NPR’s Sarah McCammon talks with Maintenance Phase hosts Michael Hobbes and Aubrey Gordon on going where most health and fitness podcasts don’t, assessing popular dietary advice and wellness trends.
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Every year, millions of Americans go on a diet. Americans also spend billions of dollars on weight loss products. So why, despite all of that, are obesity rates in the U.S. are continuing to rise?
AUBREY GORDON: It’s an incredibly complex issue that we don’t actually have answers for, but we continue to sort of use the rising rates of fatness in our culture as a cudgel to get folks to lose weight.
MCCAMMON: That’s writer Aubrey Gordon. She co-hosts the podcast “Maintenance Phase” with journalist Michael Hobbes. And she says when they first started, they wanted to focus on big questions. That other health and fitness podcasts weren’t necessarily asking
GORDON: Felt worth having a conversation about, like, OK, well, what’s actually the science behind this? What are the motives of the people who are presenting all of these fad diets, all of these wellness trends? Like, what’s the story behind it?
MCCAMMON: I spoke with Aubrey Gordon and Michael Hobbes the other day, and we started by talking about the medical consensus that obesity can lead to health problems.
GORDON: Yeah, there’s a very clear correlation between weight and bad health outcomes, but weight is not the only thing that’s correlated with health. We know that poverty has a devastating effect on people’s health. The life expectancy in various counties in America can be up to 20 years of difference. The poorest, most marginalized counties in America, people live to about 65. And, like, I think it’s, like, Boulder, Colo., or something, they live until they’re 85. There’s all these other health disparities that sort of we accept as correlations.
And yet, weirdly, when it comes to obesity, it’s like, oh, no, no, we know that the obesity is causing this, right? Like, people have kind of jumped to this causal explanation. And there is a very strong association, but there’s very strong associations of all kinds of things with health outcomes. So the question is, why are we still putting weight at the center of our understanding about health when there’s actually much more sophisticated ways to help people be healthy and we’re not really doing those?
MCCAMMON: You spend an episode looking at how obesity became defined not just as a risk factor for certain diseases, but eventually as a disease in and of itself. Can you just give us a nutshell version of how this happened?
GORDON: I mean, I think in order to talk about, quote-unquote, “obesity as a disease,” you’ve got to talk about the BMI, which I think we think of now as a hard and fast measure and an objective measure of size and health. The first BMI sort of public policy definition of overweight in the U.S. was that the fattest 15% of us should be considered overweight.