Thursday, June 29, 2000

As part of its effort to get rid of fat people, the federal government announced that, for the first time in 20 years, it has revised its tools for measuring a child’s growth. The 55 percent of Americans whom the government considers overweight or obese should find this very disturbing. But before I tell you why, let’s take a brief jaunt down memory lane.You were four years old, at the physicians office, and the doctor measured your height. Then he checked your weight on some rickety old scale that hadn’t been calibrated in 15 years and without asking you to take off your shoes after which, you waited for what seemed like hours while he plugged your numbers into a chart pasted on the wall. And then, with the terrible gravitas of someone who’d just consulted the oracle of Delphi, he told you that you were destined to become a human sausage.Fortunately for those of us permanently scarred by such memories, there was no portal on the doctors wall through which the gods were speaking. It was just a stupid government chart that had nothing to do with why so many of us are fat.So why, exactly, are we fat?By choice, dude.Some of us happen to enjoy the finer pleasures of life, such as kicking back in front of the TV with a six pack of cold ones and a heaping plate of buffalo wings. As for exercise … well, we only run when chased.Now we learn that Americans are the porkiest people in the world. Horrors. And we’re supposed to be really appalled that 11-15 percent of our children are overweight. Leaving aside, for now, the question of where these supposedly ominous numbers are coming from, let’s assume they’re true. Does that make it any more necessary to replace mirrors and common sense with costly federal growth-measuring systems? And what’s wrong with being fat, anyway?Oprah says it’s okay to be fat, especially if you’re happy, too. And I agree.But the government does not agree. In its effort to torment more and more Americans, the feds have extended their notoriously useless weight measurement system, known as the Body Mass Index (BMI), to children as young as two and youths up to the age of 20. Most babies are chubby. But now the government can wag its potato finger and tell them so.The problem with accusing someone of being fat based on BMI, which basically divides a person’s weight by his height (BMI = 704.5 x weight in punds/height in inches squared), is that BMI doesn’t take different body types into account, ignoring a person’s frame and body-fat percentage. According to the National Institutes of Health, anyone with a BMI of 25 or greater is “overweight” 30 or above is “obese.” But because muscle weighs more than fat, the results can be completely off-base, especially for people who are particularly muscular. For example, at 7 feet 1 inch, 315 pounds, Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal qualifies as “obese.” At 5 feet 9 inches, 203 pounds, so does Dallas Cowboy running back Emmitt Smith. Nevertheless, getting accused of being fat, or doomed to become fat, by the oracle at the doctor’s office is a time-honored ritual. And in the spirit of these times, the government has also decided to change the chart so that it factors in racial diversity, which the old chart apparently lacked. According to Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, “The 1977 charts for infants were based on Caucasian, formula-fed, middle-class infants from southwest Ohio.” The new charts will be based on a racial and ethnic cross-section of children. The question is does anyone really care?As usual, the feds have missed the point entirely namely, that no one needs a government chart to figure out who is fat and who is not and who is a likely candidate to become fat. That’s a job best left to mirrors and honest friends. (If this approach leaves you in doubt, try taking off your shirt.)

Let’s be blunt about this campaign against obesity. The simple fact is that the federal government doesn’t like fat people. It wants to eliminate them, just like it wants to eliminate smokers just like it eliminated Newt Gingrich and the Branch Davidians. Miss Shalala snidely complains that “America as a whole is not getting any taller, only fatter.” As one of those people who are getting fatter, not taller, I find her comment offensive. Make no mistake, Miss Shalala and her ilk want to turn America into a nation of tofu-snorting, Tae Bo obsessives. Well, she can have my bacon double cheeseburger when she pries it from my cold, dead fingers.

Sam Ryan is a writer living in Washington. E-mail:

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