Culture of Corpulence

Article excerpt

Byline: Claudia Kalb

American innovations in food, transportation, and technology are threatening to supersize us all.

Look around anywhere in America and the reality assaults you: we are simply too big. Nowhere is the evidence for this more striking than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's color-coded obesity map. Between 1990 and 2008 the country morphs from a sea of pleasant blue, representing an obese population of less than 19 percent, to an alarming patchwork of tan, orange, and maroon, where the stats range from 21 percent obese in Connecticut to 32.8apercent in Mississippi.

The epidemic is most alarming among American children: rates have tripled among kids ages 12 to 19 since 1980, with one third of America's youth now overweight or obese and almost 10 percent of infants and toddlers dangerously heavy. Obese kids, defined by a body-mass index at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex, are at risk for developing conditions in childhood once monopolized by adults: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes. And many are stigmatized and suffer from low self-esteem, which can lead to depression. If current trends continue, nearly one in three kids born in 2000--and one in two minorities--will develop type 2 diabetes in their lifetime, according to the American Diabetes Association. The disease is linked to heart attack, stroke, blindness, amputation, and kidney disease. Indeed, a study published last month found that obese children are more than twice as likely to die prematurely as adults than kids on the lower end of the weight spectrum. In the U.S., new government data show an overall plateau of high BMIs in kids over the last 10 years--a hopeful sign. But "even without further increases in childhood obesity, the toll of the epidemic will mount for decades to come," says Harvard's Dr. David Ludwig, director of the Optimal Weight for Life program at Children's Hospital Boston.

This goes way beyond fitting into our jeans or airline seats: the estimated annual cost of obesity in the United States is $147abillion. The problem even threatens our national security--being overweight is the No. 1 reason recruits are turned away from the military. Not so long ago, a lack of personal willpower was blamed. Today, obesity is considered a public-health threat, the toll of a toxic environment that endangers the well-being of our children and their future.

It's not just us, either. "Globesity" has consumed much of the planet, with more than 1 billion adults overweight or obese. And while we're not the fattest--Nauru, Micronesia, and a handful of other countries beat us--we're very close to the top of the list. Urbanization, modernization, technology, and the globalization of food markets, which includes the exportation of Coke and burgers, has created a crisis of "epidemic proportions," in the words of the World Health Organization.

But it's America that has become the world's preeminent fat-making machine. To dismantle it we need a coordinated, comprehensive plan of attack, one that pairs individual responsibility with a social construct that fosters good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle. We need to be surrounded by food that makes us well, not sick. We need schools and workplaces that reward us for exercising our bodies, not just our brains. "If you want people to make the right choices, they need to have the right choices to make," says Dr. William Dietz, director of the CDC's Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity. We need forceful and well-enforced policies, a government that invests dollars in improving the diet of school kids and puts limitations on the advertising that targets them. We need Americans to perceive obesity as a personal threat to themselves and to their children, not as somebody else's problem. We have a long way to go.

We got here through multiple innovations, many of them meant to improve, not corrupt, our lifestyles. …