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Land of the Free, Home of the Fat


More die in the United States of too much food than of too little," wrote John Kenneth Galbraith in "The Affluent Society."

That was back in 1958, and since then Americans have just gotten fatter and fatter, to the point where obesity-related health services are costing the nation an estimated $100 billion a year. We've become a country that wears "easy fit" and "baggy fit" jeans, that devours super-sized tubs of popcorn and huge vats of soda at the movies, that buys pizza by the foot at Little Caesar's and "neverending pasta" at the Olive Garden.

No wonder, as Greg Critser points out in his new book, "Fat Land," that 61 percent of Americans are "overweight enough to begin experiencing health problems as a direct result of that weight." No wonder that "25 percent of all Americans under age 19 are overweight or obese," a figure that has doubled in the last 30 years. No wonder that Type 2 diabetes is on the rise, along with associated liver, eye and coronary artery problems.

Although many of the findings in "Fat Land" have appeared in newspapers and magazines in the last few years, Mr. Critser has done a nimble job of pulling this information together and assembling it into a fluent if sometimes cursory narrative.
As he sees it, several developments in the last few decades are to blame for our thickening waistlines and widening butts. To begin with, Mr. Critser argues, two developments that occurred under the 1970's aegis of President Richard Nixon's secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, helped alter the American diet for the worse: corn surpluses led to the production of an inexpensive sweetener called high-fructose corn syrup — which both Coke and Pepsi and dozens of other companies were quick to adopt — and cheap imports of palm oil, combined with new technologies, led to the embrace by convenience-food makers of this highly saturated fat.

Because the body processes fructose differently from sucrose or dextrose, Mr. Critser suggests, its overuse may skew "the national metabolism toward fat storage." As for palm oil and palm kernel oil, he says, "both are implicated in insulin resistance," and "both tend to raise total and LDL, or `bad,' cholesterol, thereby contributing to atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease."

As sugar- and fat-rich snack foods became easier and more affordable to manufacture, there was a proliferation of high-calorie products: "Where all through the 1960's and 1970's the number of yearly new candy and snack products remained stable — at about 250 a year — that number jumped to about 1,000 by the mid-1980's and to about 2,000 by the late 1980's."

At the same time, fast-food portions were starting to inflate: the Del Taco Macho Meal weighed in at four pounds, while 7-Eleven's Double Gulp was five times larger than a standard can of soda. A serving of McDonald's French fries, Mr. Critser reports, "ballooned from 200 calories (1960) to 320 calories (late 1970's) to 450 calories (mid-1990's) to 540 calories (late 1990's) to the present 610 calories." By the end of the 20th century supersizing had become the norm; between 1977 and 1995, the Department of Agriculture reported, average individual caloric intake increased by almost 200 calories a day.

What freed Americans to stuff their faces with ever bigger servings of ever more fattening foods, says Mr. Critser, was the emergence of what he calls a "new boundary-free culture." Busy, stressed-out parents became increasingly pragmatic about eating out and ordering in. Religious leaders — on the right, worried about more flagrant sins like alcohol, tobacco and sex; on the left, concerned with promoting an attitude of tolerance and self-esteem — de-emphasized the sins of gluttony and overconsumption. And budget-strained schools began "outsourcing" their cafeteria orders, enabling fast-food makers to gain a foothold in public schools, a foothold only increased with so-called "pouring contracts," by which schools received commissions in exchange for making a company's carbonated beverages available to students.

Low-carb and low-fat diets, promising users they could eat as much as they wanted of permitted foods, gained new popularity, while studies that "had shown that adults, like children, reacted badly to high expectations" promoted new exercise guidelines, which suggested that moderate intensity activity — like walking upstairs, gardening, raking leaves or walking to work — was an acceptable substitute for vigorous workouts. Many people did not exercise at all: physical-education classes were dropped or cut back in many cash-pressed schools, while television took over as a favorite leisure activity at home.

What about the fitness and gym boom? What about the new popularity of soccer leagues? What about worries about anorexia and bulimia? Mr. Critser argues that these are basically upper- and middle-class concerns, that it is "the poor, the underserved and the underrepresented" who are "most at risk from excess fat."

Some of Mr. Critser's observations are more dubious, like his citation of a survey associating obesity with higher levels of religiosity, or his worry that "assortative mating" ("fat attracting fat") will lead to fat parents producing more fat children. Such bizarre notions, combined with a perfunctory assessment of the ways in which America can combat obesity, distract attention from the very real and alarming problems, discussed in this otherwise absorbing volume, of living large.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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