Obesity: No Longer the American Disease

By Michael Fumento

Scripps Howard News Service, March 24, 2005
Copyright 2005 Scripps Howard News Service

  Print this  Print this    Make text larger    Make text smaller

American women don’t get thin by reading fibbing fad diet books.

"French Women Don’t Get Fat." That’s the title of a fad diet book that’s currently on the bestseller lists. It preys on Americans who haven’t been to France lately, which is most of us. And like all fad diet books, it’s false. I knew that already from my travels, but a just-released International Obesity Task Force report on the 25 European Union nations backs up what I’ve seen.

Don’t read it while alone, however; it’s scary stuff.

Those French women who don’t get fat? Well, over a third of them are currently either overweight (fat) or obese (really fat). More worrisome yet are the trend lines. Obesity in French women rose from 8 percent in 1997 to 11.3 percent in 2003, an increase of over 40 percent. (For men it was about the same, from 8.4 percent to 11.4 percent.)

True, the French levels of overweight and obesity appear to still be half the rate as in the U.S. and the lowest in Europe, but considering the French trend line that should be little consolation. Moreover, the French figures are probably too low to reflect reality.

That’s because the data for the U.S. and 20 of the EU countries are based on measurements taken by researchers. But for France and just four of the other European nations, the figures come from the individuals themselves. And studies repeatedly show people understate their weight. Italy’s fatness rate is almost as low as France’s and (surprise!) the Italian numbers are also based on self-reports.

Further, objective measurements of French children (aged 7-11) show about a fifth of them are fat. That’s average for the EU and slightly worse than in the U.S.

The Task Force estimated that among the EU’s 103 million youngsters, 400,000 more become overweight each year.

Clearly, "The time when obesity was thought to be a problem on the other side of the Atlantic has gone by," as Mars Di Bartolomeo, Luxembourg’s Minister of Health, observed. In fact, in Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Greece, Malta and Slovakia, a higher percentage of men are obese or overweight than the estimated 67 percent of men in the United States.

There may still be plenty of reasons to make fun of Americans, but you’ll have to drop oversized guts and butts from the list. Anyway, obesity has never really been a "funny" topic.

Even the Maltese Falcon looks a bit chubbier these days.

"Obesity is a risk factor for many serious illnesses including heart disease, hypertension, stroke, respiratory disease, arthritis, and certain types of cancer" noted the Task Force. It’s giving rise to a tremendous increase in type 2 diabetes and even causes birth defects in offspring of overweight mothers. A 2004 study from the California-based Rand Corporation found a striking increase in disability among Americans caused by the rise in obesity.

Plus it costs nations a fortune. "Annual U.S. obesity-attributable medical expenditures are estimated at $75 billion," a January 2004 Obesity Research study concluded.

Yet the Task Force report also brings hope. With data from 25 different European nations and the U.S., we can now begin systematically investigating why people in some countries are so much heavier than those in others and why people in each country are fatter than they were.

Such comparisons were a major aspect of my 1997 book The Fat of the Land. At the time I wrote it, both the U.S. government and the American people were utterly convinced that the route to slimness was reducing fat as a percentage of total calories consumed. Today the diet books making the bestseller lists are low-carb; back then they were low-fat.

I used both European obesity statistics and fat-consumption statistics to show this was flatly wrong. Europeans were eating MORE fat as a percentage of calories than were Americans (Both the French and Dutch enjoy fatty sauces on top of a piece of fat), yet Europeans back then were much thinner. Finally what was official U.S. health policy is now in a museum alongside dinosaur bones.

Europeans can look at each other to see what works and what doesn’t, and if nothing else can learn from our mistakes. Chances are French book stores won’t be carrying anything called "American Women Don’t Get Fat."

Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on obesity, including his book The Fat of the Land.