Emptying the obesity-and-class mailbag

I will say goodbye for now to this topic, which began with an offhand mention that America didn't seem as fat as I "expected" after three years away. An unprecedented amount of mail came in; below and after the jump, samples of some of the themes I hadn't previously gotten to. Thanks for the responses.

Eating as an available pleasure. From a reader in South Dakota:

"An overlooked connection between obesity and class, I believe, stems from varying quantity of personal enjoyment and anticipation of enjoyment.

"It is one thing for a successful, financially comfortable, socially accepted and respected person who has multiple things happening every day that are pleasurable (golf, driving a nice car, nice home, stylish clothing, success at work, interesting social events, kids doing well, planning vacations, etc) to take just one pleasurable aspect of life (overeating) and sacrifice some of that pleasure for the good result of losing weight.

"Now, for people struggling financially and socially, trying to just get through the day and keep their lives together to varying degrees...their meals are often the only consistently happy and pleasurable events they can count on each day. 

"Obviously, a generalization.  But, if one gets up and faces a day with a tedious and unfulfilling job, not much money to spend on anything but necessities, and no "fun" things ahead, how much more difficult it is for that person to also think ahead to a day of denying themselves the pleasure of their mealtimes...."

The processed-food factor:

"I was quite surprised to note the glaring lack of an obvious contributing major factor in your recent post on obesity: processed foods.

"I was first struck by the weight of this factor (pun intended) during a trip to Buenos Aires a couple of years ago. During my stay, I was absolutely astonished to find such a small percentage of fat people given that:

"a) the per-capita consumption of meat (in Argentina) is the highest in the world.

"b) the vast majority of people eat their largest meals very late at night (9:00-12:00)

"c) there are plenty of carbohydrates and sugar-laden foods consumed along with the meat

"d) a very large percentage of the people who live in the vast city are relatively poor

"So, how to account for this? No, it's not that the residents of Buenos Aires get far more exercise than their American counterparts, nor is it likely that they have far superior genes. The only possibly explanation that I can come up with is that they eat a small fraction of processed foods relative to their American (and, to a lesser extent, Western European) counterparts..."

The rural-urban food gap:

"If you are in a strange place as a traveler, think about where you would go to eat and what would you eat?  If you are here in Oakland [Calif], you would find all kinds of good food (fresh, well-prepared, etc) available at an entire range of prices.  If you are where I just was (Orleans, CA - population 630 back whenever they put up sign), unless you bring all your own food you get badly fried frozen chicken or badly cooked (frozen) steak or hamburger, heated up frozen diced carrots and peas, reconstituted mashed "potatoes", all covered with your choice of "country gravy" or "brown gravy".  Not only unhealthy but also atrocious tasting.



"There are beautiful farms along the Klamath river in that area - but I guarantee you that they are selling to Redding and Eureka or beyond and not to the folks in Orleans.  

By contrast - in the smallest town in Japan you can find a nice little noodle shop of some sort that will sell you a healthy and delicious meal, often with fresh made noodles, and at least some pickled local vegetables if not fresh ones!  



"This is an extreme example (Orleans being a very remote place), but on road trips we prepare for the simple fact that only bad food is available in most of America outside the major metropolitan areas.  I'm not sure exactly what the causal relations are - but the correlation is strong I'm sure.  Where you have high obesity you also have bad food.  



"So my big question - how much does the lack of availability of good food (due to the better profits from selling to big cities) influence the food culture in those areas - and how much do the food preferences cause those economics?

In the middle of Kansas you can't get fresh vegetables or good meat - go figger..."

What makes US obesity different:

"I think the really big difference between the US and the rest of the world is the relative frequency with which you will encounter people who are excessively overweight and not just "large" or "fat".  It's been a while since I was living in France, but between the three visits that I made since 2001 and the many years preceding, I would suggest that I have never seen 1% as many truly obese individuals as I encounter in any given month in the US..."

The mystery of rural obesity:

"There's a conundrum here that I can't untangle.  How in the world is it possible for rural people, especially lower-income, to have higher obesity rates than city people when rural life is so very much more physically demanding and junk food so much harder to come by?

"I live in rural Vermont, having moved here some years ago from suburban Boston, and one of the most striking differences between living in the suburbs and the country is the much greater amount of physical work involved in just day-to-day life.  Walking to the bus stop or the corner store doesn't even begin to compare.

"And as for poverty-- the less disposable income you have, the more of that work you have to do yourself rather than hiring someone else to do it.

"Small-scale family farming involves an enormous amount of hard physical labor.  An obese farmer is pretty much an impossibility.

"Lower-income rural folks who don't farm don't have to do as much work, but still a considerable amount.  Between just keeping my little two-acre property in respectable condition, managing my large kitchen garden, and most especially the firewood that, like most people around here from pure financial necessity I use to heat my home in the winter, I'm involuntarily in the best physical shape of my life.  The clothes I brought with me from my soft suburban life no longer fit.

"On the intake side, rural people aren't shoving large amounts of junk food into their mouths, either, for the simple reason that it isn't easily accessible.  Here, the nearest McDonald's is 15 miles away.  There's only one small lunch counter that sells pizza anywhere in the area.  The general stores sell their share of potato chips and other snacks, the store is a special trip, not a casual daily drop-in.

"So how come the obesity in rural areas?..."

The last bastion of unashamed class snobbery. The link included in this last message reinforces the point of the message very strongly:

"In recent posts you or your readers have mentioned the differences one might encounter walking around Wal-Mart versus Harvard Yard.  If you aren't already aware of the site, take a look at People of Wal-Mart. It's a pretty ugly display of behind-the-back classist name-calling [JF note: no kidding], but it's out there for all to see anyway.

"Your readers aren't the only to have associated a certain class/shape/personality type with Wal-Mart. Seems like it's generally acceptable to have these sorts of prejudices. 
It's not inconceivable to think of a website whose premise is to look and make fun of overweight people.  However, except on the very fringes of the internet, I couldn't imagine a similar website making fun of a particular race or ethnicity. [Depends how you define "fringes."]  Obesity and class, though, seem to be fair game in the mainstream."

I agree on the "fair game" point; the other prejudice that is generally penalty-free in the media is against Southerners. (This was a big in-house theme back during the Carter years, and to a slightly diminished degree in the Clinton's era. That's a whole question for another time.) As with a lot of other social functions, there is a careful balance to be maintained here: recognizing that obesity, like smoking, has become one more marker of lower class status, without sneering or snickering about that fact.

Upcoming: similar "clean out the queue and move on" summaries about slippery-slope rhetoric and, of course, a replacement for the boiled frog. 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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