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Why Are We Fat?

This blog will take a bit longer to read than most -- if you take time, that is, to read this article from the July 20 issue of The New Yorker in its entirety. In it, Elizabeth Kolbert explores various theories as to why Americans are so fat. Is our expanding girth attributable to some evolutionary or biological imperative? Or to the increasing prevalence of high-calorie, low-cost food? And how bad is being fat for us, anyway?

Starting today, obesity experts from all over will gather in the District for the first Weight of the Nation conference. They'll be looking at obesity from all angles, trying to get a handle on our love handles and figuring out what can be done to keep obesity in check.

The conference opens with a bit of a breeze at its back with the news announced last week that, among low-income preschoolers, at least, obesity rates seem to be leveling off a bit. That's not to say there aren't still too many overweight young kids out there, but it's a start.

I'll be following the conference closely and will report any key findings as they occur. If you're on Twitter, you can follow, too: The hashtag is #won09. This page gives other options for following the action.

BTW: Thanks for all the insightful comments on last week's Checkup entry about whether the surgeon general should be slender. Of the more than 2,100 people who voted in that day's poll, two-thirds said nominee Regina Benjamin's weight was immaterial in light of her credentials; the other third said the surgeon general should set a good example by maintaining a slim figure.

Why do you figure we're getting so stout? What do you think can be done about it? Or do you think all this focus on our weight is much ado about nothing?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  July 27, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Obesity  
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Funny...the article barely mentions the two biggest factors in our being "fat:"
1) Totally useless indicator based on bad science from the 1800s (the BMI) telling us we're "fat" and
2) The advent of the sedentary lifestyle. Before, people worked at the factory and went outside to play. Now we sit in the office and then sit at home and play video games (this is not a judgement...I do both of these)

The "why are we fat" has been pretty darn well answered (it has suprisingly little to do with calorie increase over the past 30 years...because there hasn't been one). The more important question is what do we do about it...

Posted by: byte1 | July 27, 2009 11:11 AM | Report abuse

The fattening of America seems to coincide with the rise of sedentary instant gratification in various forms. In the early 80s, we still had to wait a few days for the mail (even electronic bulletin boards took a while to get responses as folks didn't stay online 24-7) and we got our news from the daily paper, radio or TV. There was little of the "on-demand get it now" buzz that we get from our computers today. Not only do we sit in front of our computers much more than we ever did with newspapers or office work but we get a whole lot more "reward" for doing it (in terms of instant feedback).

Going the theaters or out to the movie store is replaced by on-line rentals and 200 channels. Get the stimulus you want and get it now.

Combine the lack of exercise with an acquired greater need for instant gratification and easier access to foods that make us happy, and you've got a bunch of people who will slowly gain weight and have a tough time taking it off.

How many people believe - really believe - that cutting their fast food consumption to once a week and walking one hour every day is more effective in the long run than fad diets? Our acquired need for "rewards NOW" means that we won't accept a paltry 1 lb/week loss, especially when it means giving up what we perceive to be so much. Besides, most people embark on weight loss to look better, rather than to improve their health - the health benefits are almost immediate, but are just not as rewarding as dropping a dress size, which takes weeks.

Obviously, there's no one thing to blame here. Folks don't spend as much time cooking, and so are more reliant on processed foods - an 1800 calorie/day diet of processed food satisfies much less than the same calories of a fresh food diet.

More food, less nutrition, less exercise and a group of people highly accustomed to instant gratification - this is one trend that will not be changed easily.

Posted by: drmary | July 27, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

As far as childhood obesity, I think there must be much to be said for inactivity. When I was a child in the 1950s & 60s, on summer days we went out in the morning with our bicycles and were never seen again until our "be home by" time. If we had tried to watch television all day, we would have been bored to death. I'm sorry that children can't just roam like we did.

As far as adult obesity goes, I have pretty much the same figure as my great-grandmother had, so I do think there is something to genetics (she smoked and was quite healthy until she died in her mid-80s Like her I am not obese, but definitely overweight).

But I do believe many additives are understudied. For instance, I'm convinced that aspartame makes you hungrier, and I don't believe it is just the "sweet taste," as some scientist claim, among its other bad effects on human beings. There is a very big Nutra-sweet lobby out there that will fight to the death any scientist against it. (A natural sweetener, Stevia, is used in soft drinks in Japan, where people are eating a more Western diet--and are slimmer.) Also, there is the use of antibiotics in animals to make them fatter. In case anyone hasn't realized it--we are animals. If low doses of antibiotics make cattle fatter, doesn't eating meat laced with low doses of antibiotics make people fatter? To my knowledge, this doesn't seem to occurred to anyone at all.

Posted by: AnnNY | July 27, 2009 1:58 PM | Report abuse

Of course, "eating healthier foods" will make a difference. But before we start that mantra, we need to be clear on what "healthier foods" are.

There is now substantial evidence supporting the close connection between consuming animal products (especially meat and dairy) and developing certain cancers. In particular, breast and prostate cancer have been positively linked to consumption of dairy. At the same time, meat consumption has been found to be a significant causitive factor in both stroke and heart attack, neither of which are the exclusive province of obese people. In fact, people who are considered conventionally fit are being found to have more predisposing factors for stroke, heart attack, and a growing variety of cancers than unfit, obese people who do not consume meat or dairy.

It behooves us to begin looking -- sooner rather than later -- at these studies and understanding what they're telling us about the standard American diet. A good place to start is the article at

As long as we continue harping on obese people consuming junk food as the country's biggest health challenge, we will miss the data right under our noses which demonstrates that "normal"-weight people consuming meat and dairy are a much bigger drain on our health-care resources because they're the ones developing the "expensive" diseases: atherosclerosis, leading to coronary disease, heart attack, and stroke, and a variety of cancers.

Please, let's get realistic about our nation's health. No, we don't need the Twinkies, chips, and cokes. But neither do we need the beef, pork, chicken, milk, and cheese. The latter do much more harm than the former.

Posted by: kjohnson3 | July 28, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

Obesity has many variants and from birth to death it is something many people have to deal with. Genetics play a factor, race plays a factor due to the enzymes. Salt is a major, major factor. Foodstuff contains mega sodium (salt) and often sugar. Yeast also - it makes the bread fat - what does it do to the body? All oils; canola, butter, margarines, excepting olive oil, will make you fat. Red meat - the cattle are shot full of hormones. Finally all the sugars. Eliminate all of the above. What do you have left> Nuts, fruit and vegetables, fish and spices all guaranteed to be healthy for ones body. Problems are we crave what isn't good for us. So, its mind over matter. If one can paste a picture on the refridgerator of a slim person - and program oneself to slimness - it would save a great deal of money and as for ones health - it couldn't help but make it better. The lungs won't have as difficult time, the heart won't have to pump as hard, the liver and kidneys wouldn't have to work overtime and, finally, those ligaments wouldn't need to stretch. So change your foods, leave your car parked, walk rather then run. Change your thoughts, change your body and that changes your life.

Posted by: marlenestobbart | July 29, 2009 1:31 AM | Report abuse

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