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Critics and experts challenge the goal of thinness as unrealistic and unnecessary; they say fitness is better for health in the long run.

Aug. 9, 2004 -- Obesity is a real problem. But the myths we build around it make the problem worse.

The first myth: Fat is bad; thin is good.

The second myth: If you weigh more than "normal," you must lose weight to be healthy.

The third myth: Anyone who is overweight can -- and should -- become thin.

That's the central theme of the new book The Obesity Myth: Why America's Obsession With Weight Is Hazardous to Your Health. Author Paul Campos, JD, is a University of Colorado law professor. He's not a medical doctor -- but he can cite medical literature with the best of them. Perhaps more importantly, he interviewed more than 400 people about their relationship with food, body image, and dieting.

"We are in the grip of a moral panic," Campos tells WebMD. "It is a form of cultural hysteria in which a risk is tremendously exaggerated. Weight has become a dumping ground for neurotic behavior in the culture as a whole. It is this tendency to think in eating-disordered ways that grips American culture."

Focus on Fitness

When we think about "getting in shape," the shape we think about is thin. Being in good shape means improving fitness, but we focus on reducing fatness instead.

Campos points to several major studies often cited as proof that fat kills. A close reading, he says, leads to a different conclusion.

"The crucial variable was not weight but lifestyle changes -- healthy eating and exercise, which seem to be very beneficial whether they produce any weight loss or not," he says. "When people do become more physically active and are cognizant of their nutritional intake, they get real health benefits. Just a little weight loss -- or even no weight loss -- was as good as a lot of weight loss."

CDC data support this idea. CDC epidemiologist Edward W. Gregg, PhD, led a team that analyzed data from some 6,400 overweight and obese adults. They found that people who tried to lose weight -- and did -- live longer than those who don't try to lose weight. That wasn't a surprise.

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