As a physician, it’s my job to care for patients using the knowledge I have gained in my education and experience. Part of that experience is staying up-to-date on the latest news, studies and facts surrounding the complicated issue of obesity. In performing some recent internet research in this regard, I came across this 1959 Telegraph Herald newspaper article. Now you might be asking: “why is he citing an article written more than 50 years ago? So much has changed!” You’re right. So much has changed. And this article is an interesting illustration of the great and the not-so-great ways.

What struck me first about this piece was the statistic in the second sentence. “About 20% of our adult population is overweight, yet only 7% is obese.” You can tell this article is from the late 50’s by that statement alone because today, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control, more than 33% of US adults are obese.

Something else I noticed in the article was the various “tests” used to determine whether or not an individual is overweight. The “pinch test” as explained by the author is not one you will find performed or recommended by your physician today. Because today we know that BMI (Body Mass Index) calculations are truer and more scientific ways to measure a person’s body weight as it relates to their overall health. BMI calculations also provide the opportunity to chart weight-gain over time and allow physicians and the public the opportunity to see negative trends and work to reverse them before they become life-threatening.

Perhaps the most telling “sign of the times” in this article, however, comes in its overall tone and the words and phrases used to convey its message. I must say that in no way do I believe the author’s intent was to insult his readers. But today, especially when it comes to obesity, we know that words and the emotions they elicit matter. With so much of the obesity epidemic tied to the emotional connection with food, we know that sensitivity in how the subject matter is conveyed is important in how it is received. I hear from many patients that the “F Word” isn’t allowed in their homes. And it isn’t the word you might be thinking of. It’s the word “fat.” Through the years we’ve learned that shaming people into weight-loss by the words we use and the tone we take isn’t ultimately effective. At least not long-term.

The Telegraph-Herald article is an interesting illustration of the gains and losses we’ve realized with regard to obesity in America. Today, we have more scientifically-valid and reliable ways to measure obesity. Today we know the obesity risk factors and have easier access to information on ways to reduce those risks. As a society, we’re more careful with our language and have empathy toward those who struggle with obesity. But, the fact that one-third of all adult Americans today are obese is also a somber reminder that while we’ve gained a lot, there is still so much to lose. Literally.