table of contents
June 2003


Fat Land, How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World, Greg Critser, Houghton-Mifflin, 2003, ISBN 0-618-16472-3, hardcover

In “Flatland” the denizens of a two dimensional world were confronted with the image of a three dimensional sphere. In “Fat Land” we are told how Americans turned into three dimensional spheres.

Americans, they say, have become the fattest people in the world. It’s in the news. America is suffering from an obesity plague. Two thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese. A significant percentage are morbidly obese. Obesity, they say, rivals cigarette smoking as a source of premature death. In Fat Land Greg Critser tells how we got here.

Some of the “how” is fairly simple. One of the triumphs of American agribusiness is the ability to produce cheap, albeit unhealthy calories. For example, in the seventies American corn production increased sharply. In 1971 a group of Japanese food scientists discovered a way to economically make a sweetener called high fructose corn syrup – six times sweeter than regular sugar (sucrose)and less expensive than sucrose.

HFCS is a wonder. It is cheap. Using it in frozen foods protects against freezer burn. Using it in long shelf life foods (vending machine products) keeps the product fresh tasting. Using it in bakery products makes them look more natural.

It also has, it turns out, a downside. It seems that fructose is metabolized differently than sucrose and dextrose. Sucrose and dextrose are broken down before they arrive at the liver; fructose goes directly to the liver where it is used a building block for triglycerides. In consequence fatty acids are released into the bloodstream. With enough fatty acids in the bloodstream muscle tissue develops insulin resistance – the precursor to type II diabetes. Did I mention that diabetes rates in America have soared?

9 percent of the average person’s calories come from fructose; 20 percent of the average child’s calories come from fructose. (What do you think they sweeten soft drinks with?)

Even more fun – fructose plays hob with the enzymes that “tell” cells whether to burn fat or store it. Fat is stored more readily in high fructose diets.

In a 2001 study David Ludwig et al found that on extra soft drink a day gave a child a 60% chance of being obese? Each daily drink adds .18 to a child’s BMI “regardless of what else they ate or how much they exercised.”

Good stuff, HFCS. It is to die for.

Another part of the how is a merchandising triumph, an answer to that question dear to the heart of the movie theater owner – how to sell more popcorn. Popcorn, you see, is cheap and easy to make; it can be sold at a great rate of profit. It is a quirk of human nature that people won’t buy two small bags of popcorn – that would be gluttonous – whereas they will buy a single large bag that contains more than the two small bags. You want to sell more popcorn? Package it in bigger bags.

A similar trick works in the fast food industry. For a little bit more money you can get a lot more food. Thus the big mac, the whopper, supersizing, and value meals. The principle is the same; the cost to the owner of a food emporium of the food is small compared to the operating costs. It pays to discount the price of additional food if the customer will spend more money.

There is a vicious cycle here. People get used to buying “value” which is to say that they get used to buying and eating more food in their meals than they need. Since they expect “value” restaurants deliver it – portion sizes in restaurants have increased by 30 to 50 percent over the last thirty years.

Employees are trained to sell the supersizes and the combos. The pricing structure can be absurd; it can cost more to get a burger and a soft drink than it does to get a burger, fries, and a soft drink. It sounds crazy but it makes commercial sense. The target customers are the big folks who eat a big amount of food; they, the vendors of junk food, want you to be a big eater.

One of the reasons for the obesity plague is that we Americans have become a people that spends a lot less time and effort on preparing our own meals than we formerly did. Our meals at home are out of a box; we get a lot of our calories from snacking, and we get a lot of them from vendors of fast food. What the vendors vend is, well, consider:

The Listed Ingredients for Arby’s Horsey Sauce, “A Delicious Horseradish Sauce”

Soybean Oil
High Fructose Corn Syrup
Corn Syrup
Egg Yolks
Modified Food Starch
Horseradish powder
Sodium Benzoate
Artificial flavors
Disodium EDTA
Horsey Sauce apparently contains a smidgeon of eviscerated horseradish; the bulk of this condiment is comprised of the staple ingredients of packaged food products. Our friend, HFCS, is right up there in the number three spot, beaten out only by water and soybean oil.

An oddity is that the list includes corn syrup as well as HFCS. Why two varieties of corn syrup? The chemical engineers who designed this food product can’t have included it as an enhancement for the quality of the product’s taste – it has none unless you count a faint hint of horseradish amidst an overwhelming blandness of goo. Perhaps it was included to give the product greater structural strength or to increase its coefficient of elasticity.

One wonders what modified food starch might be – could it be irradiated to give the consumer mutant powers? Does it have a shelf life of ten thousand years? I’m glad they started with food starch – I’d be nervous about modified inorganic paste.

A third part of the “how” is, to put it charitably, a certain relaxing of standards that has taken place over the last twenty odd years. Physical fitness programs have been gutted in the schools. In 1990 the American Heart Association told us that 2000+ calories of exercise per week was quite unnecessary; 700 would do nicely, thank you. Americans cannot find the time in a day for thirty minutes of vigorous activity (God forbid we should actually work) but they can find time for four hours of TV watching. “In one famous piece by a Los Angeles network affiliate, viewers were told that ‘even seriously hunting for the channel changer can count toward your daily thirty!'” Then there is the really vile business of schools taking money from fast food vendors in exchange for the vendors getting food concessions in the schools.

“But stepping off the plane and into the nation’s shopping centers, Hebebrand was ‘floored’ – what he was seeing was exactly the opposite. ‘I mean, here were all of these women, wearing this kind of black stretch thing!’ Hebebrand recalls. ‘They were huge – their bellies and their derrieres were almost comic-book-sized! I was shocked because in Germany who are that fat just don’t go out. They don’t go out because of the shame. But it wasn’t the case here in the U.S.'”
Science Fiction fandom had (and has) a disproportionately large (you should excuse the expression) number of morbidly obese people. In part this is because SF fans are compulsive readers and reading, after all, is a sedentary activity. More than that, though, SF fandom is an accepting community – the bond of being SF fans outweighs mundane social stigmas. What was once a oddity of an eccentric minority has become a feature of America at large (and extra large and XXL and XXXL and beyond); the morbidly obese are with us everywhere.

Or not quite everywhere, it seems. The upper class and the middle uppers are weight conscious and can afford the social support for weight control – “social institutions (health clubs), tonics (Meridia), taboos (Krispy Kreme) and aspirational totems (Levi’s 501 regular cuts).” In America, perversely enough, it is the poor and the oppressed that are fat.

“Poverty. Class. Income. Over and over, these emerged as the key determinants of obesity and weight related disease. True, there was a new trend that saw significant numbers of the middle and upper middle classes also experiencing huge weight gains. But the basic numbers were – and are – clear and consistent; the largest concentrations of the obese, regardless of race, ethnicity, and gender, reside in the poorest sectors of the nation – among the chronically impoverished (from Appalachia to the rural South), among the working poor (from L.A. barrios to New York’s Little Puerto Rico), and among what might be called the sructurally poor (from Detroit’s housing projects to reservation-tied Native Americans).”
In part, the reason for this may be genetic; there is evidence that there are “thrifty genes” that facilitate laying down fat. Thrifty genes are advantageous in environments where food supplies are irregular and disadvantageous in environments where food is abundant. Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel) has an article in the June 3, 2003 issue of Nature on the biogeography of diabetes and why the Europeans are relatively less afflicted.

Genetic factors or no, there are rather obvious social factors. Those schools that sell children’s health in exchange for fast food dollars primarily disservice the lower classes. Fast (fat) food vendors, like their fellows, the big tobacco companies, target the inner city blacks and latinos.

Where will it all end? There are things that can be done – the book gives examples of programs that have worked. We are, however, a rather self-indulgent people, and members of a rather self-indulgent species. Perhaps America is once again leading the way in the seamier side of global culture, and this poor old planet is destined to be inhabited by diabetic blimps.

This page was last updated June 25, 2003.

table of contents
June 2003