The end of the war on fat?

John Tierney asks how long it will be until we have a drug that can make everyone thin.  I wonder whether, if we got one, everyone would still want to be thin.  The obsession with thinness is a wealth marker.  Just as it only became cool to get a tan when most working stiffs were pasty white from long hours indoors, the easier it is for poor people to get fat, the harder rich people work to get thin.  The rate of obesity is twice as high among the poor as among the rich.

I confess I still don't understand why poverty is so increasingly linked with obesity.  The common explanation is to blame the paucity of excellent cheap grocery stores in urban neighborhoods. But poverty is not exclusively an inner city phenomenon; poor people in more rural areas share grocery stores with the rich.  Besides, while this explains the latitudinal data, it does not account for the longitudinal issue.  No one thinks that New York's grocery stores, even in poor neighborhoods, have gotten worse since the 1970s; the evidence is that they've gotten better.  But the obesity rate has gotten much worse.

I wonder if George Orwell didn't offer the explanation, in the Road to Wigan Pier, when he compares the actual expenditure of coal miners to the model poverty diets pushed by reformers:

Please notice that this budget contains nothing for fuel. In fact, the writer explicitly stated that he could not afford to buy fuel and ate all his food raw. Whether the letter was genuine or a hoax does not matter at the moment. What I think will be admitted is that this list represents about as wise an expenditure as could be contrived; if you had to live on three and elevenpence halfpenny a week, you could hardly extract more food-value from it than that. So perhaps it is possible to feed yourself adequately on the P.A.C. allowance if you concentrate on essential foodstuffs; but not otherwise.

Now compare this list with the unemployed miner's budget that I gave earlier. The miner's family spend only tenpence a week on green vegetables and tenpence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes--an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit 'tasty'. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let's have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we'll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don't nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man's opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.

In Orwell's time, the result was toothlessness and short, frail stature; in the days of nearly endless cheap calories, it is obesity.  It is undoubtedly easier to stay thin if you have nicely cooked low-calorie prepared food at easy disposal, a shiny gym with a personal trainer to go to, some control over your schedule so that you can use it, and lovely clothes to show off a well-toned figure.  The life of a welfare mother affords few pleasures beyond television, comfort food, and whatever entertainment she can get up with friends on a $0 budget.

But if a weight loss pill turns out to be relatively safe and effective?  For sure, Medicaid would cover it; obesity (hell, diabetes alone) costs more than the pill possibly could.  Suddenly, a major class marker would disappear.  And with it, hopefully, upper middle class women will stop thinking that the ideal woman closely resembles a flagpole in form and function.  I don't expect such a thing any time soon, but it is lovely to look forward to.


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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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