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August 03, 2004

Fat Facts

Dear Vanessa --

Thanks to the Web, I've cut 'way back on magazine and newspaper consumption. But when I fly, I still load up on glossy magazines. One of the mags I treated myself to yesterday as I traveled out west was National Georgraphic, which I hadn't looked at in many years. Shorter articles; many more graphics, and far more aggressive graphics; and even some "attitude" -- some things don't remain the same, I guess.

But it was also good to see that some things do indeed remain the same. Amid the pop and the clatter, the issue also featured some traditional NatGeo-style pages: tales of death-defying treks and outlandish beasties. (Six-foot-long squid!) Not all the visuals were punchy and hyped-up either. Some of the photography was breathtaking in the classic NatGeo way -- the squid shots by Brian Skerry were especially good. And the maps don't seem to have changed much in style at all. Super-detailed, full of snow-capped mountains and green river valleys, they're as mesmerizing as ever.

But, thanks to discussions that have taken place on this blog, what fascinated me most in the issue was an article by Cathy Newman. Its subject? Why Americans have gotten so fat.

Some startling data from Newman's article:

  • For the first time, there are now as many fat people on the face of the planet as there are undernourished people.
  • One in three Americans is obese -- twice as many as three decades ago.
  • Obesity among American children and adolescents has tripled since 1980.
  • Calling the New Urbanism! One reason for fat kids: "Suburban sprawl and lack of pedestrian-friendly streets have kids being driven instead of walking."
  • We're getting fatter because -- why else? -- we're eating too much and exercising too little. These days, on average, we're eating 300 more calories a day than we need to.
  • Adult American women now eat 325 more calories a day than they did in 1971; adult American men eat 168 calories more. Ladies -- what's going on?
  • During the year 1970, the average American ate 1497 pounds of food; during the year 2000, the average American ate 1775 pounds of food.
  • To our credit, we do eat more vegetables than we used to. Trouble is, most of that consists of iceberg lettuce, french fries, and potato chips.
  • In the early 1970s, the average American ate 136 pounds of flour and cereal products per year. These days, the average American eats 200 pounds, most of them heavily processed.
  • If you eat a mere hundred calories a day more than you need -- the equivalent of a glass of apple juice -- you'll gain 10 pounds in a year. The inverse, kinda, holds true too: if you begin getting 100 calories a day less exercise than you were getting, you’ll also gain ten pounds in a year.
  • One in four Americans gets no exercise whatsoever.

A culture of abundance indeed, and one that works hard to seduce. It can seem that everywhere are flashing lights, beckoning gestures, and invitations to indulge ourselves. Here's a vivid, if perhaps melodramatic, quote from Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, about what it's like trying to help people stay slim in such a carnival environment:

It's like trying to treat an alcoholic in a town where there's a bar every ten feet. Bad food is cheap, heavily promoted, and engineered to taste good. Healthy food is hard to get, not promoted, and expensive. If you came down from Mars and saw all this, what else would you predict except an obesity epidemic?

National Geographic's website is here. Don't miss the supercool squid videos that can be found in the right-hand column on this page here.



UPDATE: Thanks to Dave Lull, who points out this fascinating piece here, comparing French and English rates of heart disease and styles of eating.

posted by Michael at August 3, 2004


For the first time, there are now as many fat people on the face of the planet as there are undernourished people.

I'm sorry, but I can't consider this to be anything other than great news. I have a funny feeling our ancestors, even from only a few generations ago, if they heard us kvetching about how fat everyone is would want to slap us.

The burden of encouraging healthy food and healthy behavior is squarely upon the shoulders of those who are devoted to it already. It's up to you guys to figure out how to make it cheap and make it taste good. I don't think anyone will, everyone into healthy eating seems to take a kind of puritan view and wants to suffer through soy milk and wierd nut mixes. This is why I regrettably can't get a great tasting pizza with fresh, maybe organic ingredients - only "neopolitan" crackers with smatterings of tomatos and cheese, loused up with nonsensical toppings.

I grew up in the inner city, which lacks the obsessiveness of the middle and upper classes with healthy food and exercise. Quite frankly, such obsession is a luxury most can not afford. Meanwhile, this obsession runs the risk of becoming neurotic and idiotic to an extreme - macrobiotic diets and homeopathic "medicine" come to mind - which don't help anyone.

Hell, I'll even question the central thesis that there is "bad" food and "healthy" food. The only thing you can eat that won't have any health benefit and is guaranteed to hurt you has a very clear name - Poison. The recent studies showing the benefits of Coffee or alcohol are just showing the other side of the coin. Everything you eat has benefits and drawbacks - and it's quite possible that finding a balance would be such as herculean task that no one is truly capable. (Traditional cultures who have healthy diets may have just managed to figure this complex issue out over time.)

And please, please, please - let's limit the use of epidemic to contagious disease. And by "disease" I don't mean alcoholism or obesity either - infections and viruses will do just nicely. Thanks.

Posted by: Jonas Cord on August 3, 2004 5:44 AM

On Topic:

Posted by: reader on August 3, 2004 6:14 AM

Just a small fact: The higest rate of Diabetes is in the Pima Indians, the second highest rate is among the Red Lake Band of Chippewa of Minnesota.
There are no McDonalds on the Red Lake reservation, and TV is via satellite only.
Genetically, it is Metabolic syndrome: Insulin resistence and other metabolic changes that make one fat.
They blame it on the high fat "commodities" that they were given. And they don't work as hard as their ancestors. They may be right. The Pima in Mexico still work in the fields, eat traditional meals, and are thin.
But do you really want to change an easy life with plenty of food to one where you work in the fields under a hot sun? Yes, you won't die of Diabetes at age 60, but you'll be old and arthritic and die of old age at 60 instead...

Posted by: tioedong on August 3, 2004 7:12 AM

To my best knowledge that "French paradox" has already been debunked by statisticians. We simply don't know if more British die of a heart disease than French do. The main problem is that there are huge national differences in the way deaths are recorded. Of course, when a death occurs doctors are always asked to give a cause. But mind you, writing down "old age" is never sufficient. And where British doctors tend to give heart failure as the main cause of death, the French simply don't.

The problem is, we mostly don't know what causes death in old[er] people. And when autopsies have been done, they mostly showed different causes than were predicted by the physicians. But, there simply aren't that many autopsies done in cases of a natural death; not enough to be statistically relevant.

So, one gets a myth, and people start to look for magical substances in the French diet and more crap like that.

Posted by: ijsbrand on August 3, 2004 8:31 AM

So, one gets a myth, and people start to look for magical substances in the French diet and more crap like that.

Figures. The magical substance in French cuisine is crap!! It must be be disguised by all that butter. . . .

Posted by: Twn on August 3, 2004 9:37 AM

I just don't get it when people say that junk food is cheap and healthy food is expensive. What data back this up? Here in Central Texas, at least, that's simply not true.

Posted by: Ann on August 3, 2004 9:55 AM

Yes, to the comment that kids are driven instead of walking--or, as in "my day"---bicycle riding. I used to go everywhere on my bike until I was about 17 or 18 and could borrow the family car. My friends' kids don't, and half the time I think their parents are half-relieved they don't, because there is so much worry about creepy strangers. (NOTE TO PARENTS: Some of the worry is also just wimpy, as in worrying that the streets aren't level or have traffic on them. I used to cross busy streets and ride on uneven sidewalks, and I did it all without--gasp!--even a helmet, and never came close to a disaster). Kids go home after school and play video games. They get driven to school by their mothers. I think, in addition to the physical exercise that's missing, kids are also missing some of the freedom of movement we used to have, the joy in getting on your bike and going where you want, where your parents aren't trailing behind you every minute. No wonder kids today are so much more comfortable just moving home after college. They haven't spent that much time without their parents.

Plus, snack bars in schools have gotten out of control, with all the sweets and french fries and stuff to buy. We used to half one choice--take or leave it---in terms of school lunches. Remember those breaded fish squares? But the portions were limited (and therefore the calories) and the meals were, largely, balanced.

Posted by: annette on August 3, 2004 9:57 AM

"To my best knowledge that 'French paradox' has already been debunked by statisticians."

Malcolm Kendrick (the author of WHAT PROTECTS THE FRENCH FROM HEART DISEASE?), in an e-mail to me, comments:

"How a statistician can debunk the French figures is beyond me. They are what they are, and it hardly requires a statistician to figure the difference between say, the French and the UK.

"The fact is that we do know that less French die of heart disease - age matched - than Britons. The figures in both countries are, now, quite accurate. To say there are huge differences in the way that deaths are recorded is complete bunk. This was true prior to 1968, after that the
French started to use the ICD classification system used around the rest of the world.

"The WHO Monica study, which uses standardised criteria for the recording of deaths from heart disease confirms the difference between the UK and France.

"It is true that in the very elderly, death certification is highly inaccurate. But up until the age of 65 it is not.

"Of course, the only reason why this difference is referred to as the French paradox is that . . . they have the same classical risk factors for heart disease as the British.

"All of which proves that the classical risk factors cannot actually explain the different rates of heart disease in different countries. It is not a French Paradox, it is the refutation of the cholesterol hypothesis."


Dave Lull

Posted by: Dave Lull on August 3, 2004 10:00 AM

Since when are french fries a vegetable?

Posted by: JT on August 3, 2004 10:31 AM

@Dave Lull: on average the French don't get a day older than the British. If there really should be a major difference in heart diseases between the two countries this surely should show up in the average life expectancies. And it simply doesn't.

And basically, this is what good statisticians do. They look at the the quality of the data, not just what is available.

Unfortunately, figures are to often used to proof something by people with an agenda.

Posted by: ijsbrand on August 3, 2004 10:58 AM

Here's an article that examines how feminism and the anti-smoking movement have affected the obesity rate:

Posted by: James M on August 3, 2004 11:42 AM

The thing that amazes me about the number of fat people, is that it is UNCOMFORTABLE to be fat. I say this from personal experience. My normal weight is 150 lbs. Recently, I balooned up to 165. It's not just that I didn't like the way I looked. I felt uncomfortable. You feel girdled in fat when you're fat. I can't understand how so many people can spend their lives in that condition. And dieting is really not all that hard after the first week or so. Oh well, just one more thing I'll never understand.

Posted by: ricpic on August 3, 2004 11:53 AM

Ricpic, for some people nothing works. Years of dieting, exersising, swallowing tons of pills under direction of different endocrinilogists, even group "brainwashing" sessions to hypnotize their own brain into losing weight.
I am talking about my own family member, and I always feel uncomfortable being around, because I do virtually nothing to stay my 124.25 lb all the time.

Posted by: Tatyana on August 3, 2004 12:13 PM

Fun fact I picked up yesterday:
For a 150lb person, walking for an hour at a moderate pace burns 440 calories. More if you weigh more. Pretty amazing and easy to pull off for anyone.

AFAIK healthy food is not more expensive than junk food, it's just less convenient. You pay for the convenience, but if you "need something quick..."

#1 contributing factor to obesity as far as I'm concerned is refrigerators and pantries. If you've got to walk down the street 10 minutes to pick up the food, you simply don't get hungry as often (speaking from personal experience). The fact that most modern American cities don't allow you to walk down the street and find a place to eat is a huge problem too.

Posted by: . on August 3, 2004 1:26 PM

Few people recognize or acknowledge the extent to which American obesity fuels anti-Americanism abroad. All of the usual complaints about a nation of SUV-driving engergy-sucking loud-mouthed Americans are encapsulated in the physical bodies of a nation where 1/3 are obese. I've seen it first hand. The sad fact is that, overseas, American obesity contributes to the notion that America is a fat-pig of a nation, guzzling the world's resources, and slaughtering innocents to fill up the trough.

And when obesity appears among their own masses, as it sometimes does even in Asia, it is viewed at part of the Americanization of their native diet.

I know this sounds silly, but I seriously think that obesity is tied to anti-Americanism more profoundly than most people will admit.

Posted by: M. Fly on August 4, 2004 4:39 AM

Hi, ijsbrand,

". . . on average the French don't get a day older than the British. If there really should be a major difference in heart diseases between the two countries this surely should show up in the average life expectancies. And it simply doesn't.

"And basically, this is what good statisticians do. They look at the the quality of the data, not just what is available."

Differences (or lack of differences) in life expectancy might be attributed to differences in a number factors, for examples: child mortality and obstetric deaths, the standard of living, hygiene, and housing, food availability, the quality of food, the use of antibiotics and immunization, and the quality of medical diagnostics and the standard of medicine. So, a difference in deaths due to heart disease, in any particular case, may not show up as a major difference in life expectancy.

Malcolm Kendrick again:

"There is no doubt that the statistics on heart disease deaths are not - all - robust. One can look round the world and quote hundreds of examples of inaccurate reporting, figures from fifty years ago are probably meaningless. But this doesn't make all the results meaningless, just some of them."


"The WHO Monica study confirms that there is a great variation in CHD [coronary heart disease] rates between different countries. They use a standardised method for diagnosing deaths from CHD, and have three centres in France and three in the UK. Their figures are consistent, and have been for over twenty years.

"It may be worth asking the nameless and noble minded statisticians on what grounds they reject the Monica results."


Dave Lull

Posted by: Dave Lull on August 4, 2004 11:33 AM

Healthy food is hard to get, not promoted, and expensive.

Sorry, it's not hard to get, and it's not expensive. Fresh and decent canned vegetables and fruit are available everywhere in the U.S., at reasonable prices. You might actually have to spend some time cooking, though.

There's one factor that never gets mentioned: American food is a heck of a lot better than it was 30 or 40 years ago. A lot of the restaurants I ate in as a kid were, in retrospect, pretty blah, and would never make it today.

Final note: Remember, health food doesn't make you live longer, it just makes it seem longer.

Posted by: PapayaSF on August 4, 2004 6:31 PM


The problem is that canned vegetables and fruit are not healthy. Most of the nutrients are destroyed.

Posted by: Meaty Fly on August 5, 2004 3:19 PM

And they taste disgusting.

I've long wondered why we even provide school lunches. I can understand doing this for the poorest students but why for all students? perhaps parents would be more involved in their kids if they knew they had to pack a lunch for them everyday. Do we really make a significant amount of money off the school lunch program that it's worth it?

Posted by: lindenen on August 5, 2004 8:09 PM

School lunches are crap anyway: ice berg lettuce with thousand island, a frozen burrito, a coke--mmmmmm.

Posted by: Meaty Fly on August 5, 2004 8:39 PM

Re: public policy on obesity.
I was just reading (and later listening to the recording of) the speech David Carr of Libertarian Aliance gave on UK radio on Aug.6 during a debate with 2 doctor-opponnents and one food-industry PR guy.
You can read (and listen) to it on Samizdata here.
This type of thing - public debate- is definitely what I haven't yet heard on TV here, even on cable.

Posted by: Tatyana on August 7, 2004 6:22 PM

I have noticed that when I prepare my own meals (not often, as I live in NYC, hate to cook, and live with a gourmet chef) that tend to make smaller meals then I would eat in restraunts. I also think more about what I'm eating and more likely to grab that bananna from the dish for a desert rather then a sorbet.

Of course, I've advocated long, lesuirely meals full of conversation and wine on the pleasure princable. So much more fun to wait until a lively dinner table, all set out and prepared then to shove something in your face cause you're hungry NOW.

Then again, I also eat fewer meals a day (no breakfast to speak of besides coffee) and a light lunch in order to have a huge dinner.... I also smoke in leiu of food, which keeps the appetite down.

Posted by: JLeavitt on August 9, 2004 4:38 PM

Well, guess the real difference is that you can live in France, you won't die of heart disease, but a mysterious death will strike you instead ....

Posted by: Anon Again on August 14, 2004 12:16 PM

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