By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Greg Critser‘s new book, Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World (published this week by Houghton Mifflin), is a cool-eyed, far-ranging look at obesity, an epidemic that every year takes around 300,000 lives and costs the health-care system $117 billion. From government policies of the ’70s and ‘80s, which led to the deluge of high-fructose corn syrup and palm oil into our food supply, to the demise of public-school physical-education programs and nutritious school lunches, to the marketing of supersized fast foods and the hyperpermissiveness of baby-boomer parents, Critser examines the complex causes of obesity and its grisly effects, not the least of which is a startling upswing of type 2 diabetes in adolescents. I met with Critser at -- where else? -- a favorite Pasadena bakery.
How did you come to choose this subject -- obesity?
This book started when I lost weight myself about four and a half years ago. I’d had a job with a magazine with a wonderful expense account. What with the sedentary nature of editing and the fact that I was always traveling and taking writers out to nice places, I quickly ballooned to about 205 pounds. When I lost that job, my doctor -- without me asking -- mentioned that there was a new diet drug I might want to try. This was when Meridia first came out. I took it for about six months and kept a journal of my experience. The L.A. Weekly published my journal as “The Fat Man Sings,” and that got some attention. For one, I was a man writing about body issues, and secondly, I wrote about the science of weight-loss drugs and showed the capriciousness of regulating them.
That following spring I was having lunch with my editor at Harper‘s, and I was talking about obesity with him, and he didn’t quite buy it. “Let‘s take a walk,” he said. We walked out onto Broadway, and he pointed at people who were big and said, “Tell me about this person’s likely medical prognosis.” And so I would tell him based on a combination of things -- height, weight, ethnicity, age, gender, the way the person was fat, whether they were fat in their thighs or their gut, et cetera. That was his little test to see if there was something real in this.
About the same time, my brother-in-law was hospitalized at County USC, so I was down there, and one night there was a real commotion -- nurses and doctors and lights and everything. They pushed this guy through who‘d just had gastric bypass surgery. He was young, and probably 450, 500 pounds and dying, because he was being suffocated in his own fat. That made me say, all right, I’m going to take this seriously now as a critical medical issue.
I wrote the piece for Harper‘s, which some people took as a breakthrough because it appeared in a liberal-left magazine. The media, and in particular the left-liberal media, avoided the issue, because it’s so tied up with other political issues of the left, i.e., women‘s body-image issues, anorexia, bulimia, et cetera. The fact that Harper’s published it basically said, Wait a minute, this is a legitimate medical issue, and it mainly concerns the poor.
According to Fat Land, the reasons for that are complex, starting with the fact that food is cheaper today. Is that really true?
Well, the price of meat today is 30 percent lower than it was in 1970 after you adjust for inflation. If you track the price of food and adjust for inflation, you‘ll see there’s been a gradual decline. And this comes at exactly the same time as when our sedentary behavior is on the increase. And it also comes at the same time when -- particularly for the poor -- opportunities to expend energy decrease, i.e., public-school P.E. programs have been eliminated, and there‘s no money to maintain or create parks and recreation facilities. So I think it makes sense that the poor are particularly vulnerable, not only to be obese, but to suffer from its effects, because they don’t have the buffering system that you and I have -- the health care, in particular.
You also write about how many immigrants who come from undernourished circumstances sometimes lack the genetically encoded ability to metabolize the ultraprocessed fats and sugars found here.
L.A. to me is sort of like Paris was at the turn of the century, because they both had huge population influxes that were rural, and these new residents were giving birth to children in a society of abundance. They come from no health care to an environment where the care is sketchy at best for them.
The question is, based on that population, why did the French eventually become the leanest people in Europe? And the answer has a lot to do with something we don‘t want to deal with here, which is first, major investments by the public sector in women’s health and infant health, and secondly, the willingness to consistently emphasize dietary restraint. Americans don‘t have the will to do either one of those things, at least so far.