Debunking the Myths of the NIH's $1.5 Million 'Lesbians Are Fat' Study

The Atlantic Wire

Conservative news sites from the great Drudge and beyond have unearthed their most unflattering Rosie O'Donnell photos today to vent about an ongoing study funded by the National Institutes of Health's that's examining the "interplay of gender and sexual orientation in obesity disparities." Or, as conservative news sites, prefer to call it: "Why Lesbians Are Fat." Trouble is, according to the project lead at Harvard — as well as the study itself and the federal funding therein — this hyperbole forgets all about gay men... and there are other sequester-relevant studies that might be more worth getting worked about these days.

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About that hyperbole, here's a screenshot from Weasel Zippers, the site that frequently scrapes the Drudge-and-Breitbart headlines for — well, their tag line speaks for itself:

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And here's the story getting the Drudge love today, over at CNS News (aka the site formerly known as the Conservative News Service):

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The outrage — and the unflattering O'Donnell pictures, apparently — stem from this two-year-old study, for which research is currently funded but which is scheduled to continue into 2016, entitled "Sexual Orientation and Obesity: Test of a Gendered Biophysical Model." — a project headed up by S. Bryn Austin, an associate professor at Harvard's School of Public Health, and funded by grants from the NIH's Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Celebrity photos and sensational headlines aside, let's get three things straight: a) They could've used a Kennedy reference; b) the funding and the focus on gay subjects is mostly correct; and c) there's a lot of obesity research going on out there, and it has nothing to do with the conservative's other least favorite health story of the week, the New York soda ban.

The study, according to its abstract, is in fact examining the connection between obesity and sexual orientation. But there's more here than the knee-jerk (and not very subtle) lesbian fat joke. It's important to remember that nearly half of straight women are obese, too, and that the study is also figuring out why straight men are more often overweight than gay men:

It is now well-established that women of minority sexual orientation are disproportionately affected by the obesity epidemic, with nearly three-quarters of adult lesbians overweight or obese, compared to half of heterosexual women. In stark contrast, among men, heterosexual males have nearly double the risk of obesity compared to gay males. Despite clear evidence from descriptive epidemiologic research that sexual orientation and gender markedly pattern obesity disparities, there is almost no prospective, analytic epidemiologic research into the causes of these disparities.

All of which is to say, these headlines would have been accurate as the inverse: "Obama administration spends $1.5 million to figure out why straight men are fat." Or: "Obama administration spends $1.5 million to figure out why gay men have rocking bodies." Or perhaps: "America is overweight (except for gay men?) and scientists are trying to determine why."

Austin, the Harvard-based project leader for the NIH-funded study, wrote in a statement to The Atlantic Wire: 

The obesity epidemic is a major public health problem for our country, and no communities are immune. To stop the epidemic, we need to understand what all the causes are, and the causes and solutions to obesity are likely different for different parts of our society. Lesbian and bisexual girls and women make up almost 5 million Americans. In terms of sexual orientation and obesity, lesbians and bisexual girls and women – along with heterosexual men -- seem to be the hardest hit. Why is that? We don’t know, but our study is designed to find out so we can come up with better ways to combat the epidemic for these communities.

Which brings us back to that $1.5 million in total funding. That's true! Over the past two years, the project has been received $1,520,000, in two parts:

Of course, what with all the talk of fiscal responsibility as President Obama and Congress continue to work out a budget deal, the implicit point being made by the conservative media is that a study so apparently insignificant represents more wasteful spending on the sciences. Now, we're not entirely if the study's research on lesbians is getting all of that funding — Austin didn't have specifics on how that $1.5 million is being subdivided — but before you go pointing fingers, consider that the $741,378 granted to the study in 2012 is .08 percent of the estimated $829 million the NIH spent on obesity research in 2012. If you're going to get mad at that tiny fragment of that massive budget, you could also get angry at the fact that, in 2011, the Obama administration OK'd around $10,000 more than that on Pediatric Primary Care Based Obesity Prevention Obesity, which figures out how doctors' phone calls can help kids stay healthy:

The present application aims to test the efficacy of brief pediatrician counseling with phone coaching follow up on rate of weight gain in children. The research extends prior work by this team on adherence, parent-child interaction, and provider and telephone based systems for treating obesity in the pediatric primary

Yes, $750,000 on the study of phone calls. You can take a look at how much the NIH spent on obesity research in 2011 here. That said, it's unclear whether Austin's study on obesity and sexual orientation will continue to get funding in the future. "The NIH is currently assessing the impact on funding due to sequestration," Robert Bock, Press Officer for the NICHD said in a statement picked up by CNS News. "It is not possible to say how this (or any other NIH grant) will be affected in the long term beyond the 90 percent funding levels already in place." It'd be hard to tell who would be more upset if the funding were cut: the people genuinely interested in figuring out the connections, or the jerks looking for a fat joke at Obama's expense. 

Photo by:  Shutterwolf via Shutterstock

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