TCS Daily


Fat Cats

By C. C. Kraemer - June 2, 2004 12:00 AM

Feeling a bit overweight? Blame capitalism. Or rather credit capitalism.

In the not too distant past most people on the planet had difficulty getting enough good food to eat. But now we have a new worry: There's apparently too much food out there and our insatiable appetites won't let us leave it alone.

The media continue reporting that obesity is a major global problem. About one in every four people is simply too fat. The International Obesity Task Force (yes, there is such a thing) says that roughly 1.7 billion people -- which is nearly the combined populations of China, the United States and Japan -- need to drop more than a few pounds. Of those who are considered to be carrying too much weight, about 312 million are defined as being obese, meaning that they have exceeded by at least 30 pounds their top recommended weight.

In the U.S, it is estimated that nearly two-thirds of the population of roughly 290 million is overweight, or, worse, obese. The British Guardian recently noted that obesity in America has grown by more than 50 percent across the last 10 years.

And it's not just the developed nations of the West where people are expanding their girth. The scourge of fat has spread across the world. China, for example, has gone from the famine of 1958-1961, when as many as 40 million people starved because of Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward, to being a land where food is no longer rationed but abundant. The evidence is in the waistlines. USA Today reported on May 19 that the number of overweight males tripled between 1989 and 1997; by 2025, more than 38% of Chinese adults will be overweight.

What's happening in China has also happened in other countries that liberalize their economies, as the People's Republic has been doing since the late 1970s. As per capital wealth increases, so do per capita daily food supplies. The result is a profusion of food that has spread so far that it is thought that at this point in human history there are more fat people in the world than hungry people.

And this is bad? Considering how mankind has struggled to feed itself throughout most of its existence, maybe our growing fat is something to be celebrated rather than condemned. After all, overeating is a choice. But enduring famine, suffering hunger and starvation were never choices humans made for themselves.

But according to the fat warriors, all this is bad. They say the hefty among us are not the healthy among us. Being overweight, they tell us, increases the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and some respiratory illnesses. Those who are fatter, goes the accepted wisdom, are cutting years off their lives. There is no shortage of busybodies who want the rest of us to share their grave concern over people getting enough -- or too much -- to eat.

Count U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona among them. Last year he made a big issue of American's fat problem, judging it was worse than the danger posed by weapons of mass destruction. Not even the threat of Saddam Hussein could measure up to the perils of carrying too much adipose tissue. "Let's look at a threat that is very real, and already here: obesity," he said.

But is being fat really so ruinous? Aside from the stigma attached to obesity in many cultures, maybe not. That same British Guardian article mentioned earlier argued that "Size really doesn't matter. You can be just as healthy it you're fat as you can if you're slender."

The unusual claim was supported by various sources. Among them was a 1996 project conducted by scientists from the National Center for Health Statistics and Cornell University. The results showed that "Among non-smoking white men, the lowest mortality rate was found among those with a BMI [body mass index] between 23 and 29, which means that a large majority of the men who lived longest were 'overweight' according to government guidelines.

"The mortality rate for white men in the supposedly ideal [BMI] range of 19 to 21 was the same as that for those in the 29 to 31 range (most of whom would be defined now as 'obese')."

In non-smoking white women, the research showed that the "the BMI range correlating with the lowest mortality rate was extremely broad, from around 18 to 32, meaning a woman of average height could weigh anywhere within an 80-pound range without seeing any statistically significant change in her risk of premature death."

If being overweight, then, is not the scourge it's being made out to be, perhaps something else is at work here. Since expanding dimensions seem to follow the advances of capitalism, maybe the campaign against fat is another sneaky way to discredit capitalism, just as much of the environmental movement is a cover for besieging market economies and consumerism. It's a notion worth pondering over a double cheeseburger, an extra-large order of fries and one of those colossal empty-calorie milk shakes, or while chewing through some low-calorie vegan patty and washing it down with a shot of wheat grass juice -- the kinds of choices that capitalism, and no other system, affords people.


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