- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2002

It's a challenge to find a nice way to say what Americans are becoming. Full-bodied, maybe. Or pleasantly plump. Charmingly chubby. Well-fed. Generously proportioned.
But the experts insist on using a term that is less, um, appetizing. They say that each year, more and more of us can only be described as obese.
Not everyone, of course: 37,500 people participated in the 2001 Chicago Marathon, the sort of grueling event that was once seen as the exclusive province of fanatics. Models and actresses these days look as though they were assembled from piano wire and broomsticks.
But while some people are engaging in vigorous athletic pursuits or finding other ways to stay slim, they're not representative of our general tendency, which is to regard exercise as something to watch other people do on your TV, while you're lounging on the couch scarfing corn chips and draining 20-ounce bottles of Mega Cola.
A visit to a county fair, amusement park or any other mass venue will convince anyone that Americans are almost universally immune to anorexia. But two recent studies confirm that however bad you thought our collective weight problem was, it's worse. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the number of Americans who are obese weighing more than 30 percent above their ideal body weight rose from 1 in 8 in the early 1990s to nearly 1 in 5 in 1999. By 2010, at the rate we're going, we'll look like a nation of sumo wrestlers.
Those of us who are still alive, anyway. A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association says 280,000 Americans die prematurely each year due to excess weight. One CDC scientist said: "We have almost never seen chronic conditions like obesity grow in this way. This is more like what you see with flu or an epidemic of an infectious disease." Your broker will attest that this a good time to buy stock in funeral home chains and companies that make oversized caskets.
In theory, the problem is easy to solve. The simple, unassailable remedies are heard every time one of these reports comes out: Eat less, exercise more, consume fewer burgers and fries and more fruits and vegetables. But knowing what needs to be done is not enough. People have powerful reasons for doing the things that make them fat, and hectoring them about self-discipline is not enough to overrule those impulses.
The crucial problem is that Americans (and, increasingly, people in the rest of the world) find themselves with lives of physical ease and material abundance beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors. For nearly all the 40,000 years Homo sapiens has been on Earth, human beings had to work ceaselessly just to stay alive. Our bodies evolved in conditions of miserable poverty, and today, they continue to function as if we may not see a decent meal for days or weeks at a time.
So what do we do? We instinctively seek out foods high in fat or sugar the nutrients best suited to keeping us alive through the famine just around the corner. And we conserve our physical energy, so that we'll be well-rested when our very survival requires exertion. People are prone to gluttony and sloth because, in a world of brutal toil and scarce food, it made sense to take advantage of the rare opportunities to gorge and loaf.
In modern America, though, these opportunities are perpetual. Most people can easily afford to buy and eat as much as they want. Most people can also avoid any physical activity. What promoted survival in 10,000 B.C. is killing us in 2002 A.D.
Public health scolds demand that the government require better nutritional labeling and provide more education about obesity in public schools. There are even proposals to slap taxes on fatty and sugary foods as we do on liquor and cigarettes. And it's just a matter of time before some crusading attorney files a lawsuit against McDonald's for damaging his client's health with its lethal products.
But obesity is no more an excuse for the government or the courts to meddle in this aspect of our lives than AIDS is a reason to outlaw nonmarital sex. If people want to get fat and die young, that's their decision and if we don't want to pay their medical bills, we don't have to.
What is needed is the development of new cultural norms about how to deal with the still-novel problems of affluence. That will occur, because human beings are rational creatures who are inclined to look out for their own interests.
We've had centuries to arrive at codes of behavior on matters like stealing, killing and adultery codes designed to control strong impulses that lie deep in human nature. As with those destructive habits, people will learn ways to restrain themselves from overeating and underexercising. But it will take time. And it will require patience, another quality that doesn't always come naturally to humans.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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