Boy Lighting Candle in the Company of an Ape and a Fool

Moving from Obesity Myths to Theories

Busting obesity myths is great sport. Those myths are are abundant, annoying, and problematic for people who want to move on to real solutions for the harms of obesity. Ruopeng An and Roland Sturm do a fine job of busting those myths, drawing upon their research funded by the Rand Corporation.

Myth #1: Obesity Is an Epidemic of Poorly Educated, Low SES People

The truth is that people at all education and economic status levels are gaining weight. Different groups started with different rates of obesity. But all those groups have moved up in lockstep.

Myth #2: Obesity Is a Problem of Blacks and Hispanics

Once again, different racial and ethnic groups are gaining weight in parallel. While black and Hispanic Americans have a higher prevalence, the problem is growing across all racial and ethnic groups.

Myth #3: The South Is Where the Problem Is Growing

This myth has two big problems. First, as An and Sturm explain, obesity prevalence appears to be growing across the board in every state. But even more important is the flakiness of the numbers for state by state obesity rates. Those numbers are based on self-reports of height and weight. Self reports are unreliable. Worse, the degree of their unreliability varies from place to place and from time to time. We’ve explained this one here.

Myth #4: People Don’t Have Time to Exercise

Sitting Time and Physical ActivityThe truth is that Americans have more leisure time than ever. They report working out more than ever. Now of course, those self-reports need a grain of salt. But it’s not clear that running around in our yoga pants is doing much to fight obesity. Mainly, it’s a fashion and virtue statement.

Myth #5: Missing Out on Fruits and Veggies Is Making Us Fat

Overall, Americans are eating more. And we are eating more fruits and veggies – just not enough to keep Mom and our dietitian happy. The message of “eat more” works perversely. People eat more of whatever’s being promoted – without cutting back on anything else.

Moving On to Other Theories

An and Sturm admit that rock-solid, evidence-based solutions don’t exist. They suggest that the “eat more healthy stuff” and “do more healthy things” strategies are not changing obesity trends. Perhaps we have not adapted very well to abundance.

Being economists, An and Sturm like the idea of taxing empty calories to drive calorie consumption down across the board. It’s a reasonable theory, but it needs to be tested. Otherwise we risk creating a new myth. Let’s see what happens in Mexico. Just driving down soda consumption is not the same as driving down obesity rates.

Click here and here to read more from An and Sturm.

An Allegory, painting by El Greco / National Galleries Scotland

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April 11, 2017

5 Responses to “Moving from Obesity Myths to Theories”

  1. April 11, 2017 at 7:42 pm, Philippa Sandall said:

    Re Myth #1, that people at all education and economic status levels are gaining weight. I have heard that even dietitians are gaining weight like the rest of us. If they can’t avoid weight creep, who can?

    • April 12, 2017 at 3:09 am, Ted said:

      Good point, Philippa. It suggests that there’s more to the epidemic of obesity than an epidemic of poor choices.

  2. April 13, 2017 at 2:59 pm, Allen Browne said:


    Well said “there’s more to the epidemic of obesity than an epidemic of poor choices.”


  3. April 21, 2017 at 11:58 am, Katherine Flegal said:

    Readers may also be interested in two free reports on obesity and socioeconomic status among children and adults by Ogden et al from the National Center for Health Statistics that attempted to address issues #1 and #2 above (readily available from and These reports showed, for example, that although higher income women are less likely to be obese than low income women, nonetheless most obese women are not low income.

    • April 21, 2017 at 4:21 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks, Katherine!