TCS Daily

The Real Fat Cats

By Duane D. Freese - May 30, 2003 12:00 AM

I don't know about you, but obesity is starting to frighten me.

It's not because researchers at the Journal of Health recently estimated $93 million is spent annually dealing with ailments such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and other diseases associated with obesity. I figure that cost is covered from the hundreds of billions in health care savings trial lawyers and state attorneys general have already achieved by wiping out the last great threat against living forever - smoking.

No, it's because the World Health Organization - the United Nations' health watchdog - has declared obesity to be a disease that has become epidemic among human populations around the globe, and now it appears to be spreading to real watchdogs!

According to a story in the nation's ever-observant newspaper, USA Today, "obesity in pets is on the rise." A study by the Purina Pet Institute, apparently examining the ribs of millions of these and other pets -- though not turtles or fish -- found they were disappearing under layers of fat.

This marks a reversal of the cross-species infections suspected in the SARS and AIDS epidemics, which could make the obesity epidemic much more difficult to control, as it is very hard to keep a surgical mask on a cat or prevent dogs from sniffing private parts.

And that appears to be something we really have to worry about with this epidemic.

For according to WHO, obesity is predominantly a "social and environmental disease," which suggests only those living alone in igloos in the Arctic are likely to avoid contact with obesity agents. This view is supported by the Centers for Disease Control, which says that obesity is "a condition that results from an environment of caloric abundance and relative physical inactivity that is modulated by a susceptible genotype." And except in the Arctic, and in some sub-Saharan African countries, a few deserts, the Great Salt Lake, and the Dead and Aral Seas, the world is, I am told, awash in caloric abundance and susceptible genotypes.

Define the Problem

So, what are we to do about this deadly scourge? Well, I always believe in going back to the roots. First, define the problem. And while I congratulate WHO and the CDC for developing proper bureaucratic verbiage, what I need to know is what kind of disease obesity is and how is it being spread.

Is obesity an acute disease with a quick onset that runs a short course, like a heart attack? Or is it a chronic disease with a slow onset that sometimes runs a year long, like rheumatic fever?

I don't see a lot of my friends coming down with obesity overnight. So my guess is that it's a chronic disease with a slow onset. That could pose problems.

So we must find out what are the causative agents to develop a course of prevention. If it is an infectious, or communicable, disease that can be passed from person to person, like a severe case of mumps, the suggested course, as in the SARS epidemic, would be to isolate the carriers. Only, if infectious only in the early stages of the disease as in some types of flu, the slow onset will make it hard to spot those carriers, especially if they are infectious only in early days. Further, it is perfectly possible for a causative agent to survive in an organism without affecting that organism. And asymptomatic carriers could pass along the disease to others that are susceptible to impairments caused by it. So, simply rounding up obese people wouldn't isolate the disease.

And considering that more than half of all Americans are overweight, according to federal studies that declare a six-foot man weighing 182 pounds to be fat, it might be easier to isolate non-overweight people, as has occurred to some extent in the Rocky Mountain states and countries such as Ethiopia and Bangladesh.

But maybe isolation isn't a necessary option at all. It depends on what obesity's causative agent is. It might not be viral. Perhaps it's bacterial, like salmonella, although people who are contaminated by salmonella tend to get thinner rather than fatter. Maybe it's a bacillus! They are rod-shaped, something like hot dogs, and they cause tuberculosis, which might explain why we call hot dogs tube steak. Or another possible bacterial infection would be spirochetes, which look a lot like those funny little pastas you find along with broccoli in some salads.

Then again, obesity might not be an infectious disease at all. Degeneration of things like kidneys and the heart, problems with the urinary tract and reproductive system, all are noninfectious. Perhaps obesity is merely a degenerative disease, although it would seem more regenerative like cancers considering that obese people seem larger in size than non-obese people.

Maybe obesity is a disease provoked by psychological and social factors. According to some psychology manuals, malnutrition is provoked by either a psychological or social factor - anorexia nervosa and bulimia being psychological factors set by social expectations of thinness and famine by the social factor that there is no food available so families don't have sit-down dinners.

We may be onto something here. Starvation, which appears to be the opposite of obesity, has been defined by some health professionals as a "disease resulting from an inadequate caloric intake." It has been provoked, apparently, by a "dearth of food," in some places - food apparently providing calories. So it is quite possible that societies with lots of food will have "caloric abundance" and suffer obesity while those with a "dearth of food," will instead suffer from "inadequate caloric intake" and epidemics of starvation.

So, obesity may have something to do with food as a source of caloric intake. What, though, is the mechanism by which the people and their pets are taking these calories in? Are they breathing them in with the air? Do they gain pounds every time they pass a Krispy Kreme bakery or fast food restaurant?

Some people seem to think so. And on June 21-23 at Northeastern University, the Public Health Advocacy Institute is going to bring these people together to explore an altogether radical way to attack the problem of obesity. They will explore "Legal Approaches to the Obesity Epidemic."

Most Fearsome Macrobiological Weapon

In other words, they are planning to sic the most fearsome macrobiological weapon known to human kind upon this health scourge - trial lawyers.

Now, some people like Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson think a litigation approach is too simplistic. They prefer a more holistic endeavor. They want restaurants and others to provide more "wholesome" food choices because people simply don't have enough restaurants and food choices already.

But I think the trial lawyers are on the right track. After all, they have already come to the same conclusion I have that caloric intake - food - may have something to do with the obesity epidemic.

Indeed, according to one of the great thinkers behind a legal approach to dealing with obesity, law professor John Banzhaf of George Washington University, people are addicted to food. "(T)he public is much less aware of the addictive-like effects of many fast foods than they are of the widely publicized addictive nature of nicotine in cigarettes," he told Reuters recently.

I believe he is right. People who don't eat suffer terrible withdrawal symptoms, much like smokers. Some people who don't eat even die.

So, what is Mr. Banzhaf's legal cure? Kill all the farmers to end the caloric abundance? Not exactly. He suggests that fast food restaurants put up in big letters all over the place nutritional information about their food. Thus, people buying a double-cheese with bacon Whopper or Krispy Kreme donut or Baskin Robbins triple-scoop ice cream cone or Starbucks vente caramel macchiato with whipped cream coffee would know the percent of their daily minimum nutritional requirements that these primary food groups will provide them. And people so informed will immediately begin practicing good nutrition, whatever that may be.

Any restaurant or establishment that failed to so inform people of the nature of the infecting agents that they are consuming would be held liable for billions of dollars in payments to lawyers. This transfer of wealth from restaurants and their workers to the pockets of trial lawyers would itself have a beneficial effect on the obesity epidemic as has such a transfer in the fight against smoking. Just as fewer people can afford to smoke thanks to the tobacco settlement, so fewer people will be afford too eat out, lowering the general populace's caloric intake even as trial lawyers eat high on the hog and smoke big fat Cuban cigars.

So, I can't think of enough to say about those lawyers for their sacrifice in the name of good health and nutrition, even though some skeptics may assert that fast food establishments aren't the cause of the worldwide obesity epidemic.

For example, researchers at the Cooper Institute and other weight and health research centers suggest that obesity, per se, isn't the real problem at all. Rather, it's poor of cardiovascular health from a lack of exercise.

According to a report of the President's Council of Physical Fitness in 2000, "Physical activity provides protection against the health risks of obesity primarily by reducing and/or reversing the development of a progressive disease process known as insulin-resistance syndrome or Syndrome X." This protection occurs even if there is not an actual loss in weight.

The CDC itself has noted that some people, no matter how they diet, can't seem to lose weight. Its studies find that obesity "varies from individual to individual. At one end of the spectrum, a healthy weight can be attained by cutting down on certain foods, taking smaller portions, and embarking on a regimen of regular exercise. ... At the other end of the spectrum, there is another population of overweight people who do not respond as well to these interventions."

Many groups representing obese individuals, meanwhile, deny that fast food restaurants have anything to do with their condition, which they view as natural.

"Obesity is not a disease - it's a natural human condition. Let's stop treating it as a disease," Paul Delacroix told the BIG as Texas event in 1999, which promotes size acceptance.

"Most likely we will never have true size acceptance until the average person comes to understand that very fat people do not grow to be the size they are from visiting McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts. Some fat people overeat, and many do not. Some have never really experienced the Joy of Eating during their entire lives - their entire lives have been a haze of psychological punishment and pressures concerning food. It is indeed a cruel irony when people who have suffered a lifelong history of dieting abuse are chided as gluttons and pigs by dull-witted thin people," he said.

Obviously, he and these other individuals and researchers are suffering from an abundance of caloric intake that deprives them of the ability to see the wisdom in the legal approach to battling obesity.

Obesity is a disease and we need lawyers to stamp it out for us.

So, I for one plan to march belly to belly with the trial bar to end the obesity epidemic. And if ever I take a dog for a walk, I vow not to take it into any fast-food restaurants, especially if I see a fat cat lawyer in there. Woof!

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