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April 2003
Too Fat for Our Own Good

The Satya Interview with Greg Critser

“Fat Land is basically the story of what changed in American culture and in American life to promote the epidemic of obesity,” explains author Greg Critser. “I was trying to tell the narrative story of the various factors and people who put these various trends in motion.” This is Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World (Houghton Mifflin Co., 2002) in a nutshell.

Greg Critser
is a professional journalist who spent four years researching the growing epidemic of obesity in America. Why are people overeating, and what are they eating? Recently, Rachel Cernansky discussed some answers to these unsettling questions with Critser.

What are some of the factors that have contributed to the increased weight problems across America?

For the first decades after the Second World War, epidemiologists thought that the rate of overweight and obesity would settle at around 25 percent of the population. And that’s really where it stayed until about the mid-1980s, when we started seeing big increases in the rate of obesity. In the mid ‘90s, the rate doubles, and then goes up another ten percent. So the question that scientists ask is, okay, we know that obesity is genetically driven, but we also know that the gene pool doesn’t change in just 25 years. So, what had to have changed was the environment our bodies exist within.

First, calories became cheap. Because of U.S. foreign policy in the 1970s, we produced an enormous abundance of corn; we also opened up our borders to cheap fats. Secondly, food companies learned how to aggressively market calories. One of the ways to do this was to offer large sizes, which they could do because commodity prices had gone down because of corn overproduction. They also learned that people would be willing to spend more money for larger portions, and those larger portions really wouldn’t cost the foodmaker more money. So food became cheap, omnipresent and easily available. Finally, the nuclear family changed from a one- to a two-income household, so the traditional dinner table—where people not only ate, but got their values regarding food—was abandoned and people began to eat out more. We know now that somewhere around 40 percent of the American food dollar is spent eating out, and when people eat out they tend to eat more calories; they also tend to eat foods higher in simple sugars and fats.

The work environment also changed—that is, it became expensive to get rid of calories. Jobs became more sedentary than they were—we were once paid to exercise, now we have to pay to exercise—and the principal means of entertainment became passive, i.e. video games, TV, film, etc. Basically we went way out of balance into a chronic caloric imbalance.

What was your initial intent with this project?
My original intent really was to call attention to a national health emergency. And now I see that talking about weight and obesity in a very frank, medical fashion is a way to head off a lot of chronic disease. It cuts across the board—from diabetes to heart disease, to osteoarthritis to sleep apnea. You can prevent a kid from getting all kinds of chronic diseases later in life if you deal with the food and exercise issue early.

What kind of reaction have you had so far?
The reaction has been extremely positive in the media. And a lot of fat people have taken it up because they like the fact that it’s very blunt, but also compassionate. I’m a Catholic and I think that’s one of the great missions in life, if you can learn to be very honest but also compassionate. So if I’ve been able to do that even to a small degree I’m really happy.

Any reactions from parents?
In general, parents really want the straight dope on things, they’re so tired of getting this wishy-washy message from the American academy and from medicine, I think they welcome it. You’re starting to see that now—for example, parents in the mainstream are going to their school districts and demanding that they get Coca Cola out of the schools.

How did the idea for this book come about?
I did a cover story for Harper’s magazine in 2000 called “Let Them Eat Fat.” That article got a lot of coverage because it was basically a left liberal magazine saying that obesity was a legitimate issue, a social and a medical issue. You didn’t see that until then because it had been infused and co-opted by the issue of anorexia and bulimia; to talk about obesity was really kind of a bad, politically incorrect thing to do. So when Harper’s did it, it got a lot of attention.

And I wanted to do a book about it but my agent didn’t think people would be interested in it. I had started writing about other issues when a woman from Houghton Mifflin approached me and said she wanted to do a book about this. I had already written a proposal and been told that no one wanted it and she said, “Why don’t you rewrite it and I will make it my priority to get approval for the book?” So I rewrote the proposal, and three weeks later she bought it.

Do you think people are going to wake up—or will they just succumb to an acceptance of being fat?
I don’t know. Hopefully. It’s part of a larger kind of redefinition that I think needs to happen in this country about consumerism in general. I mean, if you think about it, obesity is just a way to consume more of something, just like SUVs are. I think overconsumption is where a lot of different threads come together. Similar political agendas strangely enough come together in the subject of obesity.

Maybe in time, we will learn that it’s good to limit our consumption of things, and not only is it good for you, but it’s morally right. Historically that hasn’t been the case in this country, we have not tended to want to place a lot of limits on ourselves. That’s part of the genius of the country, in the sense that this is where new things get invented. But on the other hand, because we can’t seem to contain ourselves, it tends to do a lot of damage if it’s a bad idea. You’re seeing this discussion on a much bigger basis when you look at the discussion over globalization and things like that.

How do we overcome this crisis and make people aware?
It can happen in a lot of different ways, but I think the main area to focus on is the education of parents on how to teach their kids about food. That’s an area that public health can invest very profitably in. One thing we need to focus on is the immigrant population—populations that need public health education and where public health investments pay off the biggest. Because you’re helping a new population deal with a nutrition transition, a population that still remembers scarcity and hunger that is now in a culture of abundance. In Los Angeles, we have a lot of Latino grassroots groups who actually go door to door and teach young mothers about why breastfeeding is good, how to breastfeed, how to use milk when they can’t breastfeed, how much is too much, etc. Those kinds of efforts really pay off in the long run.

In your book you criticize the drug industry for overlooking treatment for obesity, and instead focusing on obesity-related conditions (i.e. insulin for diabetes). Is this a blessing in disguise? If there were a drug, might that allow people to just eat and eat, then pop the “obesity pill”?
This is where I kind of depart from my more liberal brethren who think that “diet drugs” are evil. If you talk to any physician who’s dealt with childhood obesity and the consequent medical issues, if they could get a decent drug to treat it, I think they would use it in a minute. The problem is there just haven’t been any good obesity drugs, so I would like to see some investment in it.

I don’t think pharmaceuticals are the be all, end all. But to vilify them constantly, you’re taking something out of your arsenal before you even try it and I think that’s really short-sighted. One reason the industry is not willing to invest in it is because there’s such a strong, and to a certain degree justifiable, disliking of them because of phen-phen and redux (drugs that were recalled), and the amphetamines of the ‘70s and ‘60s.

Generally speaking, you’ve seen two models: either drugs that speed up the metabolism and inhibit eating, or drugs that cause you to purge; and they don’t work very well. They really need to find a drug that maybe increases thermogenesis or depresses appetite in a less invasive way. That’s why you’re seeing research now on pharmacogenomics: looking at chemical to gene interactions, like the focus on leptin and braelin and various hormones that regulate hunger and satisfaction. They’ve finally realized that just jacking up your system to run at a higher level or causing your system to purge really has its limits; and people aren’t willing to spend money on it and doctors aren’t willing to prescribe it.

Can you talk about the concept of “grazing” (eating smaller, more numerous meals throughout the day)—and the myth that it is?
That really took off in the ‘80s when nutritionists and people like that were saying it’s better to graze and eat a lot of small meals throughout the day. What we know now is, in a perfect world, for someone who’s very active, eating perfect food, that may be true, but we don’t live in that world. The fact is, the more often you eat, the more often you put your body in a post-prandial state of metabolism, which favors the storage of fat. Grazing became a license to just eat whenever you wanted to; it was like the last boundary was taken away. What we got as a result was a really insidious environment in which we don’t feel any shame for any overconsumption.

Are you a vegetarian?
No. I was at one time, but I’m not now. Vegetarianism I think is a great thing if it’s done the right way, but most people don’t do it the right way. They end up eating a lot of starch, they get a very strong insulinemic response and end up getting fat. Then they start eating a regular diet and start bad-mouthing vegetarianism. That’s the general pattern in this country.

Veganism I think is something for rich people, because you have to have someone fix the food for you. You also have to have decent medical care because you’re going to need it, eventually.

You don’t think you can get all the necessary nutrients?
I don’t think it’s a good diet, no. I think you’re fooling yourself if you do it for any long period of time, again, unless you’re wealthy and have a physician who can take care of you when you get all kinds of different nutritional deficiencies. But that’s my opinion; I have friends who are vegans, and they don’t agree with me.

Did you look into the meat industry in your research?
No. Only to the degree that, for example, meat is 30 percent cheaper today than it was 30 years ago after adjustment for inflation, and that figures heavily into the fact that high calorie foods are both easily accessible and inexpensive. But meat per se, I’m not against it; I think it should be eaten a lot less than most people do. If you’re going to eat meat, I think that you should at least one time in your life actually cook the meat yourself, get some idea of what’s involved in it. I grew up in a hunting family, so I hunted as a kid. I understand the theoretical objection to eating meat, but I don’t subscribe to it.

The U.S. has an obvious obsession with food, and the diet industry here has exploded as a result. Can the industry fix the growing obesity problem?

No. In terms of really changing behavior and attitudes, the diet industry’s never going to do that. I think it’s got to happen in the schools. For example, parents should hold schools accountable to have a dietary and fitness environment consonant with the one they’re preaching in nutrition classes. That’s the classic thing that screws kids up today—they go into a nutrition class and learn about a good diet, and they leave the classroom and guess what’s out there. There’s all of this fast food and Coca Cola being sold on campus, and what is a child supposed to think?

I would like to see the U.S. Department of Agriculture promote a more rounded, non meat-based diet, with stronger whole grains and legumes. Those are legitimate parts of our diet that have been underdeveloped. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen on George Bush’s watch.

For alternative dietary pyramids, Critser recommends:
Eat Drink and Be Healthy by Walter Willett or the organization Old Ways ( for their “Eat Smart” model.


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