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Why America is so fat

Commentary: Food makers, regulators, heart drugs, more

By Chris Pummer ,
Last Update: 10:55 AM ET Aug. 1, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS.MW) -- The fat man in New York who sued the Big Four fast-food chains is desperate to blame someone for his obesity. He just didn't cast blame broadly enough

Certainly, Caesar Barber is absolving himself of responsibility in suing McDonald's ( MCD :news ,chart ,profile ), Burger King, Wendy's ( WEN :news ,chart ,profile ) and Kentucky Fried Chicken. But like so many of us, he's the human embodiment of bad industry and government policies that threaten our nation's health and prosperity if we don't correct them fast.

America is waking up to the fact it's grotesquely overweight, as Barber's suit and recent Newsweek and The New York Times stories attest. But like a perseverating three-year-old, we keep trashing easy targets like fast-food peddlers when the root of our weight problem goes well beyond super-sized combo meals.

The culprits are many: Profit-hungry food makers who stuff convenience products with carbohydrate fillers while claiming they're "healthy" and "low-fat," regulators who refuse to admit to years of bad nutritional guidance, a health-insurance system that covers the consequences of dietary self-abuse and the impact that single-parent and dual-worker households has had on our collective eating habits.

Yet the biggest culprit is arguably the most overlooked because it's a modern miracle -- the heart medications responsible for extending the average U.S. lifespan by two decades over just the last 50 years. We revel in the fact we can be fat and still live long lives -- and our economy's going to have hell to pay if we don't wake up from this self-delusion.

Take these five causes for our nation's midriff bulge one-by-one, and it's clear the medical profession's ceaseless nutritional bickering over, say, the merits of low-fat vs. low-carb diets, is a distracting waste of time:

Medicate me, thank you

There's no getting around it -- blood-pressure, cholesterol and other heart-disease drugs may be modern man's greatest curse in disguise.

A half century ago, overweight people regularly died of heart attacks in their 40s and 50s. Now, fat people may live well into their 70s and 80s thanks to "maintenance drugs," a fact not lost on younger generations who see that as justification for eating like there's always a tomorrow.

Yet our health-care system is being strained by treating all these people who'd have committed dietary suicide decades earlier. Doctors used to make house calls because their profession wasn't caught up in treating these long-time walking wounded. The entire system has been redirected toward paying for them.

No problem, I'm covered

Flawed as our health-insurance system is in failing to cover tens of millions of Americans, it's flawed as well for many millions that it does cover -- those of us who stuff our faces indiscriminately.

Medical insurance creates a false economy where overly voracious eaters aren't required to pay for their self-destructive behavior. Fat people don't merely suffer greater incidence of heart disease; their diminished immune systems make them more susceptible to a host of routine illnesses that require treatment.

Just as nonsmokers subsidize the cost of treating smokers, lean people subsidize the cost of treating portly ones. Health-care spending already consumes one sixth of our gross domestic product. With 74 million baby boomers waddling toward old age, don't be surprised if their children demand a system that puts them on a food allowance, lest the nation's entire health-care bill years from now bankrupts our whole enterprise.

Hollow calories = Big profits

Don't get sucked into the seemingly easy solution -- those frozen entrees from Nestle's ( NSRGF :news ,chart ,profile )Lean Cuisine, ConAgra's ( CAG :news ,chart ,profile ) Healthy Choice and Heinz's ( HNZ :news ,chart ,profile ) Smart Ones. They, in fact, typify all that's wrong with the U.S. food manufacturing industry.

Most of their meager-portion entrees revolve around pasta and rice, the very type of carbohydrates that have contributed to the fattening of America. These entrees that sell for $3 and $4 may contain 20 cents worth of chicken, 5 cents worth of vegetables and 10 cents worth of starch that accounts for the bulk of the product weight.

Yet excessive carbo-loading is what's plumping America up. It's fine if you're a marathon runner, but not if you sit on your butt all day in an office. As ultra-low-carb diet guru Robert Atkins will tell you, fatty foods get passed through a fat person's body, but carbs get stored as fat for winter. We however eat them constantly - whether it's the bowls of bread restaurants serve us to ensure we feel satiated or the "high fructose corn syrup" so prevalent on ingredient lists of processed foods in America.

Meat and produce are what human beings subsisted on for millions of years before the food industry came along. Sure, you don't want to chew the gristle off a ham hock -- saturated fats do clog arteries. But food makers know well their profit margins would shrink considerably if they eliminated the high-carbohydrate fillers from their products and sold lean meat and veggie frozen entrees instead.

See no evil, don't address your evil

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture refuse to back off their endorsement of low-fat diets, even though the U.S. Dietetic Association now acknowledges that excessive consumption of bread, pasta and potatoes -- all low fat foods -- are damaging Americans' health, and that millions of people fare better on low-carb diets than low-fat ones.

Even if an upstart food maker wanted to offer a line of low-carb products and could crack the shelves of supermarket chains such as Safeway ( SWY :news ,chart ,profile ), the FDA would bar them from labeling packaging as such. The reason, according to critics: Regulators don't want to admit they were wrong in steering the entire food industry toward the vast, high-profit product lines that are now so suspect.

The food industry, of course, has the clout to push for low-carb labeling, but that's clearly not in its financial interest.

So what's for dinner, Mom?

In the early 1960s, when more moms stayed home, Americans ate three squares and McDonald's was a single, burger-joint takeover target that Ray Kroc spied in Southern California. Neither pizza, nor a large order of fries, was a staple of our diets.

Now that mom and dad are often working full-time, and so many moms are holding down the house by themselves, good square meals are few and far between. Instead, we slap together what we can -- and eat dinner out a third of the time on average.

That's not to blame fast-food chains for our weight problem. Yet just like cigarette makers, they've known for years their products are unhealthy. They have made occasional stabs at offering healthier food items, knowing they've become America's kitchen of frequent resort, but salads in a plastic cup are hardly appetizing.

It's the arrogance of industry spokespeople such as John Doyle, co-founder of the questionably named "Center for Consumer Freedom," that is galling. In response to Barber's class-action lawsuit, Doyle said: "Is he proposing that we sue America's moms?"

Look in the mirror

Say what you will about Barber's claim. It exposes a looming problem in America that will dwarf the turn-of-the-century stock market collapse by comparison.

A day of reckoning is coming.

We simply cannot go on living this large.

Chris Pummer is personal finance editor for in San Francisco.

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