Flashbacks November 2007

The War on Fat

A trip through the Atlantic's archives offers revealing insights into American body politics

The Russians were clearly in on this secret, Crawford inferred from the appearance of their public officials. "A look at the entire galaxy of Russian VIPs, in fact, presents us with an unavoidable truth —namely, that the Soviets have chosen their leaders with an eye to the propaganda value of obesity." Moreover, Crawford had heard rumors that Russian citizens of all ages were dutifully putting on pounds, and this struck him as a grave threat to the free world: "The psychological impact of such a thoroughly fat nation upon much of the world would be sufficient to entice it into the Communist camp."

Boldly defying his own "svelte" President, Crawford called upon his nation to enter the fat race, concluding with a rousing echo of Churchill:

We shall match the Russians potato for potato, calorie for calorie. We shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight on the picnic grounds; we shall fight in the all-night hamburger stands. We shall never surrender! And if the American nation should last a thousand years, history will say, "This was their fattest hour!"

By the late 1980s, we had a new rival to contend with. Japan's rise to superpowerdom seemed like an economic David and Goliath story, with America playing the humiliated giant. In "No-Fat City" (1986), James Fallows, an Atlantic correspondent living in Tokyo with his family, grappled with a particular aspect of the Asian miracle: How did the Japanese stay so much slimmer and live so much longer than Americans without doing any exercise?

Due partly to a lack of space, and partly to workaholism, recreational sports were not big in Japan. After a long day at the office, Japanese businessmen headed for restaurants and bars, not gyms. Among teenagers, Fallows noted that it was fashionable to carry sports equipment as an accessory, but not to use it. Yet not only were they far thinner and healthier than the gym-obsessed Americans, they tended to look ten years younger. The answer, Fallows believed, was a frugal diet. Even as they went wild for McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and though they had some equally greasy delicacies of their own, the Japanese had a national trait that Americans notoriously lacked: self-restraint. According to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, the average American consumed over 30 percent more calories per day than a Japanese.

Fallows noted that the symbolism of the two nations' body types had changed along with their relative status since World War Two:

Forty years ago the physical contrast between Americans and Japanese was between the tall, strong victors and the short, weak vanquished. Now, it looks to me like a contrast between a soft culture and a hard one—between people who eat to satiation and those whose portions are small.

Rumor had it, however, that overeating was becoming a problem among Japanese youth as well and that obesity was on the rise. Fallows was skeptical, but he concluded on a note of jealous hope: "When Jane Fonda's Workout Book becomes a best seller in Japan, we'll know that our industries have a chance."

By the late 1990s, the U.S.A. was back on top and bigger than ever. As global trade spread Western wealth to developing countries, processed junk foods spread along with it. As a result, in the twenty-first century, obesity is no longer just a First World disease.

In 2001, Ellen Ruppel Shell investigated a horrifying example of a medical crisis known as "New World Syndrome." On the tiny Micronesian island of Kosrae, rapid Westernization has brought a scourge of illnesses associated with bad diet, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, bringing average life-spans down to the late-fifties.

The Kosraeans' trouble began with a 1986 trade compact between the Federated States of Micronesia and the U.S. that included $100 million per year in aid. The money formed the bulk of the FSM's revenue, and transformed the Kosraeans almost overnight from farmers and fishermen into desk-bound bureaucrats. Proud of their newfound wealth, the Kosraeans took to traveling even short distances by car. Homegrown produce was replaced by imported junk food—Shell found grocery stores packed with tinned meats, cake mixes, and potato chips, with hardly any fresh fruits or vegetables to be found. This drastic lifestyle change, combined with an apparent genetic tendency toward obesity, had catastrophic results. In 1994, Micronesian health officials declared that 85 percent of Kosraeans between the ages of forty-five and sixty-four were obese.

Kosrae is but one example—New World Syndrome, Shell discovered, is rampant throughout the South Pacific and beyond. According to the World Health Organization, overeating is "the fastest growing form of malnourishment" in the world. Unlike America's health-conscious leaders, however, Shell found Micronesian officials averse to the notion of intervening to help stop the spread of the disease:

I heard repeatedly that health was a matter of willpower and individual effort, and that government could do nothing to curb the public taste for imports. The fact that many state legislators in Micronesia are also food importers was never mentioned—nor were the particulars of auto importation in a tiny country already overrun with cars.

On a brighter note, Shell remarked, some healthful American imports were showing up in Kosrae as well—basketball and baseball were gaining popularity. Then again, so was television. Soon, she concluded wistfully,

Kosraeans will be able to come home, open a few cans of Spam, switch on the tube, and kick back for the evening. It is then that they will truly be able to live—and die—in the manner of their Western benefactors.

Without a doubt, the problem of American obesity has grown weightier over the past century. No longer merely a matter of vanity, of personal health or of patriotism, today it is a burden on a global scale.

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Elizabeth Wasserman is a writer based in New York.

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