In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« More Egg on Harvard's Face | Main | Doin' the Dental Drill »

July 13, 2006

More Fat

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

On a plane flight back to NYC from a recent vacation, I read Greg Critser's "Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World." Strangely, it was on another recent plane flight back to NYC that I read Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation," which I blogged about here and here. Why do I read books about fast food and fat when returning via airplane to NYC? The only reason I can think of is that, when I'm outside NYC, I'm so struck by the fast-food-and-fat thing that I have no choice but to, er, digest my impressions on the way back home.

Quick verdict: "Fat Land" is OK-to-pretty good. Greg Critser clearly wants to scare and mobilize -- more specifically, he wants Americans to be eating lots of greens and doing a lot of cardio-style exercise. Critser doesn't have quite the firebreathing flair that Eric Schlosser does, but he gets the job done.

(A pause for a small rant. Like "Fast Food Nation," "Fat Land" would have been a lot better -- IMHO, of course -- as a long magazine article than as a book. How many readers really need all the "narrative" -- the scene-setting, the personalities, the on-sceners, the behind-the-sceners, the drama? Here's hoping we'll have to put up with less of this in the future. One of the great things about electronic publishing is that it's so much more elastic than print -- especially book-bound print -- is. An electronic project can be as long as it needs to be and no longer: three paragraphs is fine, and so is 70 pages -- no need for padding-out just to fill up a book. I'm avoiding all jokes about how overweight both Schlosser's and Critser's books are.)

So how did Americans become so fat? Critser's argument is that it all comes down to the corn (as in high-fructose corn syrup) ... and the Nixon administration, which fought stagflation by loosening up food markets ... and, as far as I can tell, the free market more generally. If only corn weren't so darned plentiful and so darned cheap. And if only fast-food operations weren't quite so intent on making money.

I oversimplify, of course, but that's roughly it. Parents grew more permissive about kids' eating habits ... Schools started making deals with fast-food chains ... TVs and computers seduced us into inactivity ... And here we are today, lumbering aroud in pyjama-like stretch clothes and wondering what happened to us.

Some eye-catching facts:

  • In the 1970s, Americans spent 25% of their food budget on what's known as "food away from home." By the late 1990s, that figure passed 40%.

  • In 1977, fast food joints accounted for 3% of total American calories consumed. By 1997, that figure was 12%.

  • Between 1966 and 1994, the obesity rate among kids jumped from 7 percent to 22 percent.

  • The rate of overweight and obesity was relatively stable in the US for decades -- until the 1980s, when it starting sneaking up. It has gone higher and higher ever since.

  • The outsourcing of school lunches began in California in the early 1990s. Pizza Hut was the first company to break into the market. A slice of Pizza Hut pizza has twice the calories as a slice of school-cafeteria pizza.

  • California was also where the de-emphasizing of school phys-ed programs began. "By the late 1990s, only one of five students in public schools could pass the minimum standards in the state's physical fitness tests," writes Critser.

  • Pepsi and Coke both swtiched to high fructose corn syrup in the 1980s.

  • High fructose corn syrup was first produced in Japan in 1971. It's used not just because it's a cheap sweetener, but also because it protects frozen foods against freezer burn, and because it helps keep vending-machine-style snacks looking fresher longer.

  • Snacking exploded in the 1980s.

  • Poor people snack a lot more than do people with money. Hispanics and African Americans snack more than white people do. The heaviest snackers of all are poor Southerners.

  • Latin Americans and especially Mexicans are prone to both obesity and diabetes when exposed to an American diet. Critser spends a full five pages on the topic of obesity and Mexican-Americans. (Hey, did you know that by importing more such people we're decreasing our average national health?) In the fourth grade, 32.4% of Mexican-American girls are obese; by the fifth grade, 43.4% of Mexican-American boys are.

  • In Critser's telling, the government has subsidized our increasing heft via the Small Business Adminstration. The SBA hands out loans, and likes to "empower" minority entrepreneurs, many of whom open fast-food joints in poor neighborhoods. In 1996, the SBA guaranteed almost $1 billion in new loans, with more going to the fast-food segment than to any other. Critser: "By the late 1990s, one in four fast-food burgers was purchased by a consumer in the inner city."

  • Of religion-affiliated people, Southern Baptists are the heaviest. The lowest average body weight is found among Jews.

Since I enjoy thinking of trans fat and high fructose corn syrup as devil foods, I was sorry to see a recent article reporting that scientists have been unable to find HFCS guilty of anything. Even Walter Willett -- who strikes me as one of the most trustworthy, modest, and sensible of the health and nutrition docs -- says, "There's no substantial evidence to support the idea that high-fructose corn syrup is somehow responsible for obesity." No word yet about whether trans fat has been exonerated.

Here's a q&a with Walter Willett -- who, it pains me to acknowledge, is a Harvard guy. Here's another. Great passage:

The potential impact of healthy diet, when you combine it with not smoking and regular physical activity, is enormous. For example, our studies have shown that we could prevent about 82 percent of heart attacks, about 70 percent of strokes, over 90 percent of type 2 diabetes, and over 70 percent of colon cancer, with the right dietary choices as part of a health lifestyle. The best drugs can reduce heart attacks by about 20 or 30 percent, yet we put almost all of our resources into promoting drugs rather than healthy lifestyle and nutrition.

Here's an interview with Greg Critser. Here's another.



UPDATE: Tyler Cowen points out a new Sydney Spiesel article for Slate entitled, succinctly, "Why We're Fat." Interesting to learn that, as Peter speculated, inadequate sleep may be a key reason: "80 years ago adults slept an average of 8.77 hours nightly; now the average is 6.85 hours."

posted by Michael at July 13, 2006


I read in just the last few days about another scientific study that uncovered several other possible causes for the increasing rate of obesity. Some that I remember include a decline in the average hours of sleep (chronic tiredness tends to increase appetite), lower rates of smoking (pretty obvious), and greater use of certain medications that increase appetite (some antidepressants and similar drugs are particularly bad offenders). There were some other things too.

My strictly unscientific guess is that there are two primary reasons and a number of minor ones. Both of the primary reasons are demographic - more Hispanics, whom as you noted have a tendency toward overweight, and the aging of the population (people often get heavier as they age). Adjust for these two factors and I strongly suspect that the epidemic will look considerably less fearsome.

Finally, I am somewhat skeptical of the obesity percentages often bandied about. Body-mass index, or BMI, is the usual factor used to determine obesity, yet it doesn't account for people who are especially muscular and therefore can weight a lot without being obese by any reasonable standards. In some sense this might just be self-interest; according to BMI I am obese, but I am more muscular than most men and therefore do not look or feel obese.

Posted by: Peter on July 13, 2006 6:32 PM

Dear Blowhards

I am a Family Physician working in Australia where the levels of obesity are begining to approach U.S.
levels. The usual mantra of diet and exercise have been tried here with the same predictable results as in the U.S. None. The problem is worsening.
Blaming the the availabibility of food as the problem is a no brainer, but in my opinion, wrong.

Fat is a lifestyle and urban planning issue. Food is secondary to the problem.

Our levels of obesity started going up with the

1) Deindustrialisation of the West. Less physical work.
2) Advent of long hours of sedentry work with the introduction of the information age.
3) More sedentary leisure hours with computers, television etc
4) Placing mothers into the workforce. No time to prepare meals.
5) Degredation of cooking to a low status/menial type of activity. (This is slowly changing)
6) Urban planning. Killing pedestrian friendly cities by Modern Urban Planning techniques.
7) Law and order. Unsafe streets mean kids stay inside. They get fat. People don't take pedestrian trips after hours
8) The list could go on. But the problem is multifactoral. In essence its a Western Cultural Problem

While in Europe recently I stayed in the city of Split, Croatia. Approx 1700 years old. You have to travel everywhere by foot. My only modcon was my cell phone. I ate high fat, high carbohydrate meals with plenty of alcohol. In the evening I went out. I saw what I haven't seen in Australia for years, young attractive women walking with impunity down narrow alleyways at 11.00 o'clock at night. No sense of fear. In four weeks of eating drinking and being merry I lost 10 pounds. Go figure.

Posted by: Steven Zebic on July 13, 2006 6:55 PM

I think Steve Zebec, above, makes a number of sensible points. Too bad the news media and certain politicians can't (or don't want to) do the same.

What irks me most is blaming big business as the prime cause of obesity. To silly me, the prime blame should be placed on each person. I let my weight creep up this past year and was pretty chubby at my recent wedding. The wedding pix instantly shamed me into (1) buying a good scale, and (2) going on a portion-control diet. In the last 8 weeks I've lost 9 pounds. Through data and disclipline.

A couple weeks ago we were driving through Aberdeen, WA, an economically-depressed lumber town. The parking lot for a strip mall area had scads of fatties. And ditto at the Wal-Mart at the east side of the Olympia area. These and other observations suggest (I haven't time to research this) that fat might well be related to one's socioeconomic situation. People of lower-middle (and points south) SES aren't necessarily stupid. They likely have more street-smarts than many of us over-educated types. So it would be interesting to do a serious study of fat vs. thin people in that stratum to discover what makes 'em tick, eating-wise.

That clown who ate 5,000 (or whatever) calories a day at McDonald's and (gasp!) gained weight, and his ilk, are doing no one a favor because they're twisting a problem to advance their political agenda.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 13, 2006 7:28 PM

"Dr. Willett says that he is not defending high-fructose corn syrup as a healthy ingredient, but that he simply thinks that the product is no worse than the refined white sugar it replaces . . . ."

To those of us who think there's something to the "low-glycemic" approach to diet, and that the consumption of "too much" sugar is injurious to health, this position does not support the conclusion that corn syrup has gotten a "bad rap," unless it's being held that the consumption of an equivalent amount of sugar isn't equally as destructive of health. Some of us assume, based on supposed evidence provided by "low-glycemic diet" proponents, that the consumption of either in the quantities being reported is unhealthy.

Posted by: Dave Lull on July 13, 2006 8:08 PM

Worth noting that HFCS is only actually used because of the absence of the free market, not its presence.

If the US did not have tariffs and quotas to protect the domestic sugar industry then sugar inside the US would be about 1/3 the current price and who would then use HFCS?

In my own homeland, the UK, I would blame central heating for the rise in obesity. The installation over the past four decades of decent and usablecentral heating closely tracks the rise in obesity and I would argue that there is causality there, mor than just correlation.

Posted by: Tim Worstall on July 14, 2006 5:55 AM

In the last few days I've noticed the sudden inflation of two local women who are in jobs that are highly stressful. One is Eloise Cobell, who bravely took on the US Government to try to wring out of them the trust money they've been diverting and hoarding -- a project that so far has taken ten years and counting -- and the other is our town mayor, a former bartender who took on this job with very little qualifying experience. Their weight went up rather suddenly and drastically. Something like the same thing happened to me.

Now that I'm being my own food-Nazi, my consciousness of food-pushing, especially at meetings, is way up. Last night the town council polished off three bags of frosted animal crackers, TV mix, and candy.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on July 14, 2006 6:22 AM

First, if you haven't seen the Donut Bacon Cheeseburger, take a look at the latest example of American ingenuity:

Second: I agree with Donald Pittenger that individual volition is a big part of the obesity problem and that somehow gets overlooked. Its just not pc to say, "Hey Fatty, don't whine about weight discrimination, just put down the damn Donut Bacon Cheesburger and leave my health insurance costs alone." Ironic that in a country full of people who shout "its a free country, I can do whatever i want" at every turn, the consequences are so often someone else's fault.

BUT (or should i say "butt") I must qualify my agreement when "big business" (I oversimplify here) 1.) alters the food supply with corn syrup; fillers and extenders; and hydrogenated oils 2.) changes the concept of what constitutes a normal portion 3.) drops food prices based on corn subsidies, and questionable animal farming and processing. THEN I say its more than an issue of "just say[ing] no."

Posted by: angela on July 14, 2006 8:38 AM

I think I had technical difficulties--sorry if I'm posting twice.

If you haven't seen the Donut Bacon Cheeseburger:
it is the latest in American ingenuity

I agree with comments about personal volition. Its a part of the obesity issue that gets soft-pedalled. Ironic that in a place where everyone is quick to shout "Its a free country I can do whatever I want" the consequence is always someone else's purview. Its not pc to say, "Hey Fatty, quite crying about weight discrimination. Put down that Donut Bacon Cheeseburger and leave my health insurance premium alone."

BUT (or should i say "butt") when "big business" (and I over simplify here) 1.) alters the food supply with hydrogenated oils, HFCS, fillers and extenders 2.) changes the conception of what is a normal portion size 3.) cuts cost with corn subsidies and questionable mass farming and processing practices THEN I say obesity is something more than "just say no."

Posted by: angela on July 14, 2006 9:12 AM

How come if being fat is so bad, the fatter we get the longer our life expectancy becomes? I have real problems with anyone who says that dieting makes you healthier. As Letterman said about oat bran, dieting may indeed be the "silent killer".

Posted by: Robert Speirs on July 14, 2006 10:23 AM

First, BMI is a deeply flawed measure of obesity. It is based on the ratio of mass to the square of height. Holding proportions equal, mass varies with the cube of height.

Now, it's not quite that simple with people, since proportions don't stay precisely the same with increases in height. But especially at the extremes of height, the measure is ridiculously flawed.

Second, I think Tim Worstall has identified an important part of the problem. Most of your energy is used to maintain a constant body temperature. Both central heating and central cooling to the temperatures that Americans (especially) like in houses dramatically reduce the energy necessary to do this.

Conversely, at least when I lived in Europe 30 years ago (!), houses and apartments were commonly kept about 10 degrees F cooler than those in the US. When you add the differential rates of smoking in the two areas, I think you can account for much of the difference in obesity.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on July 14, 2006 10:58 AM

"And here we are today, lumbering around in pyjama-like stretch clothes and wondering what happened to us."

Boy, sad but true. But...if its a cultural problem, why would it be worse in the midwest rather than L.A. and New York? Is it because angelenos and new yorkers are inherently more competitive and vain? Because then part of the problem is just a lack of competitive pride, or something. If everyone around you stays thin, are you pushed harder to watch it yourself?

Posted by: annette on July 14, 2006 11:37 AM

That Donut Bacon Cheeseburger is really something. I wonder how it tastes.

I dunno, what interests me most about the whole "America's getting fatter" thing is just the fact of it. People can be as big or little as they care to be, as far as I'm concerned -- I like it that life's a Fellini movie. But the way so many people have gotten so much bigger since the '80s is pretty remarkable. It might stand out for me a bit more than for some because I live in NYC, where people haven't grown heavier. (Well, except the tourists.) When I visit the rest of the country, though, it's really striking how much weight many people have put on, as well as how often people are eating. Americans now seem to think they've got a god-given right to stuff their faces anywhere, and at any time of day. I remember when The Wife and I flew back from the Caribbean a few years ago, it was a snap to figure out which flight was going to the States. It was the one where people were heavy, wearing stretch clothes, and had food in their hands. Many of them looked kind of cross too, but maybe that's something that happens when the weight gets to be a bit too much.

It's a fascinating cultural/sociological phenomenon, no? When before has such a thing happened? What might it indicate? I find taking note of it to be like taking note of what's happening in the electronic media. I find myself looking at it, raising my eyebrows, and mainly thinking "Holy cow!"

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 14, 2006 11:50 AM

We don't have central heating, and I cycle to work and still I am, um, well-built. You know, big-boned. Oh sod it, plump. Not portly, of course and certainly not obese. Rounded, perhaps.

Posted by: dearieme on July 14, 2006 12:12 PM


Dude, I really do enjoy reading your posts and deeply admire your creativity, wit and insight. But your nasty anti-Mexican xenophobia is becoming an increasingly ugly blemish. I urge you to reconsider.

Please don't take this as an attempt to supress honest comment or truths. Yes, Mexicans are very fat. As much as Americans. (But in a different way: Mexicans are more uniformly chubby, but you don't see the gross morbid obesity that so impresses foreigners visiting the U.S.).

However, that doesn't imply that they are less healthy.

In fact, they drink and smoke less, and have more physically challengig jobs. Besides, they're a lot happier than your average Anglo sourpuss. The picture is a lot more complex.

Best wishes

Posted by: Andrew on July 14, 2006 12:46 PM

Andrew -- Last I checked, "xenophobia" meant "fear of foreigners." Where are you finding fear of foreigners in what I write, let alone anything nasty? I wish Mexicans and Mexico well; my quarrel is with with our immigration policies, which strike me as nuts. You're reading too much into that. BTW, Mexicans develop diabetes twice as often as whites do. If tens of millions more Mexicans move to this country, that'll be a lot of additional diabetes we'll be dealing with. It'll become a large-ish health issue. Why shouldn't these things be discussed?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 14, 2006 1:14 PM

My experience is that what you eat is 90% of what determines if you gain weight or not. You and you alone are directly responsible for what you put in your mouth. Many healthy foods, particularly vegetables, are the least expensive types of food available. If you don't like cooking, just eat a lot of fruit and easily prepared vegetables, with just plain ol' cooked meat. You will lose weight quickly, I'll guarantee that.

As far as the costs of this problem being foisted on the rest of us who do try to reasonably control what we eat, well, we should just make it clear that we won't pay for the impulsive and undisciplined. They themselves will. We all know what it takes to lose weight and be fit. Most just don't do it. Make time. Plan ahead.

Or pay the consequences.

Posted by: s on July 14, 2006 1:32 PM

I noticed the same thing when I went to Montreal recently. I kept noticing people from the English (read: American) bus tour all around town. It was easy to spot them because they were the only fat people around.

I think Quebec probably has just as much AC and heating as the US does, but I have noticed their cities are more walkable.

Posted by: Matt on July 14, 2006 3:34 PM

Art De Vany says that Low activity levels explains most of weight gain:

"In my paper, Why We Get Fat, I show that energy expenditure is far more effective at reducing excess fat and body weight than is the equivalent of calorie reduction. That is, spend 100 more calories or eat 100 less calories and see the effect. You will be less fat and far more healthy expending energy than restricting it." See Why We Get Fat (.pdf)

Maybe. But I'm more likely to reduce my calorie intake by a 100 (or 1,000, or whatever causes weight loss) than to increase my activity level to spend the equivalent number of calories. Admittedly, it may not be as "healthy" a weight-loss because I won't have gleaned the benefits, whatever they might be, of exercise, which I've heard tell includes reducing fat and maintaining or increasing muscle, but for some of us (for example, those of us with a tendency toward developing diabetes), it may still result, because of just the weight-loss, even if achieved only by calorie reduction, in a healthier condition. (I'm not completely skeptical about the benefits of exercise, I just don't think that increasing one's amount of exercise is necessary for everyone to achieve a significant weight-loss that makes one significantly healthier.)

Posted by: Dave Lull on July 16, 2006 10:38 AM

I just wanted to say that I love reading your posts, Michael. Keep 'em coming. You are honest, sincere and truthful (they all mean the same thing, i understand.)And you are not harsh, you are just so realistic and practical. Good for you. I wish you all the best.

Posted by: Michael on July 19, 2006 3:46 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?