Feminists who claim that it is fine to be fat are ignoring medical evidence of substantial health risks, a senior nutritionist told a conference on obesity yesterday.
Professor John Garrow, editor of the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, told the conference, Exploding the Myths of Obesity, that an ideal of extreme thinness was not an invention of late 20th-century male oppression but had been around for centuries.
Professor Garrow said that although writers such as Susie Orbach (author of Fat is a Feminist Issue) and Kim Chernin had "good reason to complain that women were pressurised to be unreasonably thin", they should not let women think that there were few health risks associated with being obese.
The percentage of obese people in Britain has doubled since 1980. Obesity is measured using the body mass index (weight in kilograms over height in metres squared); a BMI of less than 20 is underweight, 20-25 ideal, 25-30 overweight and over 30 obese.
For example a 5ft 8in woman weighing 11st would have a BMI of 23.3, whereas if she weighed 15st she would have a BMI of 30.
Professor Garrow said that links between obesity and disease had not seemed direct in the past because variants such as cigarette smoking and previous disease had not been taken into account.
"It's like jumping off a high building," he said. "You could say there are no risks jumping off, only when you hit the ground fast."
It had previously been thought that mortality doubled at a BMI of 38 but a study published in September this year of 115,000 nurses, which eliminated smokers and those who died within four years, showed that mortality doubled by the time the BMI reached 32.
Professor Garrow also attacked Kim Chernin's theory in Womansize: The Tyranny of Slenderness that fat people suffered more from problems such as hypertension because of the stigmatisation they faced.
He said that he had studied the Pima Indians of Arizona who regarded fat as good. "There is no social stigma of obesity, but 50 per cent of those over 40 are diabetics," he said.
He called for every local authority to set up a self-financing non- profit making slimming club where people could be treated by trained dieticians.
And Tom Sanders, Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics at King's College, London, told the conference at St Bar-tholomew's hospital in central London that writers of diet books "peddled half-truths and science fiction", particularly the idea that cellulite was caused by toxins. He said cellulite was the French word for fat invented by the cosmetic industry and "was nothing to do with toxins".
"The diet-book industry is a capitalist's dream. It churns out products that don't work," he added.
The percentage of obese people in Britain has doubled since 1980 and is expected to double again by 2005.
A quarter of British women and a fifth of men may be obese by 2005; government targets are for only 6 per cent of men and 8 per cent of women.
Death from coronaries is three times higher in obese people.
Obesity is increasing because although food intake has declined by 20 per cent since the 1960s, energy expenditure has dropped even faster and the proportion of fat in the diet has remained stable.Reuse content