Stollen, chocolate bark, latkes, noodle kugel. December is the cruelest month if you’re watching your weight. And in anticipation of the parties, I’ve tormented myself by reading books full of bad news on obesity. Steer clear of me over by the eggnog; I’m bursting with buzzkills. Here’s one, for instance — Michael Jordan is overweight, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is obese. Wait, does that mean His Airness and The Terminator are of shape? In bad health? No, says J. Eric Oliver, a University of Chicago political science professor and the author of “Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America’s Obesity Epidemic” (Oxford University, 2006). Rather, it’s “because a handful of people are defining these terms in ridiculous ways.” He means the body mass index, or BMI. I never thought to question the BMI. It seemed like another thing to feel bad about, a sign I should exercise more and try to be a calorie refusenik, holidays or not.
But taking it personally, says Oliver, is the wrong response. There are giant, often hidden, forces — from run amok agribusiness to toxins in our environment to the dark side of technology and money-hungry industries — that seem to be working against us when it comes to obesity. And the “pseudoscientific” BMI is one.
It springs from a 19th-century Belgian astronomer named Adolphe Quetelet, who tested his statistical models by collecting the heights and weights of French and Scottish army conscripts and plotting them on a distribution curve. He decided that those who deviated from the average should be deemed underweight or overweight, rather than as part of a spectrum.
Flip to the 1940s, when Louis Dublin, a statistician at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., charted the death rates of policyholders via a similar height-to-weight index; he concluded that overweight customers have a higher risk of death. You getting this? The BMI was hatched by an astronomer and an insurance guy with no background in medicine. And from these dubious origins came today’s gold standard used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.
Oliver say the BMI is “a lousy measure of obesity” because it measures proportionate body weight, not body fat; that’s why many muscled athletes (i.e., Jordan and Schwarzenegger) are technically “overweight” and “obese.” BMI does not take into account fitness, heart rate, or fat distribution — abdominal fat is linked to heart disease, for instance, though not hip and thigh fat. But it’s the BMI that gives us those scary stats — 69 percent adult obesity in America, 32 percent in children. Oliver’s coup de grace: Many of those who claim obesity is an “epidemic” are on the payroll of pharmaceutical and weight-loss companies.
I tend to dismiss conspiracy theories, but “The Weight of the Nation: To Win We Have to Lose” (St. Martin’s 2012) didn’t help. This book spinoff of an HBO series slaps on a dollar figure: We spend $40 billion a year on diet products and services, more than the GDP of half the world’s nations, according to authors John Hoffman, Judith A. Salerno, and Alexandra Moss. They go on to offer pithy (bite-sized?) tips and discussions on the obesity factors of stress, lack of sleep, caffeine, and portion control (dinner plates average 12 inches in diameter now; in 1960s they were 9 inches). The tone here is realistic but encouraging.
“The Fattening of America: How the Economy Makes Us Fat, If It Matters, and What to Do About It” (Wiley, 2008) is more reproachful. And if I’d read it before “Fat Politics,” it probably wouldn’t have bugged me so much. But Eric A. Finkelstein (his coauthor is Laurie Zuckerman) brags how he runs marathons and disses his obese uncle, plus his de-emphasis on policy feels like blaming the victim. Still, he’s got intriguing stuff on what lack of exercise will do: Who knew that most of the Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo have put on an average of 18 pounds? Or that the Pima Indians in America clock in some of the highest obesity rates in the country, while the Pimas in Mexico decidedly do not? Genetics count, but environment even more. And it’s hard to scorn the book’s advice: “Eat Less. Exercise More. Keep It Up.”
But such advice seemed almost sinister when I plunged into “Planet Obesity: How We’re Eating Ourselves and the Planet to Death” (Allen & Unwin, 2011). Authors Garry Egger and Boyd Swinburn, both health professors in Australia, paint such a big picture they bust the frame. Indeed, they think obesity is not our individual fault but instead an “unintended but unavoidable consequence of economic progress.” It’s not a disease, but a signal. Just as our planet is overheating from too much carbon, so we are overeating due to too much food, and gaining weight due to too much technological progr ess that substitutes cars for walking, and desk jobs for physical labor. They also link higher food consumption to higher fuel output (i.e., you need more big rigs to deliver more Big Macs). The more we consume, the more we heat up the climate, and the more we create weather disruptions. I’ll go there: Supersizing leads to superstorms.
This idea made my head spin, and then I got even more dizzy reading “Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism” (University of California, 2011). Author Julie Guthman, a community studies professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, also slams the BMI, and asks why the conversation on obesity is so focused on our apparent sloth and excess — because if they were the culprits, how do you explain the high rates of obesity among babies? To state the obvious, babies aren’t eating soda and fries. They’re not playing Minecraft all day. Guthman points the finger toward toxins passed through breast milk and soy-based formula, tainted with agricultural chemicals.
And this leads to a mind-blowing treatise on endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which biochemically rework developmental pathways. You usually hear about EDCs linked to early puberty, ADHD, infertility, or cancer. Now there’s mounting evidence that EDCs influence fat tissue development. Ladies, this may be why it’s harder for us to shed pounds than the men in our lives: EDCs seem to be transmitted via estrogen. Indeed, in one 30-year study on DES, the now banned estrogen-replacement, miscarriage-prevention drug, children who received it in utero had excess weight gain in adulthood. Yes, but what if your mom never took DES? Well, livestock did. But that got banned too, right? In part, yes, but other studies show that EDCs have a time lag effect. We are still feeding off the sins of the past.
So much was flying at me (food fight!) it was oddly anchoring to end with “The Evolution of Obesity” (Johns Hopkins University, 2009). It’s by a pair of researchers at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (Michael L. Power and Jay Schulkin) and their painstaking, scientific tone somehow brought all the other books into focus. Here’s the long view: We don’t live like our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but we carry their biology. The ability to store fat was an advantage then (because you didn’t know where you’d find your next meal) and it’s a disadvantage now. Biology, evolution, environment, policy, agriculture, government, chemistry, technology, personal choice: It’s a world of blame, and it’s gaining on us.
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at email@example.com.