- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2004

In “Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World,” Greg Critser takes a surprisingly funny look at a deadly serious topic. The “fat epidemic” has claimed 60 percent of the American population, he says, and shows little sign of slowing down. The Washington Times spoke with Mr. Critser about his new book, and America’s big, fat problem.

Question: You say 60 percent of Americans are overweight. How do you define “overweight?”

Answer: The most recent statistics show that about 65 percent of Americans are either overweight or obese. Obesity [is calculated according to Body Mass Index (BMI)], which is basically a very sophisticated calculation of the old weight-for-height chart. Significant overweight begins at a BMI of over 25. Sixty-five percent of Americans are either over 25 or over 30.

Q: How did it come to this?

A. In the last 20 to 25 years, the percentage of Americans who are either obese or overweight has doubled. Among children and teens, the rate has tripled. So the real journalistic mystery story of the book for me was to find out, “How did that happen?” Our gene pool hadn’t changed. Evolution, as much as some people would argue differently, just doesn’t happen that fast. And ultimately the answer is that the environment changed. What do I mean by that? Well, our physical environment changed, which is to say that, purely from an economic point of view, we now get paid to be sedate. And we have to pay to get rid of calories … [such as paying] to join a gym. So the economics of being a normal weight have changed and they’re skewed in the favor of being obese. In a sense, a real strict market economist would say it makes perfect, rational, economic sense to be obese. And, that’s true. The problem is our social structures have not kept pace with this rapidly changing environment.

Q: How so?

A: Let’s look at something liberals don’t like to talk a lot about: the American family. I talk a lot in the book about how, while yes, fast food companies are to blame, and big food companies are to blame, a variety of other demons are in the mix. One of the things that isn’t very popular to talk about is [the role of] American parents and families. What’s happened in the last 20, 25 years is the rise of the two-income family, and the fact that over the last 20 years children have lost out on about 12 hours of family time per week.

What did they lose in that 12 hours? I would argue that one thing they lost was a consistent voice over the dinner table educating them on what is enough, what is too much, what is the right food, what is the wrong food — in a sense giving them a backbone for when they go out into what is known as this obesogenic [society] where calories are cheap and everywhere, and most entertainment is passive. Parents have not been given either the tools, or the support to educate their kids in the right way.

Q: What do you suggest parents do?

A: I believe that part of parenting today means that parents boycott bad foods. They do it two ways: One, they don’t buy those foods. They just don’t buy them. And if that makes them unpopular with their kids,sowhat? You’re an adult. Get over it. It’s not a popularity contest. You can be a good boss — you don’t have to say, “Hey fatty, you can’t have any of that.” Most of us would never think of doing that. Most of us will just figure out a way to deal with this. You’ve got to know that it’s bad parenting to let a kid eat a bag of potato chips between every meal. In fact, it’s probably bad parenting to buy a lot of that stuff.

Secondly, it’s part of parenting to insist that your local school district not serve or provide junk foods to kids. It’s part of your job as a parent to go to your school board and tell them that they are in violation of in loco parentis, essentially, if they sell any kind of soft drink on campus. If you really want to boil it down to one simple thing, it’s your job to go to the school board and organize, and tell them “Get it out of the school.”

Now, you’re going to say, “You really want a lot from the American parent,” and you know what? You’re right. I do.

Q: Did you write your book to deal primarily with children’s weight issues?

A: I think [childrens obesity] is the issue where we can do something. Once an adult is fat, he’s [in trouble]. I mean, there’s not a lot you can do. I’ve been chubby most of my life. Once you’re fat, you have problems. It’s going to be really hard for you to lose that weight. The book doesn’t really deal with how we can make a society where fat 35-year-old guys can easily become slim and not worry about it anymore. It’s about how we need to, in a sense, take back control of our food values and morality.

Q: What are some of the problem foods?

A: Well, I think we have no need for Coca-Cola, but you know what, I like a glass of Coca-Cola once in a while. We just don’t need, you know, the “insane gulp.” What we need to do is what the head of nutrition for Coca-Cola does when he talks to his kids. Does he give his kids Coke? Yes, he does. How much does he give them? [He says], “I would never give them more than 4 ounces.”

Q: So you’re not proposing a widespread ban or boycott of Big Food?

A: This book is about — and I hate this word — appropriate choices. I think when it comes to kids in the public school system, and within the household, they should not have access to portions of sugar-added foods.

Q: Are places like McDonald’s getting the message?

A: The major fast-food companies have to respond to it if for no other reason than to cover themselves from lawsuits. … They’ve done some work. But I don’t think our salvation is going to come with McDonald’s offering better salads. I think it’s a little more difficult than that. Maybe McDonald’s should just be McDonald’s. I don’t know. But the message should be that it’s bad to eat there more than a couple of times a month. That’s what parents have to learn.

Q: What’s the message you want people to take away from your book?

A: That it’s possible to do something about the obesity epidemic from within the American family, and that it’s not that difficult. It just requires a series of commitments to really fundamental things, having to do with eating together as a family, and limiting the access of children to bad foods between meals.

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