The Fattening of America
The high cost of overeating
By Steven Martinovich
After millennia where humanity's biggest problem was simply feeding itself, it finds itself in an interesting place: A growing percentage of humanity – even in the Third World – is obese. Europe, Central and South America and even parts of Africa are grappling with people who aren't unhealthy due to a lack of food, but rather from too much. Few countries, however, understand the reality of the obesity "epidemic" better than the United States.
Eric A. Finkelstein and Laurie Zuckerman's illuminating The Fattening of America: How The Economy Makes Us Fat, If It Matters, and What To Do About It takes a look at American obesity utilizing a novel tool: the dismal science. Ignoring the medical effects of being overweight or obese, a topic covered in countless books already, Finkelstein and Zuckerman are instead interested in the economic costs they impose, how we make a living makes us fat and if it's a problem even worth attacking.
The authors argue that the reasons why Americans are getting fatter are fairly straightforward; technological achievements have made high-calorie, tasty foods very cheap while the cost of engaging in activity has risen. The demands of the modern era means we have less time to exercise, fewer jobs demand physical activity and it's easier to buy and eat food with less nutritious value, whether prepackaged or restaurant fare, than it is to prepare something good for you. Simply put, it's gotten more expensive to be thin at the same time that society is holding that as its beauty ideal.
Health activists have not surprisingly called for a wide array of initiatives to deal with rising obesity levels but Finkelstein and Zuckerman throw cold water on most of them. Using arguments based in economics, they argue that government intervention on traditional grounds – such as income inequality, market failure or irrational consumer behavior – isn't warranted because those conditions aren't to blame. In fact, they write, one of the unintended consequences of past government programs is that they are actually contributing to the problem.
Other measures growing in popularity – or at least being debated – such as menu labeling or sin taxes also earn little support in The Fattening of America. The authors argue that even under when presented with all the information necessary to choose healthier food in restaurants and supermarkets, consumers still opt towards the calorie rich foods in the knowledge that they provided the quickest bang for the buck.
Technology, they write, is also making the individual – though obviously not the societal – cost of being obese more manageable. Thanks to modern medicine, Americans are able to deal with many of the associated health problems of being overweight and obese. Entire industries from clothing to mechanical aids are springing up to help the overweight deal with the regular business of life. There is, not surprisingly, a lot of money to be made off the sweat of the obese.
The most gratifying aspect, at least from a small government perspective, of The Fattening of America is the realization by the authors that attempts at government intervention against rising obesity rates would only increase taxes, health care spending and costs to business while accomplishing very little. Outside of urging action to combat childhood obesity and workplace wellness programs offering financial incentives and exercise facilities for adults, Finkelstein and Zuckerman acknowledge American society, while promoting thin as the ideal, is structured to make it easier to be overweight. Without fundamentally altering some aspects of American life, obesity rates will continue to rise and there is little we can collectively do about it. The choice to be fat – and at the end of the day it is a choice – is one that each of us makes even if we don't consciously think about it.
It's likely that The Fattening of America won't win many fans among those demanding increasing government intervention in our lives or those hoping to sell us the latest weight loss solution. Given their past record of success, or the lack thereof, that should hardly be held against Finkelstein and Zukerman. It is an important contribution to the debate over expanding waistlines and our collective health, however, thanks to looking at the issues from a different perspective.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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