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Fat Politics: Biological Responses to the American Way of Life

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I may just like this excerpt because it gives me a lot of good excuses. However, J. Eric Oliver makes an interesting case in this excerpt from Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America’s Obesity Epidemic. What are the real reasons that Americans are getting fatter? They may be different than the ones that are commonly blamed.

From a biological perspective, fatness is simply a protective mechanism against an irregular food supply. Our fat cells are the places where our bodies store energy for times when food is unavailable or when we are too busy or active to eat. Because fatness is so crucial for our survival, our bodies have numerous means for ensuring that we retain as many calories as possible, such as giving us an appetite for calorie-rich food and regulating our metabolism to keep our fat-politics.jpgweight within a certain range. While some people have a metabolism that keeps them thin, many Americans are inclined to have a weight range that tends toward corpulence. This is particularly the case for people whose ancestors came from places, such as Africa and parts of Asia, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas, where a regular food supply was not always present.

These same metabolic protections are also why it is so difficult for most people to lose weight—most of us are biologically programmed to operate as if a famine is imminent.

Although our bodies may be expecting another famine, our way of life floods us with an abundance of foods, particularly sugars and fats, and allows us to expend little energy at work or in household chores. When our biological safeguards against privation come into contact with an environment of abundance and leisure, it is not surprising that many consequences ensue. Not only do we gain weight, but our cholesterol levels change, our insulin levels rise, and our blood pressure increases.

And it is these other metabolic changes that are behind many of the diseases that are typically associated with being too fat. The reason that diabetes and some types of cancer are on the rise is not because Americans weigh too much, it is because their metabolisms are out of whack. Fatness may result from the metabolic processes that are behind these ailments, but it is the underlying metabolic processes, and not the weight, that cause us so much trouble. So if we want to know the real health challenges behind our growing weight, we need to identify what is causing us to eat so many fats and sugars and to exercise so little.

Here, again, is where political ideology and cultural stereotypes often cloud our perceptions. Many folks, for example, like to blame our gluttony on the extra-large portion sizes in restaurants and supermarkets—and with a super size value meal weighing in at 1,500 calories it is easy to see why fast-food has been cast as such a villain. But, once again, this stereotype is inaccurate. Americans are not consuming more calories because of how much they are eating during their meals. (Americans consume only slightly more calories in their meals today than they did in the 1970s.) Rather, Americans are consuming more calories because of how much they are eating in between their meals. The real culprit behind our increasing weight is snacking.

Similarly, many public health advocates and urban planners like to blame our inactivity on cars, sprawl, and television. Given the four hours the average American spends each day behind the wheel or in front of the TV, this suspicion, too, is understandable. If we want to get Americans exercising more, it seems, we need to figure out ways to get them to drive less, watch less television, and redesign their communities to make walking easier.

Once again, however, focusing on driving and television in order to make Americans thinner misses the real, and important, health issue. For the problem with both our unhealthy diet and inactivity goes beyond how much junk food we eat, TV we watch, or miles we drive; the problem is with the very principles that define us as a society. Snacking, driving, and television are more than simple conveniences; they are expressions of our very core values—choice, freedom, and liberty. Snacks, sodas, and other prepared foods have liberated the American meal away from the domestic confines of the home, allowing us to eat by ourselves, when and where we want. Automobiles reduce the physical demands of walking and give us near-limitless geographic mobility. Television allows leisure to be spent with little physical effort and provides a terrific array of entertainment choices. In short, each is about fulfilling our wants in as efficient and easy a manner as possible, the very benefits that our liberal, free-market system promises.

So, from this perspective, the origins of America’s growing metabolic problems, as well as its increasing weight, ultimately derive from its very core principles. The American credo of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is about giving us the freedom to individually pursue our own gratification to the extent that we see fit, the very thing that snacks, cars, and television provide. It is about making us the ultimate arbiters of what is good for ourselves. The market, in turn, responds by providing us what we want in the most efficient and inexpensive manner. Thus if we want to eat tasty foods, move about with great speed and ease, and amuse ourselves in leisurely ways, this is our right. But this is also why all the public health pronouncements about dieting and nutrition, such as “eat less and exercise more,” are so ineffective. Although such simple advice may seem reasonable, it flies in the face of a consumer economy that is constantly expanding our choices and freedom. Asking an American to “eat less and exercise more” is like asking an Eskimo not to fish or a devout Muslim not to say daily prayers—it runs afoul of the dominant logic of our very culture. Our growing weight is simply a natural and inevitable biological response to living in a consumer-oriented democracy.

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