In the past year, Americans have been awakened to the fact that obesity is becoming the No. 1 health problem in the country. Surgeon General David Satcher stated in 2001 that obesity had reached epidemic proportions (almost 60 percent of adults, as well as nearly 13 percent of children, were overweight or obese.) As of late, the responses have reached the extreme and the ridiculous, from the revival of the low-carbohydrate Atkins diet to the "McLawsuits" against fast-food establishments for damages due to their customers' obesity. According to James O. Hill of the University of Colorado's Health Sciences Center, it has been calculated that if current trends hold, almost all Americans will be either overweight or obese by 2050.
How did we get to this point? How did the America of Weight Watchers and the Jane Fonda workout balloon to the nation of Dom DeLuise and Roseanne? Greg Critser's new book, Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World, attempts to document the origins of the epidemic. Critser, a journalist for USA Today and Harper's, where Fat Land first appeared as a cover article, weaves an intricate albeit somewhat disjointed tale of how federal agricultural policy, private-sector marketing innovations and changes in educational spending sent Americans down the Crisco-greased slope to the literal "Fat City." Concurrently, Critser observes a class construct in the obesity epidemic, a disturbing trend where obesity "disproportionately plagues the poor and the working poor." It is a thorough, startling and oftentimes frightening look at how America got its spare tire.
Critser is strongest in two areas. The first is the careful detailing of the chronology and players in each of the factors contributing to the obesity epidemic. Many people know of the dangers of palm oil (a highly saturated plant fat) and high-fructose corn syrup (a sugar that directly turns to fat). What many do not know is that agricultural policies of the 1970s, spearheaded by then-Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz and aimed at protecting American farmers while increasing U.S. exports abroad, contributed to the proliferation of both palm oil and high-fructose corn syrup for usage on American shelves.
Many Americans have seen the size of meals and servings at fast-food restaurants increase to Super Mega Value Meal largesse. What they may not know is that the increasing of portions and meals was due to a successful movie-house marketing executive who noted that patrons "didn't want to be seen eating two boxes of popcorn. It looked ... piggish."
The second is the sheer volume of numerical data and research analysis that Critser compiled to support his claims. Each of his chapters is packed with studies and reports, some of them especially revealing. One such study was conducted by Stanford's Departments of Pediatrics and Medicine on 192 third and fourth graders in San Jose, Calif.; it involved a program to reduce the amount of television and video-game use. With half the subjects trained to restrict TV use and the other half as a control, the results were startling. TV use was down by a third, video-game use was down, but children were exhibiting significant weight loss, simply by controlling sedentary activity.
The book weakens with one of the larger points, that of obesity trending more toward the poor and disenfranchised minorities. Though not without some merit, this trend is cast as a new discovery of the past two decades, whereas, in fact, this theory has existed for at least 65 years. George Orwell, in The Road to Wigan Pier, observed that the poor, whenever they get income or welfare relief, do not necessarily buy fresh foods that are good for them, but rather canned, preserved, sugary foods loaded with chemicals and fat. This, according to Orwell, was done largely out of convenience and a lack of knowledge. The same argument is used by Critser to show how the poor and minorities, with an abundance of prepackaged food, lack of adequate exercise facilities, and the lack of proper physical education in schools, have ballooned in weight while not improving economically. It is sorely lacking that Critser did not cite Orwell in this regard.
This leads to the other weakness in Critser's work. He details a vast chronology of the obesity epidemic, yet he is woefully silent in terms of viable solutions, which must ultimately involve self-control. He does not even write about self-control in a sustained paragraph until page 53. The solutions that are presented, like the Stanford study mentioned earlier, are largely institutional. They involve large programs like public parks and fitness initiatives and whatnot. But not a single paragraph urges the individual to close his mouth and get on a treadmill. Based on anecdotal evidence (and personal experience), effective weight loss is, at its core, a personal experience. And the ability of an individual to make a conscious decision to change his/her lifestyle is many times more difficult than any large-scale measure Critser details. As much as these programs may facilitate someone to make correct choices, it is still up to the individual to make these choices.
Fat Land, even with its faults, is an excellent chronology of the people, policies and phenomena that have led to what is considered our most dire health concern. The facts, figures, analysis and studies alone will ultimately place Fat Land as a useful work in the background study of obesity. The fight against fat needs the kind of information contained in Critser's work, much of which has not been available to most Americans (with devastating results). What it does not need is the nonproductive antagonism and pie-in-the-sky solutions also contained therein. The decision to get fit or get fat is not made in a boardroom, nor in a governmental department, nor at a school-board meeting. It is done by individuals who choose to get better. The quicker Americans realize the power they each have to control their bodies, the sooner we will see the ultimate dissolution of the Fat Land.