendation in the US now? As far as I can see on Google, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are currently still based on the food pyramid. The UK is still sticking to a "healthy plate" recommendation, which is basically a different way of visualising the same underlying WHO recommendation.
firecat
Apr. 26th, 2005 08:32 pm (UTC)
The new food pyramid guidelines are at http://www.mypyramid.gov/. I admit I don't actually know what they say.
sashajwolf
Apr. 26th, 2005 09:23 pm (UTC)
Well, for a woman of my age and exercise levels, it suggests this:-

Grains 6 ounces
Vegetables 2.5 cups
Fruits 1.5 cups
Milk 3 cups
Meat & Beans 5 ounces

I think I eat more fruit and veg than that, and would not feel healthy otherwise. The grains is probably quite close, if I assume that they're counting potatoes in the vegetable group, but is low if I count them in the grains group, as British and Irish food pyramids do. I don't think I'll be paying much attention :-)
starcat_jewel
Apr. 26th, 2005 05:31 am (UTC)
I've been watching for 40-odd years (i.e. since I got old enough to notice such things) as the Diet Gurus completely shift gears every 8-10 years about what's "healthy" and "not healthy" for you to eat. At this point my attitude tends to be, "None of you have the foggiest fuck of a clue what you're talking about, a plague on all your houses, I'll eat what I damn well please."
firecat
Apr. 26th, 2005 08:44 am (UTC)
Testify!
epi_lj
Apr. 26th, 2005 12:24 pm (UTC)
I find it bizarre that one could could take the position on this research that being healthier doesn't necessarily pay. Like, that one could continue to label the now-shown-to-be-less-healthy weight norms "healthy", assuming one constrains themselves to weight as their measure of health. The study doesn't show anything of the sort: It just shows that our calibration of "healthy" was a bit off. (Which I know you know, obviously.)

Also, to add a snark you forgot to get in, being fat or thin does not, in fact, raise or lower your center of gravity. An "apple shaped" fat person (who carries most of their weight in their chest and upper back) is likely to have a higher center of gravity than a rail-thin person, for example.
epi_lj
Apr. 26th, 2005 12:24 pm (UTC)
Um. A better example to choose would have been that a pear-shaped fat person who carries all their weight in their legs and butt is likely to have a lower center of gravity than a rail-thin person, I guess.
firecat
Apr. 26th, 2005 04:21 pm (UTC)
Good snark.

I was recently reading a book about sumo, and it explained that the reason sumo wrestlers are supposed to put on weight was not just to be bigger than their opponent, but to lower their center of gravity so they are harder to move when they crouch down.

Too bad women aren't allowed to do sumo...
epi_lj
Apr. 26th, 2005 04:31 pm (UTC)
I'm sure you could start a renegade female sumo club. :) It could become quite the phenomenon!

I can understand the consernation some people might feel though if they'd really been busting their butt in the service of their diets and so on just to meet an artificially stringent "health" guideline and then they were told that their effort did not, in fact, make them superior people at all and might not have been healthy. That's got to be a hard mental pill to take.

One of my big questions, of course, has always been why we think that top-flight physical fitness should be a (lately THE key) measure of goodness in a person anyway. I think if you ask anybody, they will agree that a truly good person spends their time in the service of others rather than in the service of themselves. But then if someone spends all their free time working out and following complex eating regimens, the same people will often picture that person as very morally good. While there could be some argument based on putting less strain on shared medical resources (although that only flies to any great degree in a country with public health insurance I think), beyond a certain point of fitness, it probably doesn't make a big difference, and beyond another point the strain on the health care system probably increases (due to sports injuries, etc.).

There are a lot of weird things like that in our ethic these days. Like, we seem to think that people who spend a lot of time outdoors are intrinsically better people than people who spend a lot of time indoors. Why?
firecat
Apr. 26th, 2005 04:49 pm (UTC)
I can understand the consernation some people might feel though if they'd really been busting their butt in the service of their diets and so on just to meet an artificially stringent "health" guideline and then they were told that their effort did not, in fact, make them superior people at all and might not have been healthy. That's got to be a hard mental pill to take.

Yeah. Well, the sooner they learn there are no guarantees, the better. [/snark]

The "fit = morally good" idea replaced the "no sex outside marriage = morally good" meme (this is well treated in Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth). Neither has anything to do with what I consider morally good (which is something like "trying to relieve suffering and undo harm").
( 24 comments — Leave a comment )

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