New Years is a celebration of starting over, the time when many people make resolutions to improve the following year. The most popular resolution in America is to lose weight and be more healthy. According to disinformation‘s book 50 Facts That Should Change the USA, written by Stephen Fender, it is also the least kept resolution. With Fact #40: 65% of American adults are overweight, 30% are obese, and these proportions are growing, Americans should reconsider how they keep their resolutions throughout the whole year:
65% of American Adults Are Overweight, 30% Are Obese, And These Proportions Are Growing
“I myself am very well in body, mind spirits, quite stout,” an immigrant wrote from Pittsburgh to his brother back in Manchester, England in 1837. “I weigh 182 lbs so you may think how I am, a man of my size. Am very corpulent.” Those were the days—when fat was a sign of success and prosperity. What he meant was that he had made it in the New World, and left the lean years in the Old forever.
Nowadays, of course, fatness means something very different. For us the sight of people waddling through shopping malls, trying to squeeze into a booth in an all-you-can-eat-for-$14.95 restaurant or spreading out across two seats in a crowded bus brings out all kinds of disapproval. We take it as a sign of slovenly living, laziness, lack of exercise, ignorance of proper eating, even a sort of moral collapse.
Like poverty, to which it is related, obesity is a comparative measurement. According to the American Obesity Association, source of these headline figures, anyone with a body mass index (BMI) between 25 and 29.9 is overweight. From 30 to 39.9 you are obese and suffering from a clinical condition. Over 40, you are severely obese and probably need a forklift truck to get around. Severe obesity has risen too—from 2.9 percent of the population in 1988–1994 to 4.7 currently.
Obesity is not just a matter of appearance and convenience. The medical effects can be pretty horrendous too. By 2006 it was killing some 400,000 Americans a year, just a shade behind, and rapidly catching up with, the total for cigarette smokers, 435,000, as the chief cause of preventable death in the country. Killer diseases associated with obesity include Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure and—in postmenopausal women—breast cancer. Less immediately threatening but still serious are osteoarthritis, decreased fertility in women due to menstrual irregularities, and obstructive sleep apnea—that is, loud snoring and irregular breathing during deep sleep, causing excessive daytime sleepiness, personality changes, decreased memory, impotence and depression.
Though an increasing phenomenon in many developed countries, obesity is now an acute problem in the U.S. Why in America especially? The usual explanation is that we eat too much convenience and fast food loaded with fat and carbohydrates, and get too little exercise. Given that many of us would drive our cars to bed if only we could get them up the stairs, there may be something in this simple reasoning. But simple answers won’t do for a country so ready to believe in dastardly plots perpetrated by “them”—in this case the global food industry and fast-food moguls.
According to the paranoid explanation, what really makes us fat are monosodium glutamate (MSG), hydrolyzed vegetable protein and other taste-enhancers added to American convenience foods. These stimulate the pancreas to produce insulin, which in turn promotes the body to lay down fat. They also stimulate cravings, leaving us wanting more of the same. This notion satisfies because it seems to explain so much. MSG or other so-called “excititoxins” are in virtually everything Americans eat, from canned soups and frozen prepared meals, to proprietary gravies and salad dressings—not to mention nearly every menu item on fast-food outlets like Burger King, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Taco Bell. But then again, so are the fats and carbohydrates that actually do the business.
With obesity so widespread, you’d think we’d at least try to keep our children from getting fat. But excess weight seems to run in families. According to the American Obesity Association, “around 30 percent of children aged from six to nineteen are overweight, and another 15 percent are obese.” No doubt the chief element in this sorry statistic is the family diet, but in case mothers want to keep their kids from eating badly, the convenience and fast-food producers are making their own end run round the parental line, appealing to the next generation directly via television. With kids now responsible—either directly or through nagging power over parents—for over $500 billion spending annually, anti fast-food campaigner Eric Schlosser has written, “American children now see a junk food ad every five minutes while watching TV.” Maybe there’s some point to that paranoia after all.
But all this debate over causes and effects ignores another factor connected with American obesity. What the usual obesity sources fail to mention is that poverty in America has been increasing at more or less the same rate (though at a lower level) as obesity. Present levels of American poverty stand at 34.5 million people, or 12.7 percent of the population. This figure includes 13.5 million children.
Furthermore, obesity and poverty are linked. This sounds counter-intuitive. We are used to images of poverty in the form of thin-faced children with their ribs showing staring out of an appeal for African aid. Even the experts seem to have been taken aback by this recent discovery, since they have labeled the phenomenon “the hunger-obesity paradox.”
The real surprise is why the connection between poverty and obesity should have come as such a surprise. It’s obvious that poor households are going to buy the tastiest and most filling foods they can find on a limited budget. That means sugary soft drinks, pizza, doughnuts, hamburgers and salty, starchy snacks like pretzels and potato chips. When whole days go by without enough food, the body stores up fat to tide it over through the “lean” period. This may be the vestige of a hunter-gatherer metabolism.
In his study, “Does Hunger Cause Obesity?” W. H. Dietz cites the case of a mother on food stamps who didn’t have enough money to satisfy her daughter’s hunger for half of every month. For the remaining two weeks she would make up the difference with high-fat, high-starch, filling foods. The seven-year-old girl was 220 percent the normal weight for her age and size.
The writer Fujioka Kim, who quotes this example, points out that a woman and two children driving home from the supermarket could take the edge off their appetites with a 16 ounce bag of potato chips costing $1.99 and a bottle of soda bought on sale for 99¢. For the same money they could have bought three apples and a quart bottle of soy milk. Far fewer calories, more nutrition. Ms. Kim offers a few “easy, inexpensive but healthy recipes” from her own Japanese American background. These include “ninjin salad”—shredded raw carrot with lemon juice squeezed over it—and “hiya-yakko”—tofu (bean curd) covered with chopped scallions, ground sesame and a few drops of soy sauce.
Well, maybe sensible eating will catch on even among the poor. But the economic pressure of poverty and the emotional response to it, especially when children come into the equation, form a complex dynamic of motivations which would be condescending to expect to play like an instrument. If poor people don’t feed their children “sensibly,” that isn’t necessarily because they are stupid or uninformed about good nutrition. Apart from the economic hurdles in the way of low-calorie, high-nutritional eating, there is what we might call the “treat factor” to consider. Parents may feel the need to give their kids a treat to make up for things missing elsewhere in their lives.
One place to test the treat factor is in the fast-food market, since it is here that people eat as a break from their routines. Increasingly sensitive to the criticism that they were undermining the nation’s health with hamburgers, french fries and sweet drinks, fast-food outlets began to introduce “healthy options” like fresh fruit and vegetables to their menus. McDonald’s began to add “fruit ‘n’ walnut” salads and grilled (instead of deep-fried) chicken, to the range offered, later pushing the health-agenda envelope out to carrot sticks and toasted deli sandwiches.
As a result—apparently—McDonald’s Corp.’s earnings for January to June 2006 jumped by 17 percent over the previously half year. But two months later, after 29 years with the company, Mike Roberts, the chief backer of these innovations, suddenly resigned, leaving seasoned observers of the industry puzzled. Did he know something they didn’t know?
Maybe he doubted whether the healthy revolution could last. Already parts of this extremely fast moving market have turned against healthy eating at the fast-food outlets. “We listened to consumers who said they wanted to eat fresh fruit,” said a spokesman for Wendy’s, “but apparently they lied.” Now hamburgers are meatier, cheesier, thicker than ever, and there’s not a blade of lettuce in sight—let alone tofu topped with soy sauce and spring onions. Hardee’s now offers a “Monster Thickburger” consisting of two beef patties, each with cheese and bacon on top. Burger King has gone two better, with their new “Stacker Quad”—four layers of hamburger, and cheese, topped with bacon, packing in as much saturated fat as three Big Macs. And sales are singing.