Fat is our fate. So Frank Bruni speculates in a recent New York Times column that can be seen as so pessimistic and doom-and-gloom that we all might as well just accept the inevitable, supersize every order of fries we can, chuck the fruits and vegetables and forget about starting that new workout regimen.
With more than one-third of adults in the U.S. obese — and with two-thirds of Americans qualifying as obese or overweight — and about 17 percent of children and adolescents overweight, talk of an obesity epidemic has become commonplace. As Bruni asks,
“What if fatness, even obesity, is less a lurking danger than a likely destiny, and the surprise isn’t how many seriously overweight people are out there but how few?”
A book, The Weight of the Nation, that draws on input from the Institute of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health makes just this point. A four-part documentary with the same title will be shown next month on HBO. The argument, according to Bruni, is that it is not “gluttony” that has led to obesity becoming a national health issue, but the past century’s developments in agriculture– mass production of corn, soybeans and wheat; feedlots teeming with livestock; factories that process raw ingredients into deliciously salty, sweet, cheap products — have led to an abundance of food and, because it is there, we are eating it.
Following ”millenniums of feast-and-famine cycles,” we are “chromosomally hard-wired” to eat in excess to store up energy. Bruni quotes Thomas A. Farley, New York City’s health commissioner: “We’re simply not genetically programmed to refuse calories when they’re within arm’s reach.” With so many calories within such easy reach, it’s not that our will power isn’t strong enough: We don’t resist because we can’t.
Another quote from Michael L. Power’s and Jay Schulkin’s The Evolution of Obesity sums up the dilemma the past century of agricultural progress has wrought: “We evolved on the savannahs of Africa. We now live in Candyland.”
As Gawker puts it, “we are sliding peacefully into a food-coma of denial.” BMI measurements, which are commonly used to judge whether someone is at a healthy weight, are said to underestimate obesity in some 40 percent of cases. With our doctors now overweight, they are less likely to broach the subject of obesity with us, their patients.
The news that, thanks to our own innovations, we have doomed ourselves to obesity, is certainly troubling and downright depressing. Bruni suggests that the takeaway message is that we need to employ far different tactics in the fight against weight gain than the “kind of consciousness-raising and corporate prodding being done by Michelle Obama.” Chastising obese people is not effective and creating more green spaces and banning soda from school grounds and pizza from school cafeterias not enough. Bruni does not offer any concrete suggestions and certainly the ones he notes are better than nothing.
Can knowing that we can’t help taking “just one more” because it’s there (and it’s cheap and it tastes so good) make a difference in addressing obesity?
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Photo by Lars Plougmann