Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Let them eat cake

grahic from:
Watching the news on TV in the UK this weekend I noticed that one of the main topics regarded new research data on worldwide obesity. According to the news presenter the report apparently mentioned that the UK obesity rate for young women was amongst the highest in Europe. At the same time I was browsing through the Icelandic news on my laptop and noticed something odd. There the online papers were citing the same report, except the Icelandic women were being said to be amongst the most obese in Europe. I raised my eyebrows, not only because women from both countries appeared to share this rather unfortunate status but also because I know Iceland pretty well and this does not fit at all. A high rate of obesity amongst UK women did not seem apparent to me either.

My intrigue was heightened when I saw in an American newspaper in the airport lounge at Heathrow that this report was front page news there as well – the focus being on the weight of Americans.

So I wanted to know how did the authors of this odd report (where every country can apparently classify its population as the most obese in one category or another) arrive at their results. Where did they get their information from, seeing how wrong they appeared to get it in Iceland’s case?

So I did some very low effort digging and found out that this report was issued in the Lancet Medical Journal. It was published there under the title: Global, regional, and national prevalence of overweight and obesity in children and adults during 1980—2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013. I became an online member to be able to access the full article. I found out that they base their surveys on BMI figures (body mass index) which utilises height and weight to assess a body’s weight status.
Group of typical Icelanders
The article’s accompanying charts and maps showed that between 20-30% of adults in Iceland (over 20 years) are obese according to the research. Which strikes me as an great overshot. So I went through the referenced surveys they used to reach this conclusion. But there was not a single Icelandic reference. Nor was there a single Icelandic doctor listed amongst the contributors to the article. So where did they get their figures for my country?

It turns out that there is not much recent information regarding the weight of the Icelandic public lying around. The results of a survey conducted in 2012 have yet to be finalised and are therefore unpublished. There is decades old material available but only in Icelandic as far as I could see. So maybe the authors got their info from a world organisation such as WHO or something called the World Obesity Federation. It is possible that global organisations would be able to get the data from Icelandic authorities that might have a secret report hidden away. But this did not turn out to be the case.
The World Obesity Federation noted obesity amongst Icelandic adults as lying between 17 and 18% on a map showing world figures. There was no indication as to where this came from. I also found a chart presenting the combined % overweight & obesity BMI for countries that had the appropriate data available. Iceland was not amongst them which fits my perception that this info is not obtainable.

In addition I found this on the WHO website: “Data on standardized mean BMI were available for only 27 of the 31 high-income OECD members. Such data were missing for Estonia, Iceland, Luxembourg and Slovenia.”

So I cannot but wonder if the authors of the new report just made up the data for Iceland and possibly Estonia, Luxembourg and Slovenia as well.

Learn something from this anyone that intends to publish a report using made up data. Make sure to err on a positive side. I would never have thought twice about this if the authors had given Iceland the benefit of the doubt and made us svelte.

Yrsa - Wednesday  
P.S. Please note that I do believe the rate of obesity is rising, here and everywhere. But results founded on sand as in the case of Iceland don't help.


  1. Moral: Don't mess with Icelanders...especially their BMI.

    Terrific rebutting forensic research, Yrsa!

  2. But "Obesity rates rise only slightly" just doesn't sell newspapers, Yrsa! Try to keep your eye on the ball, okay? :-)

    Oh, and please remember to remind me never to get into a debate with you...