America: The Fattest Country

"It pays to remember, perhaps while ordering that next supersized meal, that Dante put the gluttonous in the third circle of hell, where they were to endure 'eternal, cold and cursed heavy rain.' The slothful, one might consider as one cues up one's satellite dish, fared even worse; in the fifth circle they would 'languish in the black slime' of the river Styx. In the twenty-first century, we have put ourselves in the first circle of fat hell."

Like a hungry man attacking a Big Mac, Greg Critser does not hold back. In his new book, "Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World," the journalist and former fatty goes straight for the heart of America's obesity epidemic. The above quote, from Critser's concluding chapter, emphatically outs the parallel evils of over-consumption and inactivity as fundamental reasons why 50 million people in the United States are clinically obese.

"Fat Land" is no biblical polemic, however. The obesity epidemic is both deadly and draining. It kills approximately 300,000 people in the U.S. every year and the nation annually spends $117 billion on obesity-related healthcare. But its mortal roots are much more tangible than the seven sins. Using a holistic approach comparable to Eric Schlosser's multifarious method in "Fast Food Nation," Critser details the dozens of congealed factors at the core of this societal illness. Gluttony and sloth are blamed, but only after he targets political and agricultural policies, globalized trade, class inequity, nutritional monkey-wrenching, corporate marketing strategies, school district irresponsibility and fad psychology.

In its recent review of "Fat Land," the New York Times calls Critser's core subject "the nutritional contradictions of capitalism." In a world where the ability to consume is held aloft as an ultimate goal, where bigger is better because others can see how much you have, we're literally gorging ourselves to death. "The way to deal with obesity is to reduce our consumption," Critser says in a phone interview from his home in Pasadena, California. "But consuming is half of our identity. The other half is producing. And this is not a message that anybody wants to hear."

Essentially, we're a continent in denial, says Critser, who considers eating an extremely intimate function. "I think people are more secretive about food than sex," he says. "It's the ultimate primal act." Accordingly, there's tremendous hesitancy to deal with the obesity issue straight-on, which is what he set out to do after experiencing his personal awakening five years ago. Forty pounds overweight at the time, Critser nearly clipped a cyclist with his car door and received an angry "Watch it, fatso!" in response. That same day, out of the blue, his doctor left a message about a new obesity drug on his answering machine, telling Critser that he was a candidate. Putting himself through a jumble of health clubs and medications, eschewing Krispy Kreme donuts and striving for regular-cut jeans, Critser lost weight. He kept a detailed journal about the process; it was published in a magazine, a newspaper and evolved into a Harper's cover story in 2000. As he writes in "Fat Land," Critser saw his successful shedding " not as a triumph of will, but as a triumph of my economic and social class." He noted that not everybody could afford to pay for drugs and exercise expertise. He also saw a bigger story that he'd need a book to flesh out, especially after meeting people like University of Colorado physiologist James Hill, who warned that at the current growth rate almost all Americans will be overweight by 2050, that becoming obese "is a normal response to the American environment."

Paving the Road to Fat

The roots of this environment can be traced back to the 1970s and 1980s, when people like U.S. agriculture secretary Earl Butz instigated a chain of events that would by the end of the century lead to 450-pound teenagers requiring emergency stomach-stapling gastroplasty surgery. Butz, a Richard Nixon nominee, lowered food prices for American consumers and helped American farmers lock up new markets. In order to do that, he pushed products like high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and palm oil into our diets. HFCS, which improves the shelf-life of vending machine goodies and protects frozen food from freezer burn, is six times sweeter than cane sugar and can be made from U.S.-grown corn. Palm oil, imported in massive quantities from Malaysia to give American agricultural exporters a green light overseas, has been described as "more highly saturated than hog lard." Yet they both became staples.

Butz simply wanted to solve political problems, says Critser. He didn't intend to make people fat. Neither did movie theatre magnate turned McDonald's director David Wallerstein, who realized his businesses could make more money by selling larger portions of high mark-up items such as pop and fries. Customers don't want to feel like gluttons and buy two small bags of fries, but one giant serving.... In his hunger for profit, Wallerstein didn't see the bigger picture. "When you don't want to look at something, you don't look at it," says Critser. "That's not very profound. But it's true."

Along with larger portions of more fattening food, Americans have become increasingly sedentary over the last couple of decades. It's heavily documented that we're watching more television and are bombarded with fast food commercials while sitting (and often snacking) on the couch. Schools, as well, have relinquished their roles on educational sanctums. Cafeteria nutrition declined dramatically as cash-strapped school administrators cut deals with fast food corporations. By 1999, Critser writes, 95 per cent of 345 surveyed California high schools were selling branded fast food products for lunch. Moreover, the importance of engaging in physical activity at school (the old notion that a healthy body leads to a healthy mind) has been forgotten. It's easy to see why American parents are letting their children slip down this path when one looks at the typical grown-up response to obesity. Hamstrung by 1980s-era ultra permissive parenting guidebooks (never tell your kids not to eat, many counselled), plus concerns about diseases like anorexia and bulimia, adults stood back and watched their children feast amid our culture of abundance. And when mom and dad think they're getting too heavy, no problem -- they just buy into the latest fad diet du jour.

"I think it's part of our culture, biologically and mentally, to look for the easy way out," Critser says about so-called solutions like "The Slow Burn Fitness Revolution," a new book featured on the front page of Canada's National Post newspaper last week which proclaims that two 15-minute weigh-training sessions per week are enough to get into shape. "It's a lie," he continues, "but diets and fitness are things we consume. To be fat is relatively cheap. In a certain sense, being fat is rational." Critser has harsh words for the mass media that provides a platform for people like "Slow Burn's" New York author Fredrick Hahn and countless others before him. "Newspapers are desperate for cheap, quick content," he says. "Our standards for diet books are very low. Newspapers cover them because they're new, not because what they say, because they can make money by doing it."

Despite all these criticisms, Critser and is not completely pessimistic. He writes about grassroots groups of parents and teachers engaging in a "high-stakes guerilla war with the fast food companies that have come to dominate the school nutrition scene." Last year in Sacramento, California, for example, the school board rejected a five-year $2.5 million contract with Pepsi that would have given the company the exclusive right to sell and advertise its product at all public schools in the district. But the board didn't stop there. Its investigation of the health issues led to an ultimatum for principals: eliminate all high-sugar and high-fat food within 10 years. Confronted with ingrained marketing like McDonald's nutritional curriculums, Tootsie Roll math lessons and Pizza Hut reading texts, it's a steep uphill battle. But as Andrew Hagelshaw of California's Center for Commercial-Free Public Education told Critser, "We are seeing hundreds of groups across the country take this issue on. The key is the parents. It's like a sleeping giant has been roused."

The giant is a new consciousness about what we're putting into our bodies, and its presence is desperately needed at the family dinner table, Critser argues. Parents have to escape the "hysterical" producer-consumer cycle they're trapped in, he says, and pay much more attention to what they and their kids are eating and doing with the their spare time. At a moment in history when we're being told to help our capitalist economies by consuming more -- as San Francisco mayor Willie Brown urged at a rally not long after September 11, 2001 -- Critser's message could be interpreted as anti-American. It's not, he insists. It's just discomforting. But he believes we have to start treating obesity as both a medical and political issue before it's too late. "I think we could take some measures now that will register in the next generation," says Critser. "But there's a lot of denial out there still. And denial is a big industry."

Dan Rubinstein is the news editor of Vue Weekly in Edmonton, Alberta.


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