The Politics of Obesity in America

The first burger is high in calories, high in fat, and low in fiber. The second has even more fat, still little fiber, and more calories than anyone should eat at one meal. To complete what’s become a typical fast food meal, add some French fries and a soft drink. The fat content and the calories go up and sugar is added, but there’s no more fiber.

An obvious consequence of the fact that more and more people in the US are eating this kind of meal in fast food restaurants is that average weight is increasing. In his book The End of Overeating Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration cites a recent study by a team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The team compared current and earlier data on weight that showed "dramatic increases" across the board: among men and women, young and old, white and black.

For example, the team reported that in 1960 women ages twenty to twenty-nine averaged 128 pounds. By 2000 the average weight of women in that age group had increased, remarkably, to 157 pounds. And in the age group from forty to forty-nine the average weight increased from 142 pounds in 1960 to 169 pounds in 2000.

The increase in children’s weight is especially striking. Dr. Richard Fefferman, a pediatric endocrinologist, reports that since the 1970s obesity has increased in all school age groups. It has doubled for 2 to 5-year-olds and 12 to 19-year-olds and it has tripled for 6 to 11-year-olds. Of course this increase in obesity among the young is not due to diet alone. The increasingly sedentary life is also a contributor. But the changes made by the fast food culture is certainly a major factor

Because of Fefferman’s specialty he is particularly concerned with diabetes in the young, as promoted by obesity. He points out that type 2 diabetes during adolescence was almost nonexistent 10 to 15 years ago; now it makes up 25 to 50 percent of the diabetes diagnosed under age 18. The onset of type 2 diabetes in the young is particularly burdensome; a 13-year-old with the disease can expect complications that will likely shorten his life.

Dr. David Satcher, former Surgeon General and Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has rightly described this striking population-wide increase in weight as an obesity epidemic.

Satcher’s use of the medical term epidemic is appropriate. In addition to diabetes, obesity has been linked to heart disease, several kinds of cancer, strokes, arthritis, high blood pressure, and infertility. Among these are the leading killer diseases that strike the people of the US. The dramatic increase in obesity is a severe blow to health.

It’s also a blow to attempts to improve the delivery of health care. Reformers argue that the costs of plans to bring health care to more people can be offset by stronger programs of prevention. The obesity epidemic is an obvious impediment to the success of such programs.

The US is now exporting its obesity epidemic to the rest of the world. Profit-making but disease-causing fast food restaurants are everywhere. Kessler notes that in France, for example, fast food is beginning to have an effect. Researcher France Bellisle reports that obesity is increasing in France, especially among children.

Eric Schlosser gives a more quantitative account in his book Fast Food Nation. "Between 1984 and 1993 the number of fast-food restaurants in Great Britain roughly doubled — and so did the obesity rates among adults." The British eat more fast food than any other nationality in Western Europe. They also have the highest obesity rate. In China, Schlosser reports, the proportion of overweight teenagers has roughly tripled. Fast food arrived in Japan in 1971 and accelerated the shift in eating habits there away from the traditional healthy diet of rice, fish, and vegetables.  During the 1980s the sale of fast food in Japan more than doubled and the rates of obesity among children doubled too. Today in Japan about one third of men in their thirties are overweight

For sheer numbers of overseas invasions it’s interesting to consider specifically one fast food chain. McDonalds, after virtually saturating the domestic market, decided to go global. It now has thousands of restaurants in more than a hundred countries. And according to Schlosser the chain makes more of its profits outside the US.

The fast food industry has played a major role in reshaping diet in the US. The consequence has been a stunning increase in obesity, which in turn makes some life-threatening diseases harder to control, while sharply increasing the incidence of others. And the industry has expanded to country after country, bringing with it its terrible impact on health. The description "fast food nation," reflecting the widespread presence of the business, can now be recast as "fast food world."

Fast food operations are done in the name of profit making, as if that’s a reasonable justification for their morally reprehensible consequences. As Schlosser summarizes succinctly: "The profits of the fast-food chains have been made possible by the losses imposed on the rest of society." Although the focus here is on obesity, and so health, it must be noted that there are other "losses" imposed on society. One example is the deplorable status of the fast food industry’s workers: most lack full-time employment, receive no benefits, learn few if any skills, and are virtually the lowest paid in the country. Another is that the Small Business Administration subsidizes the opening of fast-food franchises and so uses the people’s taxes to support the industry’s abuses.

Everyone should be aware of the potential threat to their health of the seemingly benign fast food culture. The politically astute ought to recognize, in addition, that the fast food industry may be as dangerous to the people as, say, big banking.


Photo taken by Permanently Scatterbrained