Obesity Obeisance

By Michael Fumento

October 15, 1997
Copyright 1997 Michael Fumento

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"Who Says Size Counts!" proclaimed the cover of the Sept. 29 People magazine. "So what if they aren’t size 6?," says the subtitle. "Healthy, wealthy, and unabashed, they’re proudly proving big is beautiful too."

This is the way America is dealing with the obesity epidemic. Americans are the fattest people on Earth. A third of us are certifiably obese, while about three-fourths are heavier than prime health dictates. We’ve gained 12 pounds in just the last decade. Each year, 300,000 of us die prematurely because we’re too fat — making obesity the leading cause of controllable death after cigarettes.

Yet, when we should be declaring a national war on fat, our cry is: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!

Thus we see the People cover story, along with a slew of recent fat-acceptance books. The politically correct toiletry store chain the Body Shop is using posters depicting a doll that’s a cross between a nude Barbie and a dirigible. The chain knows that a huge number of its customers are, well, huge. With sales, flattery will get you everywhere.

All this propaganda, along with that of the inevitable victim groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance, pretend that the nation’s alleged obsession with thinness is based on simple prejudice. It’s Size-ist, they say. Fat-Phobic.

Au contraire. Studies repeatedly show that aversion to corpulence is built into our genes. And for some good reasons. Fat women are less fertile and, as scientists have discovered recently, twice as likely to give birth to babies with severe defects such as spina bifida. As to fat men, it is hardly surprising that our female ancestors wouldn’t want a mate who couldn’t possibly run down a rabbit or keep up with a mastodon herd.

Even today, if you want a mate who’s going to make it into those golden years with you, the leaner he or she is, the better chance you have.

The nation’s two largest ongoing obesity studies have both found a steady, strong inverse correlation between overweight and longevity.

Still, the fat advocates tell us, the obese harm nobody but themselves. Let them assume the risk of their activities.

But few fat people have real knowledge of how much harm they’re inflicting upon themselves. No smoker can deny the dangers of his habit. But the recent onslaught of books, magazine articles, and corporate campaigns proclaiming "Don’t worry; be flabby" or that "You can be Fat but Fit" perpetuates a myth all too eagerly embraced.

Further, obesity harms others in that it is a contagious social disease - basically a malignant fad. As Americans become fatter, our culture accepts it more. As our culture accepts it more, we become fatter.

As with other contagious social diseases, obesity is most readily spread to one’s children. The New England Journal of Medicine reported recently that parental obesity more than doubles the risk of adult obesity among children under 10 years of age.

Genetics may play a role in this. But the study’s lead author fingered environment as the greater cause. Noting that America is growing fatter by the year, he observed, "Our genes aren’t changing that fast. Instead, children imitate their parents’ eating and exercise habits."

It’s time to go back to old-fashioned terms like gluttony and sloth, and drop the cutesy euphemisms like big eaters and couch potatoes.

The obese deserve to learn that all the fad diets selling books by the millions are wrong. The biggest fad for the last several years has been to demonize fat while saying it’s OK to pig out on carbohydrates. The second biggest has been to demonize carbohydrates while saying it OK to pig out on calories from fat!

The studies are clear, says Walter Willett, M.D., chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. It doesn’t make any difference where your calories come from.

We shouldn’t oppress fat people (nor make them the pariahs that smokers have become). But neither should they be told that their diet and exercise habits are just neutral choices, like choosing a blue car over a red one.

Nobody chooses to be obese, but they do choose the activities that make them obese, just as no smoker chooses to have emphysema but all choose to smoke.

Our stunning growth of girth is part of a culture of self-indulgence: We want everything; we want it now; and we aren’t willing to pay the consequences. We want a free lunch and without any calories.

By no coincidence is our nation fattening up even while it’s dumbing down.

Self-restraint is a virtue all its own. Neither low-fat desserts, nor fad diets, nor fad exercise devices, nor pills can substitute for it, any more than they have made us thinner.

This is no call for asceticism or Puritanism, but rather for the return of another simple virtue: moderation. Yet moderation has become something of a joke, just as sin has. It’s no surprise that a mail order firm selling clothes to immense women call itself Nothing in Moderation.

I know the anger that can be provoked in this generation by a call for even slight denial. I also know what it’s like to lose a wonderful but grossly obese friend to a heart attack at age 29. With 300,000 Americans a year joining him, and the numbers rapidly growing worse, it’s worth a few hurt feelings and cries of outrage.

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 and on cancer.