A new BMJ paper looks at Cuban health before and after the economic crisis of 1991-1995, when the Cuban economy nose-dived. There wasn’t enough gasoline for cars. so bike riding greatly increased. In addition, people ate less. What effect did these changes (more exercise, less eating) have on health?
You know what is supposed to happen: Better health. Walter Willett, the Harvard epidemiologist, wrote a commentary about the study that concluded “The current findings add powerful evidence that a reduction in overweight and obesity would have major population-wide [health] benefits.” In other words, Willett said that what happened supports conventional beliefs.
But it didn’t. In several ways, what happened contradicts conventional beliefs.
1. A popular belief is that exercise causes weight loss. However, the percentage of “physically active individuals” doubled from 1985 to 2010 (from about 30% to 60%). In spite of this, the prevalence of obesity considerably increased (from about 13% to 18%) at the same time. Apparently exercise is considerably less important than something else. I have never heard a public health advocate say this.
2. A graph showing rates of heart disease, cancer, and stroke (the three main killers) over the period showed no change in rates of cancer and stroke. In spite of big changes in both exercise and obesity. The rate of heart disease stayed constant during the period when obesity went down. It steadily dropped during the period of time when obesity went up. Apparently the factors that control obesity and the factors that control heart disease are quite different (contradicting the usual view that exercise reduces both).
3. There is no simple connection between diabetes and obesity. During the economic crisis, when the prevalence of obesity went down by half (from 15% to 7%) and exercise greatly increased, the prevalence of diabetes slightly increased. Only after the crisis did the usual correlation (more obesity, more diabetes) emerge.
4. The only lifestyle factor to have its conventional effect: smoking. When you stop smoking, you gain weight is the usual belief (which I also believe). The data definitely support this connection. A huge reduction in the fraction of people who smoke (from 30% to 10%) did not reduce cancer but did coincide with a great increase in obesity.
5. Cubans are doing something right, as shown by the considerable decrease in heart disease and diabetes deaths. Apparently they are also more health-conscious, as shown by much higher rates of exercise and much lower rates of smoking. (Assuming that cigarettes did not become too expensive.) They are getting fatter, too, but apparently that is less damaging than we are told.
Willett and the authors of the study look at subsets of the data and use theories about “time-lag” to draw reassuring conclusions. In fact, large portions of the data are not easily explained by conventional ideas, as I’ve shown. You can look at the data many ways, but to me the study makes two main points. 1. During a period when everyone was forced to do what doctors recommend (exercise more, eat less), health did not improve. 2. During a period (post-crisis) when obesity got steadily worse, health improved (heart disease rates went down, cancer stayed the same, diabetes mortality went down). Cuba is too poor for the improvement to be due to better high-tech modern medicine. Taken together, these findings suggest we should be more skeptical of what we are told by doctors and health experts such as Willett.