One Nation, Overweight — When Will We Take Action?

By Michael Fumento

June 23, 1998
Copyright 1998 Michael Fumento

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Just what will it take before our nation finally wakes up to the terrible and growing problem of obesity? Will it be that the prestigious Science magazine has devoted an issue to the subject, with one article warning, "Obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States" and "if this trend persists, the entire U.S. adult population could be overweight within a few generations"?

Alas, Science’s Klaxon call is far from the first. Before we finally decide to take action, more of us will get fat, the fat will grow fatter, and the inevitable heart attacks, cancers, diabetes, stroke, and early death will follow in the wake. According to top researchers in the field, obesity strikes down over 300,000 Americans prematurely each year. The government has just adjusted its height-weight index — based on recent epidemiological studies indicating that over half of us are unhealthily overweight.

When we do decide to start doing something, these steps should be among them:

Stop pretending that obesity is just an inevitable result of affluence. No affluent country in the world has obesity levels even approaching ours. Walk around a major city in Europe or Japan for days and you’ll see fewer grossly overweight people than walking from one end of a WalMart to the other.

The medical community must present a united front. There’s certainly room for debate on specific issues. But there is no question that excess body fat kills and cripples Americans in massive numbers, and that those numbers are increasing. Thus, the New England Journal of Medicine did a terrible disservice earlier this year by running an editorial by non-obesity experts downplaying obesity’s risks. This contradicted years of studies in that same journal including one in that very issue.

The media must stop glorifying obese persons, as did one cover of People magazine portraying various famous overweight women and proclaiming, "Who Says Size Counts! So What If They Aren’t Size Six? Healthy, Wealthy, and Unabashed, They’re Proudly Proving Big Is Beautiful Too." Yes, you can be fat and yet happy and successful. There are also happy, successful cocaine addicts and chain smokers, but we don’t devote magazine covers to them.

The medical industry needs to speak out against the myriad best-selling fad diet books that flood bookstores each year, each presenting a miracle formula for weight loss. (The current competing formulas are "eat all the fat you want, but cut out the carbohydrates" and "eat all the carbohydrates you want but cut out the fat.")

Book publishers also bear responsibility. They can reject books saying blacks are inferior or Jews are greedy and they can turn away diet books that will make hundreds of thousands of Americans 25 dollars poorer and 25 pounds heavier.

Though houses are growing larger by the year, we are spening more and more time in one little part: in front of the refrigerator.

... We must stop blaming genes and start blaming ourselves. Noted the Science authors, "Our genes have not changed substantially in the last two decades." What’s changed is our eating and our exertion — a lot less of the first, a lot more of the second. Is this "judging other people"? No, it’s stating a fact. It helps no one to allow political correctness or overheightened sensitivity to keep us from telling the truth about chosen lifestyles and obesity. Sorry, but just as nobody ordered you to smoke, nobody ordered you to plop in front of the TV set all weekend, downing beer by the gallon and chips by the pound.

Realize that obesity is socially contagious, in the same way that manners are. Nowhere is this more obvious than within families. It’s not genes that explain why so often obese parents have obese kids; it’s child see, child do.

We need a sense of perspective. Why did a government report saying as many as 3,000 Americans die each year from passive smoke prompt sweeping federal and state legislation, while warnings of 300,000 obesity-related deaths prompt mere yawns? We don’t know that pesticide residues (measured in parts per million) have ever killed a single child, but Congress, myriad activist groups, and large portions of both the EPA and the Agriculture Department devote countless man hours and hundreds of millions of dollars to this issue. Where’s the fuss over children so fat they become breathless reaching for the TV remote control and the cookie bag?

We must give no credence to the pseudo-science of the fat acceptance movement, the obesity equivalent of the Tobacco Institute. Last year’s excuse was genes. This year it’s, "I may be fat, but I’m fit." That may be true of persons slightly overweight, but hardly of some of the 300-pound folks uttering it. Further, don’t be distracted by those who bizarrely equate weight loss with eating disorders. Noting that obesity is unhealthy no more induces eating disorders than saying dirty hands are unhealthy induces obsessive-compulsive hand-washing.

Hard problems don’t usually have easy solutions. The obesity epidemic is no exception. But the sooner we get started, the easier it will be and the more lives that will be saved. And there will be hell to pay for us, and especially our children, if we don’t start at all.

Calculate your BMI to see if you are obese. What the scores mean:

  • 24 or under: Minimal health risk
  • 25-29: Low to moderate risk
  • 30 or over: High risk

Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on obesity.